Visitors to the National World War I Museum in Kansas City can see what some sources contend is the largest group of uniforms and other clothing worn by women volunteers in France in the Great War on display in any museum in the world.
Some 25,000 women volunteered to go to France to assist in the war effort.
But, although some wore military-looking uniforms, none were in the Army. After the war, that created a problem.
Since none of the women had served officially in the Army, they had no official status, disability benefits, or pensions available to U.S. military veterans. They had been volunteers, contractors, or auxiliaries, but not military members.
As war clouds gathered over China and Europe in the late 1930s, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts met with Gen. George C. Marshall, WWI veteran and Army chief of staff, to discuss a bill she planned to introduce that would establish a women’s corps, separate from the Army Nurse Corps, and an official part of the Army.
Marshall, looking ahead to a severe need for combat manpower, favored the bill. It was introduced in May 1941, but got scant attention until Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor.
Even then it met with resistance from Southern congressmen.
One actually asked, “Who will then do the cooking, washing, mending, the humble homey tasks to which every woman has devoted herself? Who will nurture the children?”
But, the bill passed, and on May 15, 1942, 72 years ago tomorrow, the Women’s Auxiliary Corps was established, with an authorized enrollment of 150,000.
A former Texas newspaper editor and member of the Texas Legislature, Oveta Culp Hobby, was appointed a major and headed the WAC.
The major training camp was set up at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, and America began getting used to seeing its women in uniform. The official uniform included slacks and shorts, but many women from small town America did not like wearing such items.
The WAC never hurt for volunteers. The women’s reasons for enlisting were as varied as the women themselves. All joined to “release a man for combat duty.”
They became the clerks, typists, office administrators, drivers, communications specialists, and served in a myriad of other non-combat duties. The first to go overseas were Army Air Corps soldiers who went to England in October 1942.
But, soon after women went overseas, a change had to be made.
Auxiliaries did not have certain protections, as prisoners of war for example, so in early 1942 the name was changed to Women’s Army Corps. Now the women were on an equal legal footing as men. Maj. Hobby became Col. Hobby.
Women solders crossed Normandy Beach 38 days after D-Day, and served throughout France and into Germany by V-E Day.
WACs were most severely tried in the Pacific Theater. Mosquito-proof clothing the men wore was not available for women, and tropical illnesses took a major toll.
There were other challenges.
On the Pacific islands, many males had not seen an American woman for 18 months. The WAC compounds were enclosed by barbed wire and under guard 24 hours a day. They were marched to work and back by armed guards.
Many complained that they did not release a man for combat, as it took so many men to guard them around the clock from the other men. There are many other anecdotes to relate about the first women in the Army, but room is gone.
I salute all of the military’s Rosie the Riveters who made military history 72 years ago tomorrow.