’Til I Come Marching Home

Photo: Coast Guard SPAR recruiting poster,  
NA #515462,
National Archives.

A Brief History of
American Women in
World War II

by C. Kay Larson
Minerva Press, 1995, 169 pp., illustr., notes, bibliography, appendix, index.

 [Author’s Note: ‘Til I Come Marching Home was published by the Minerva Press, an arm of the Minerva Center, the only international institute dedicated to the study of women and the military. That special edition was brought out in a very short time to meet the end of the World War II 50th anniversary commemoration period, December 7, 1995. As a result it was short, as noted, but contained groundbreaking research: on women in the Coast Guard Auxiliary and Civil Air Patrol, on women merchant mariners, on American women in the French and Filipino resistances, and made official history of women in all the armed services more extant. Since the book’s publication, I have conducted additional research to expand it. This has been completed and the material is now with Minerva editors. No date of publication has been set, but partly to take advantage of the recent airing of Ken Burns’s “The War,” I have chosen to post material from the new and old editions on my website. Where needed I have summarized and added transitional information.  So I hope this posting will pique more interest in the critical roles American women played during World War II. They earned future generations a permanent place in the U. S. Armed Forces.]





1939: A World at War




rom 1938 when German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s forces occupied Austria and annexed Suedetenland, the German ethnic region of Czechoslovakia, Europe quaked under the threat of another continental war. In 1939, after Germany seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland on September 1, Britain and France declared war under the terms of their treaties to guarantee Poland’s borders. In Asia, war had commenced with the 1937 Japan invasion of Manchuria, China, followed by seizures of European colonies in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

            At the outset of the European war, large numbers of American women became involved in charity work and had been contributing relief supplies to China since its invasion. The groups proliferated once hostilities erupted across the Atlantic, under such titles as the American War Relief Committee, Bundles for Britain, Kits for Canada, British Sailors' Book and Relief Society, Committee for Polish Relief, Belgian Relief Fund, and others. As of the end of September 1939, 200 groups had registered with the State Department. One of the more unusual ones was the American Women's Committee for Release of Ships for European Children. During the battle of Britain, the German bombing campaign that was preparatory to a planned invasion, British children were sent to live with families in Canada and the United States; this group was formed to afford transportation for them. Churches, labor unions, university and student organizations, garden clubs, and a myriad more groups contributed to existing charities, such as foreign Red Cross organizations. By 1941, the American Red Cross had sent more than 400 vehicles to Britain, as well as tons of dried blood plasma, 37 million garments and bandages, and an outpouring of food to war victims in Europe and Asia.

            As war clouds loomed over the United States, people and institutions put themselves on a near-war footing. Women’s civil defense groups such as the American Women’s Voluntary Services trained volunteers in first aid and nursing, mass feeding, and automobile mechanics. All-female militia groups and high schools offered marksmanship. The volunteer U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary trained in seamanship of which women members took advantage to gain higher ratings when they enlisted in the naval services. The Civil Aeronautics Administration offered aviation courses in colleges in which women enrolled. The U. S. Office of Education offered funding for war minor courses in engineering, science, and management defense training. Women’s colleges such as Bryn Mawr, Sweet Briar, Radcliffe, and Wellesley participated. Even before the outbreak of the war, plants ramped up production of war matériel such as planes. Once women entered defense plants, they were often apprenticed in technical positions and took courses in drafting, math, engineering, and electricity to train for their jobs. Women such as future coast guard reservist Irene Stone enrolled in correspondence radio and Morse code courses.


NA #196476

Marksmanship for girls, Roosevelt H. S.,
Los Angeles Victory Corps, 1942. National Archives.


            American women doctors, nurses and relief workers left the United States to aid the British, French and other nationals. In a few cases, their ships were torpedoed on the high seas. Some women died; others were plucked from lifeboats. By the summer of 1941, more than sixty Red Cross nurses had landed in Britain. There were also thousands of American women abroad, studying, working, and living as spouses to Allied nationals.

            Helen Kirkpatrick, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Smith College, sent home vivid images of the war from London as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News. During the battle of Britain, she rode ambulances and fire engines through the bombed streets to get her story; later she wrote from warships on the North Sea and the Atlantic. As a war information sheet noted, "Helen Kirkpatrick has earned her position as America's foremost woman war correspondent through her dispatches pounded out at white heat while the blitz surged about and above her in London bomb shelters, in Coventry, on Dover's white cliffs."

            As the conflict continued, a few American women joined the British military services. Later under the leadership of Jacqueline Cochrane who eventually headed the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots’ (WASPs) organization, two dozen women pilots arrived to augment the ranks of the British women’s ferry units and four Americans remained until 1945. In the meantime, a number of American women joined the French Resistance, largely aiding escaping British, Canadian, and later American pilots whose planes had been shot down. Rosemary Maeght headed a sector of the Burgundy escape line and at the end of the war five American women, including Maeght, were awarded Medals of Freedom, the highest U. S. civilian award. Famed spy Virginia Hall, an amputee who worked both for the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the U. S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) directing French maquis groups, became the highest decorated American woman of the war, earning the Distinguished Service Cross, the combat medal that ranks just below the Medal of Honor.



America’s Date with Infamy:

Pearl Harbor,
December 7, 1941



merican's date with infamy arrived on Sunday, December 7, 1941. At 7:56 a.m., Japanese torpedo bombers flew in over the naval base at Honolulu, Hawaii and dive bombers attacked the Air Force's Hickam Field nearby. Within two hours, they had crippled or sunk eighteen warships and destroyed or damaged 347 aircraft. The Pacific battleship fleet was basically annihilated. Aircraft at Hickam Field, which had been parked wing-tip to wing-tip as an anti-sabotage measure, were wiped out on the ground. A few army fighters from Wheeler Field managed to take off and down several Japanese planes. On that fateful day, 3,581 army and navy men, and civilians, were killed or wounded. America was at war.

            One of the first persons to sight the incoming Japanese planes was Cornelia Fort, a flight instructor at John Rogers Airport. She was up in her small plane with a student giving him an early morning lesson in preparation for his first solo flight. Suddenly they saw a military plane coming toward them; Fort grabbed the controls and pulled up just in time to miss it. Then, she recognized the red balls of the Japanese rising sun on the tops of the wings. She turned and looked at the harbor and saw clouds of black smoke rising. Still thinking, or hoping, that this was some kind of maneuver, she turned her gaze above her to see a bomber formation and watched one of their bombs fall. At that point, the full reality of the situation sank in and as she told it, "'I knew the air was not the place for my little baby airplane and I set about landing as quickly as ever I could. A few seconds later a shadow passed over me and simultaneously bullets spattered all around me.'" Fort would later become a member of the Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (that organizationally preceded the WASPs).

            Probably by the time Fort landed her plane, military nurses at local hospitals had already been inundated with casualties. In December 1941, the U.S. Army Nurse Corps consisted of 7,000 members, with 82 stationed at three medical facilities on Oahu. Marie Conter was on duty that morning and recalled that she first became aware of the attacking planes because of their sound coming in low; she thought one was going to crash. She went to look outside and saw a Japanese plane. Not believing the sight, she asked the patients who couldn't believe it either; so Conter ran downstairs to the commanding officer. He just kept nodding in the affirmative, as he furiously dialed the phone. The staff was able to move the patients to the first floor as the attack progressed.  As Conter wrote to her parents at the end of December, "'Well, the sight in our hospital I'll never forget.  No arms, no legs, intestines hanging out, etc. . . .the hangars all around us were burningand that awful 'noise.' Then comes the second attackWe all fell face down on the wounded in the halls, O.R., and everywhere and heard the bombers directly over us.'"

            As the large numbers of wounded flowed in, hospital corridors were soon filled, with many men lying on the floors. Surgeons passed instruments back and forth between them at operating tables. Cleaning rags became face masks and doctors and nurses operated without gloves. Besides the terrible loss of limb injuries, because of the fires and explosions on the ships, there were severe burn cases and men came in coated with black oil. The nurses at Conter's hospital slept there in uniform for a week and officers' wives who were registered nurses helped for days.

            Forty-three of the Navy=s 787 active duty nurses were posted to Honolulu. The Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital received 452 casualties within the first three hours of the attack. Ruth Erickson, NNC, was eating breakfast that morning and her group, too, heard the Japanese planes. The Chief Nurse telephoned and barked, "Girls, get into your uniforms, this is the real thing!" Erickson ran across the compound to the hospital. The U.S.S. Nevada was docked nearby and, "The burn cases were just streaming in. . . . Here were patients with charred legs and arms walking to the hospital three blocks away."

Meanwhile Red Cross nurses and thousands of volunteer first-aiders who had been training in drills for months leapt into action. Many treated sailors and soldiers on Honolulu park benches. They also provided shelter and transportation. Because 60 percent of the seriously wounded had suffered third degree burns, Red Cross stores of blood plasma and sulfates became critical supply items.


NA #513770

Red Cross recruiting poster, Hawaii. National Archives


Following Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces invaded the Philippine Islands, which then was a U. S. Territory. American forces that included army and navy nurses soon were forced to evacuate Manila, the capital, and moved south to the Bataan Peninsula. Commanding Gen. Douglas MacArthur, his wife, Jean, and small son, Arthur, and staff evacuated to Australia from Corregidor Island in March by PT-boat and plane. In May, Gen. Jonathan Wainwright surrendered to the Japanese. About thirty nurses had been successfully evacuated prior, but more than sixty army and navy nurses and Medical Specialist Corps personnel, were taken prisoner. Navy nurses on Guam previously had been taken to Japan. They were repatriated in Mozambique in 1942, along with members of the U. S. Embassy staff in Tokyo that included women.


G.I. Janes



uring the early months of World War II, army nurses received no special training until they arrived at staging areas overseas in Great Britain and the South Pacific. In July 1943, however, a 4-week U.S. basic training course was implemented which included army medical and staff procedures and regulations. The number of patients army nurses were required to care for was six times the number (15:2.5) that civilian nurses were expected to, under normal conditions. Under extreme conditions such as those on Bataan, the number could be as high as 250. For physical training, the nurses went on 20-mile marches with 30-pound packs. They learned how to protect themselves in gas, air, parachute, and mechanized attacks; drilled with gas masks; and dug foxholes. They were trained to identify enemy uniforms, equipment, camouflage, and booby traps; they studied maps and escape techniques, and learned to take their wounded with them. Nurses training in the desert often worked with gas masks donned in 130 degree temperatures. They also crawled through infiltration courses laced with barbed wire, learning quickly to keep their heads low, so as not to come into contact with bullets that zinged over their heads during these live fire exercises. Dynamite was exploded for added effect. In October, The New York Times reported that, to date, no nurse had yet “frozen” while going through this drill.


NA #195934

Army Air Corps nurses undergo chemical warfare training, Flight Evacuation School, Bowman Field, Louisville, Ky., December 1943. National Archives.


            Initially new Navy Nurse Corps recruits received only on-the-job training. Alene Duerk arrived at her first posting and began work at 7:00 A.M. the next day.  AAfter two weeks you were expected to take over your own ward.@  Like the army, however, in November 1943, the navy began a formal training program at the Portsmouth, Virginia Naval Hospital. Between 1940 and 1945, the number of naval hospitals in the United States increased from fifteen to fifty-four. Training and duty at these facilities stressed rehabilitation: return wounded and sick men to productive lives. As a result nurses received specialized training in physical therapy, burn and gunshot wound treatment, reconstructive surgery, and neuropsychiatry, among other areas.  The navy=s presence in the South Pacific also demanded that its medical staff gain expertise in tropical diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever, and filariasis (infestation of filarial worms which causes severe disfigurement).    

            In 1941, the Army and Navy Nurse Corps were viewed as the critical support services they were, since their establishment at the turn of the century following the Spanish-American War. By the end of World War II, some 73,000 officers served who represented one-third of the registered nurses in the United States. Approximately two hundred died during active service. The Corps were headed by Col. Florence A. Blanchfield, ANC, and Capt. Sue S. Dauser, NNC. Approximately 100 women doctors and dentists were also commissioned through special legislation.

             At the same time, the World War I non-nursing women’s “Yeoman (F)” units of the U. S. Navy and Marines had been disbanded and during that conflict the Army had only employed bilingual telephone operators under civilian contracts. But plans to implement women’s administrative/technical branches had been stuffed in drawers since the 1920s. By November 1942, with difficulty, legislation had passed the Congress that established non-nursing reserves: in May, the U. S. Army bill passed and was amended to form the Women’s Army Corps which ultimately utilized some 150,000 women; in July, women’s reserves of the Navy (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service or WAVES) and Marine Corps (Women Marines) were established; and in November, the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (or SPARs, for the motto, semper paratus, always ready) legislation was signed. The naval services enrolled a combined 134,000 women. The Coast Guard also utilized some 2,000 women in part-time, volunteer Reserve units, (W)TRs, under the leadership of Mrs. Anita Clothier, as well as their female Coast Guard Auxiliary members. Women Civil Air Patrol members and contract civilian flight instructors, mechanics, and employees worked under the Army Air Force chain of command. Soon broad-based, nation-wide recruiting campaigns were underway to get women to join the armed services and the war effort in general.


Recruiting poster, featuring a radio technician.
“It's a woman's war too! Join the WAVES—Your country needs you now—
Apply to your nearest Navy recruiting station or office of naval officer procurement.”
U. S. Navy/Library of Congress


NA# 535717
Lt. Willa Brown, Civil Air Patrol. Brown also was the director
of and instructor at the Coffey School of Aeronautics,
in Oak Lawn, Ill., an interracial training facility. National Archives.


            The women chosen to head these reserve branches were: Oveta Culp Hobby, a lawyer and newspaper publisher from Texas (WAC); Mildred McAfee, president of Wellesley College (WAVES); Ruth Streeter, a New Jersey civic activist and pilot (Women Marines); Dr. Dorothy Stratton, dean of women at Purdue University who was first commissioned in the WAVES (SPARs).

            Both the army and navy appointed women’s advisory boards that consisted of prominent civic and professional women, as well as numerous talented educators. African-American leaders also pressed politicians to provide more openings for black women. As a result quotas were lifted in the ANC and the navy and coast guard began recruitment of blacks, although the marines did not enroll black women until 1949. Army enlisted women served in segregated units, but officers and specialized training units were desegregated. Harriet Ida Pickens was a particularly talented officer, having ranked third in her WAVES class. She had graduated with high honors from Smith College with a major in history and a minor in chemistry and had been captain of the basketball team. Other minority womenAsian-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americansserved without restriction. A number of Nisei women served as translators in communications and intelligence, in the Pacific and on the homefront.


NA #535876
Three Native American Marine Corps Women’s Reserve members.
From left to right: Minnie Spotted-Wolf, Blackfoot, Montana; Celia Mix,
Pottawatomie, Michigan; and Viola Eastman, Chippewa-Sioux, Minnesota.
Camp Le Jeune, N.C., 1943. National Archives.


            Training schools for all the services were established through 1942 and 1943. The First WAAC Training Center opened in July 1942, in Des Moines, Iowa. The navy followed suit with its officer training center at Smith and Mt. Holyoke Colleges and its enlisted center at Hunter College in New York City, all three of which schools initially accommodated SPARs and Women Marines. Coast Guard officer training moved to the CG Academy and its enlistees entered its Palm Beach center in 1943. Women Marines eventually were all trained at Camp Le Jeune in North Carolina.

            Classroom curricula emphasized each service’s specialties and the women were trained in the history and organization of their service, military protocol, ranks and ratings, regulations and procedures, and first aid. Officers learned leadership, public speaking, military law, administration, and security procedures. Naval women digested nautical terminology and Women Marines learned about amphibious landing operations. Army women read maps and naval women read charts. Enlisted specialist schools included those in aviation, radio, technical, food preparation, supply, medical, and transportation ratings. Physical training required marching and calisthenics. WAVES had to be able to swim forty years to get away from a torpedoed ship. Women Marines were put through obstacle courses by drill instructors some of whom had just returned from combat in the Pacific. WACs scheduled for deployment overseas duty had special fitness training that included judo, hikes with full packs, and obstacle courses. 


Coast Guard SPAR officer cadets training in crew boats on the

Thames River at the CG Academy in New London, Ct. Coast Guard Historian’s Office.


            The vast majority of the positions in which military women served were administrative ones. However, job titles such as specialist, stenographer, typist, clerk, yeoman, and storekeeper often belied the sophisticated nature of the women's war work. WAC Master Sgt. Ruth L. Zeigler was assigned to the Operations Division of the War Department's General Staff in September 1943. Her Legion of Merit citation reads: "She prepared accurate timely battle maps on which the daily military situation throughout the world was prepared for the President, Chief of Staff, and Assistant Chief of Staff, Operations Division. She produced highly classified maps depicting future operations, and for a considerable time bore the responsibility of Chief Draftsman in the Current Group." Navy yeomen stationed at Floyd Bennett Air Field in New York became knowledgeable in a variety of subjects: naval communications and Civil Aeronautics Administration procedures, meteorology, plane recognition, aircraft flight performance, the naval transport system, and local air traffic rules and conditions. Approximately one-third of WACs and Women Marines served in aviation slots. One overseas WAC earned the coveted Air Medal for helping map the “Burma Hump,” the infamous supply route flown over the Himalayan Mountains. At the largest Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina, Women Marines comprised 90 percent of the parachute riggers and 80 percent of control tower operators. Twenty-three percent of SPAR officers were assigned in critical radio communications positions in the continental United States, Hawaii, and Alaska.


NA #520608
WAVES aircraft machinist mates, Naval Air Station,
Jacksonville, Fl. National Archives


            Both in the civilian defense industries and in the military, the women achieved the most distinction for the nontraditional work they took over, largely with no previous experience, or often not ever having had a thought of such work. WACs and WAVES became auto mechanics, gunnery instructors, Link (simulated piloting) instructors, parachute riggers, air navigators and crew, intelligence analysts, encoders and decoders, carpenters, painters, operating room technicians, photographers, and heavy equipment operators. Women Marines became quartermasters, truck drivers, telegraph operators, motion picture operators, air controllers, bakers, and agriculturists. SPARs became electricians, cooks, pharmacist mates, small boat instructors, radio technicians, and machinist mates. Those women holding security positions or who were responsible for payrolls and vehicles or carrying classified documents and orders were armed and competed for marksmen badges.

NA #531153
WACs Ruth Wade and Lucille Mayo work on service trucks,
Fort Huachuca, Az., 1942. National Archives.


            Officers held positions of considerable management responsibility for which they were highly trained, with many attending specialized courses in topics such as electronics, radio, and radar at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. WAVES supply officers who requisitioned and disbursed millions of dollars of supplies, equipment, and weapons were sent to Harvard’s School of Business Administration. Although junior ones, the majority of officers manning the Coast Guard's Gulf and Atlantic Sea Frontier search and rescue centers were SPAR officers. In this boiler room environment, the movements of ships and aircraft approaching the U.S. littoral were plotted, both for purposes of security and to dispatch rescue assets in the event of a torpedoing or crash. Mary Sears headed the Navy’s Oceanographic Unit. Working from reconnaissance intelligence and hydrographic data, Sears determined Pacific invasion sites. Lt. Grace Hopper, USN, a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale, became instrumental in developing modern data processing technology while working on the Mark I computer that crunched statistical, test, and ballistics data at the Harvard Computational Laboratory.

            One unit that has become renowned in women’s WWII lore is that of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs). Approximately 1,000 women pilots and air and ground crews worked for the Army’s Air Transport Command to ferry desperately needed planes from factories to military bases. By the time the program ended in December 1944, they had flown in and out of nearly air field in the country, in nearly every plane in the Air Force inventory: P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, B-17s, B-26s., and B-29 bombers. They logged more than 60 million air miles and also towed gunnery targets and flew radar, searchlight tracking and strafing training missions, and remote-control drone planes. Barbara Erickson earned the Air Medal for ferrying three different aircraft in four 2,000-mile flights within a period of five days.


NA #175322
Mrs. Franklin D. (Eleanor) Roosevelt and American women
fliers in England. Most would later join the Army’s Air Transport Command
ferrying service as WASPs. October 1942. National Archives.


            Yet one of the most interesting and overlooked groups was that of the three women production test pilots working for Grumman Aircraft Corporation in Bethpage, Long Island. They were: Barbara Jayne, Elizabeth Hooker, and Cecil “Teddy” Kenyon. Kenyon, the oldest at age thirty-seven, was a direct descendant of Alexander Hamilton. In 1930 she was named “Miss America of the Air” and just prior to the onset of hostilities had flown antisubmarine patrols for the Civil Air Patrol.

            Production test pilots flew "green" planes, ones that had just come off the assembly lines. Aircraft were put through flight tests which included dives, slow rolls, and snap rolls. Pilots made notes on each aircraft's speed, balance, motor performance, and its landing gear. They were given a "crab" list to note things that weren't working right. Every plane was given two or three test flights, each lasting fifteen to twenty minutes, before it was delivered to the Navy.

            By the end of the war, the women were testing the most advanced aircraft being made: TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, and the hot fighter planesBearcats, Wildcats, and Hellcatsthat flew up to 400 miles per hour. They worked ten hours and made up to eight test flights each day.  They also ferried aircraft to the Navy and delivered Grumman amphibian aircraft to subcontractors. Kenyon is estimated to have completed 4,000 take-offs and landings by the end of the war. The landing field at Grumman was one of the busiest in America.

The Grumman women were not allowed to conduct "experimental" flight testing, i.e., that done on new designs. Although production test pilots' work has been disparaged as "dishwashing" duties, it was not without dangers. Kenyon was testing a Bearcat one day when the stick would not move left. She radioed the chief pilot who advised her to either try to bring it in or bail out. Kenyon landed the plane. In a similar incident with a Hellcat, she said she just couldn't bring herself to waste a new plane. Elizabeth Hooker was in a high-speed Hellcat fighter when the engine caught fire. She headed the plane toward Long Island Sound, hoping to crash dive it into the water. However, when the heat from the flames began to singe her eyebrows, she radioed in, advising she was bailing out. She landed in a backyard in Norwalk, Connecticut and the plane crashed in a nearby swamp.

In one respect these women's work was some of the most important of the war.  By the end of 1941, nearly all carrier-based fighters were F4F Wildcats whose down-to-loss ratio was almost 6 to 1 by the end of 1942. The Wildcat's successor was the F6F Hellcat of which more than 12,000 were produced, and thus, tested by Grumman pilots. The Hellcat achieved a 19 to 1 kill ratio against Japanese Zero planes in the Pacific. It, alone, accounted for 55 percent of enemy aircraft destroyed by navy and marine pilots. Its kill-to-loss ratio was the highest of any aircraft produced. This fighter was one of the reasons U.S. air operations in the Marianas Islands campaign became known as the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot." Similarly, Grumman produced 10,000 TBF Avenger bombers. By the end of 1943, it was the most common bomber on aircraft carriers. During the war, the quality and number of aircraft was the critical factor. The importance of new designs was minimal, as most of the aircraft in use had been designed in the 1930s, although modifications were made later. 



American Women Overseas




robably the first army nurses to make the dangerous Atlantic crossing were those who had shipped out to Iceland in September 1941, to work at a base hospital there. U. S. troops had occupied the island in July at the request of the Icelandic government. A contingent of Red Cross recreation workers followed in January. By the end of the war, army nurses and WACs had served in such remote locations as Iran, Russia, and West Africa. Navy women were posted to Canada, Brazil, and the Caribbean, as well as Alaska and Hawaii beginning in 1944.

            From the beginning the priority for American military chiefs was mobilization and deployment of forces overseas to support Britain and Russia. (France had fallen in May 1940.) Extreme pressure was also being brought to bear on leaders to relieve Soviet forces fighting on the Eastern Front. After much high-level debate, the decision was made to invade Europe via North Africa in later 1942.

            Unbeknownst to most Americans, U. S. Army nurses landed with the first assault forces on the beaches near Arzew, Algeria in the early morning hours of November 2, 1942. Sixty nurses with the 48th Surgical Hospital landed amid sniper fire. During the landing "They tumbled from landing boats into the surf and waded ashore. The sea reached their shoulders and caught a number over their heads.  Soldiers and sailors carried a few lucky ones. Others made it alone, holding their own gas masks, field bags, and canteens." Second Lt. Theresa Archard thought to herself, "If Florence Nightingale could see us now!" Later under cover of darkness, they occupied beach houses and then moved to an abandoned hospital. Another group came ashore near Oran.

            For the first week the medical teams worked 24-hour days. As the only supplies they had were those they had slipped through the water with them, they quickly became short of bandages and sedatives, and lacking beds men laid on floors in pools of blood. The nurses used their underclothes to bind wounds and gave their C-rations to the patients.

            In January 1943, the first 196 WACs arrived in North Africa. Five captains endured a harrowing voyage, as their ship had been torpedoed en route. Two were plucked from the burning deck; the other three dragged sailors into their lifeboat. A destroyer finally delivered them to Algiers. During the summer the first WACs arrived in London, serving as secretaries, typists, stenographers, switchboard operators, and reconnaissance photo analysts. German bombing was sporadic throughout this period and following the D-Day invasion in June 1944, all American women in England, that by then included navy nurses and OSS personnel, endured the vicious V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks that killed ten thousand people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings. Many European WACs received Purple Heart awards for wounds received during these area bombings. That same year, WACs arrived to serve in the Southeast Asia Headquarters in India.

            Given that military women held many of the same “traditional” jobs they had in States, i.e., those as secretaries, stenographers, and telephone operators, the efficiency of offices rose greatly after their arrival. Soon generals were screaming for more WACs which the service could not supply quickly enough. During the D-Day planning phases, the army deployed WACs to Britain, replacing them with less highly skilled male enlistees in America.

Army switchboard operators at Allied Headquarters (somewhere in the Mediterranean) gained a potent reputation. Many previously had been employed by the Bell Telephone System in the States. According to the Headquarters chief of staff, service had improved 100 percent since the WACS had taken over the switchboard which was one of the busiest in the world. Callers spoke many different languages and WACs who were bilingual acted as interpreters. The military exchanges to which the women placed calls were code-named; the codes were changed frequently, so the WACs had to have good memories and keep current at the same time.

            From North Africa, Allied forces advanced through Sicily and onto the mainland via the Italian boot in September 1943. Army nurses serving in the Mediterranean and European Theaters continued to show their mettle. Fifth Army doctors and nurses served in surgical platoons attached to field hospital clearing stations. These teams were located three to four miles behind Italian front lines and operated on wounded who required immediate surgery before they could be evacuated. Remarking on the nurses' resilience, an army captain noted, "The nurses certainly are a game lot. . . .They show no fear whatsoever of enemy fire and seem only curious of the shell bursts which exploded frequently in our area."


NA #531330
Actress Marlene Dietrich autographs the cast on the
leg of Tec 4 Earl E. McFarland at a United States hospital in Belgium,
where she had been entertaining the GIs. November 1944. National Archives.


            In the Pacific, the first women deployed outside American territory, were the nurses who had survived the Pearl Harbor attack on the hospital ship, U.S.S. Solace. In 1942, it was the only medical ship plying the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Later more Navy Nurse Corps members were stationed on ten other ships and at island base hospitals. Army nurses served in New Guinea, the Philippines, and numerous other islands; as well as in Australia and the CBI Theater (China-Burma-India). Both Corps members did duty in Japan after its surrender.  


NA #535779
Army flight nurse, Lt. Mae Olson of Minnesota, prepares
patients for evacuation from Guadalcanal, 1943. National Archives.


            The army and navy women who took the most risks in the largest numbers, were the flight nurses who served overseas and in the American Theater. Saipan flight nurse Mary Creel figured she was the “most-crashed” nurse, having survived three crash landings. Stella Hawkins crash-landed into coconut trees on an island south of Guadalcanal. After the wounded were loaded onto a small boat, there was no room for Hawkins, so she swam out to the rescue ship. Second Lt. Kathleen Dial flew through her plane’s door, broke her hip, dislocated her shoulder, and suffered a concussion, when her aircraft crashed onto a New Guinea beach. Despite the injuries she directed the off-loading of patients until she collapsed. She was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and a Purple Heart. In Europe Aleda Lutz received the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously, after she was killed in a crash in November 1944 in France. By that date she had completed 190 evacuations and had earned the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters (each one signifying an additional medal award). Army and navy flight nurses were killed in Alaskan crashes, the region being notorious for its bad flying weather. Flight nurses also were subject to enemy attacks on the ground and in the air. They flew into assault zones in unmarked cargo planes, making them fair game for enemy fighters. On her first mission, due to artillery fire, Ens. Jane Kendeigh, NNC, and other crew circled the air field over Iwo Jima for eighty minutes before they could land. After loading patients, they flew back out under fire.




The Light
at the End of the Tunnel




inally the point of no return in Europe came in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944. The great American military build up in Britain had been gearing for a cross-Channel invasion of France for months. Just prior 10,000 Army Nurse Corps members, serving in eighty-eight units, were poised to follow the first assault troops. The nurses initially deployed on British Hospital Carriers in the English Channel. Those serving on the H.M.S. Naushon off Omaha Beach and the H.M.S. Lady Connaught off Utah Beach began treating wounded on D-Day plus 1, June 7.

            Members of the 45th Field and the 128th Evacuation Hospitals first waded ashore in waist-deep water on D-Day plus 4. Within twenty minutes they were treating patients. Staff serving with the 42nd Field and the 91st Evacuation Hospitals followed thirty minutes later. They slept on the beach that night and moved inland with the advancing forces during the next days.

            The first WAC units arrived in France on D-Day plus 38, in mid-July. Capt. Jean Truckey of Detroit recorded seeing strewn helmets and equipment, newly dug graves, parachutes dangling from trees, dead farm animals, foxhole-pocked orchards, and “Red and yellow roses climbing ancient stone walls.” Capt. Isabel Kane wrote home on July 21 that as their trucks passed GIs trudging down roads, when the men saw the American women, they were greeted with gapes of amazement and howls of delight. “The grim, dogged looks changed as if by a miracle into boyish grins and we were hailed, all along the way with shouts and welcome.”

NA #198810
Army Capt. Elizabeth Hoisington conveys final instructions to PFC Guadalupe Torres and PFC Frances Gribble, telephone operators, Potsdam Conference,
Berlin, July 1945. National Archives.


            Nurse Corps and WAC members followed closely upon the heels of Allied advance forces, across France, up the Italian peninsulasome living in tents through the winterand on into Germany. In November 1943, Army nurses, along with other medial staff and air crew, were forced down in their C-54 aircraft in enemy-occupied Albania. Led by local partisans and special forces, they trekked 800 miles over mountains and through all weather conditions, finally making it back to American lines months later. WACs serving with the 6669th Headquarters Company in Italy moved with advance troops. Clerk-typists plotted unit locations and supply trains; operators worked through a Byzantine communications network. For their general staff work, they earned the 5th Army Unit Plaque (with clasp), as well as the Meritorious Unit Plaque. In the spring of 1945, near Nanau, Germany, nurses traveling with a hospital convoy were attacked and taken prisoner by German troops, but were ultimately rescued by elements of the 5th Army.

            In the Pacific, three major Allied offensives unfolded between October 1944 and the summer of 1945. By the fall of 1944, Gen. Douglas MacArthur had fought his way to the western New Guinea island of Morotai. There he made preparations for an invasion of the Philippines. Aided by Adm. William Halsey's aircraft carriers, on October 20, 1944, the 6th Army landed on Leyte Island. In January 1945, Allied forces landed on the main island of Luzon, commencing the longest and largest land battle of the Pacific war that resulted in 40,000 American casualties. In the Philippines, for the first time in Asia, nurses worked behind front line units. WACs performed critical decoding, shipping logistical, and communications work in New Guinea and the Philippines. “They kept communications open at Leyte between alerts that sent them into foxholes only to return to take more messages all through the night.” In the Pacific all personnel worked long hours, were subject to bombings, and fell ill to tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, jungle rot, scrub typhus, and more.


1st Lt. Phyllis Hocking adjusts glucose injection apparatus for a GI patient in the 36th Evac. Hospital, Palo, Leyte, Philippine Islands, quartered in the Church of the Transfiguration, as the congregation kneels during Christmas Eve services. December1944. National Archives.


            In February 1945, Santo Tomas, the large civilian internment camp that held nearly 4,000 Americans and other nationals, was retaken by U. S. forces which rushed to liberate it upon entering Manila. Among the prisoners were the sixty-seven army nurses and members of the Medical Specialist Corps. Eleven navy nurses who had run a clinic at Los Banos, a camp north of Manila, were also liberated. American resistance workers Claire Phillips and Florence Ebersole Smith, both of whom had been tortured during their confinement, were released from a women’s prison the same month. Phillips, with the help of Filipino women, had run a cabaret for Japanese naval officers to gather intelligence and funds and helped direct guerrilla groups, while posing as an Italian-Filipino. Smith, whose husband had been killed at Corregidor, had smuggled supplies to prisoners and fuel to the resistance. Smith was transported to the United States where she joined the Coast Guard in May.   

            As MacArthur was advancing toward the Philippines, Admiral Nimitz's forces captured the Marianas Islands which provided airfields for B-29 bombers flying raids over Japan. The small island of Iwo Jima, lying 750 miles south of Japan, was needed to afford a landing base for crippled B-29s and their fighter escorts. The battle for the 5-mile long island lasted five weeks during which time 6,000 Marines were killed, along with 20,000 Japanese. In April the battle for Okinawa, located just 300 miles from Japan, began. This was considered a vital staging area for the then planned invasion of Japan. American casualties at Okinawa constituted the largest in the Pacific War. The greatest number of "kamikaze" or suicide air attacks also were launched during this battle.

            Because of the mobile nature of the campaigns in the Pacific, the U. S. Navy came to rely on hospital ships and medically equipped transports to give on-the-scene treatment and for evacuation. The U.S.S. Samaritan arrived off Iwo Jima on D-Day plus 1, took on 251 wounded and another 355 the next day, sometimes operating within a mile off shore. There were twenty-two nurses on the ship who along with other surgical staff "worked tirelessly" in the operating rooms that were "heavy with morphine odor and with sickening emanations from other heady drugs. . . .Marines and sailors off Iwo, in every conceivable state of mutilation. . .stared at the nurses' flushed faces, as at something new and rare."

            During Okinawa's complex amphibious operation, "Seven hospital ships were used. . .to evacuate wounded despite the serious threat of enemy air attack especially the massed kamikaze raids that sank twenty-one ships and damaged forty-three others off that island." On April 2, the U.S.S. Relief was attacked; on April 20, the U.S.S. Solace was; and on April 28, the U.S.S. Comfort sustained casualties when a kamikaze plane crashed into its starboard side. The latter was manned by navy crews and army medical personnel. Of the twenty killed, six were nurses. Said Alice Marie Miller, NNC, of Solace, "'During the last of the Okinawa campaign, the kamikazes came over every night. It was probably the first time I was really frightened.'"




On the Homefront




he energetic, demanding work performed by women on the home front during World War II has received more publicity than that of the military women. Essentially all women were volunteers in that they recycled fats, scrap metal, clothing, and paper; gave blood; bought war bonds; and babysat for family and neighbors. They coped with rationed food, gasoline, and tires, and did without nylons. Farm women took over from their absent husbands or worked the day shift on the new 24-hour farms. But for those who were employed in war jobs, like the military women, statistics show that the majority worked in administrative positions. Yet the number of women working in nontraditional trades during the war rose by 50 percent and in some defense factories, women accounted for more than 40 percent of the workers. In the aviation industry, in 1941 women accounted for 1 percent of the employees; in 1944, this had risen to 65 percent. During the war, a total of 6.5 million women worked in defense plants.


NA # 296888
Honorary Keel Layers, U.S.S. Crowley (DE-303), Alyce R. Sawyers and Juanita Doyvolt, U. S. Navy yard, Mare Island, Cal., 1943. National Archives.


            So the classic image of “Rosie the Riveter” is a true one. Millions of unskilled and semiskilled workers were integrated into highly complex manufacturing processes, including delicate electronics work, by subassembling jobs, that is, by giving a limited number of tasks to each person. Moreover, construction was also subassembled which is why so many welders and riveters were needed: to patch together parts into whole aircraft carriers, battleships, tanks, and aircraft. Workers toiled very long hours, in the heat and cold, in unhealthy conditions. Ship fitter Lucille Kolkin, a Brooklyn Navy Yard worker, commented on her drafty, cold shop through which rats often wandered: “I tell you it was a very romantic job.” And for the first time, minority women who included African- and Asian-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans were truly integrated into the workforce, although not without conflicts such as the 1943 Detroit riots. At the Kaiser Shipyard in California, 1,000 black women helped build Liberty ships, the famous supply and troop vessels, many of which were named after women.

            Throughout the war, American workers built war matériel for all the Allies. At the end, U.S. industries had far outpaced their adversaries. Americans turned out 88,410 tanks compared to Germany’s 46,857. A larger ratio held in aircraft: 283,230 to 107,245. Between 1942 and 1945, Japan built only 13 aircraft carriers, compared to 137 launched in the United States.

A number of war workers became celebrities. Helen Longstreet, the 80+-year-old widow of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, worked as a riveter at the Bell Aircraft factory in Georgia. She had married the General when he was 76 in 1897. After his death she had a varied career as a reporter, librarian, farmer, political campaign worker, and more. When interviewed Longstreet proclaimed in true Southern Bible-thumping style, "I am going to assist in building a plane to bomb Hitler and the Son of Heaven to the Judgment Seat of God."  She also informed the reporter that, "I was at the head of my riveting class. In fact, I was the only one in it."  At the end of each day, Longstreet drove her Nash coupe home to her trailer and answered fan mail at night. The actor Walter Pidgeon discovered aircraft plant worker, Rose Will Monroe, while touring the huge Willow Run aircraft factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan. When he learned there was a real-life "Rosie" who was a riveter, he recruited her to star in a war bond promotion film. At the time the poster "We Can Do It" that featured a muscle-flexing woman dressed in overalls and wearing a bandanna was becoming a worldwide symbol of America's productive prowess.

     American women also worked in jobs that are little known of today: U. S. Cadet Nurse trainees and Public Health Service workers and nurses; engineers, physicists, and research scientists; forest fire lookouts, lumberjacks, and workers in lumber mills; members of the Women’s Land Army; workers in mammoth steel mills; workers in railroad stations and yards, and on trains and tracks; commercial fishing boat skippers and crews; cannery and camouflage textile workers; postal clerks and mailmen; bell hops and Western Union telegram “boys”; volunteer plane spotters and plotters; players in all-female bands and orchestras and on all-female professional baseball teams.


With more than half of its men in the armed services,
 during World War II, the Coast and Geodetic Survey hired
women professionals to perform critical functions,
such as operating the tide prediction machine shown here.
National Oceanographic and Aeronautics Administration.

NA #512803 
Elaine Norwich, Women’s Land Army, of Fall River, Mass.,
with her harvest of beans, 1944. National Archives.


            Civilian organizations such as the Red Cross and the U[nited] S[ervice] O[organizations] directed millions of volunteers. The Red Cross recruited nurses, taught nutrition and safety, trained first aiders, provided 13.4 million units of blood, attended patients, helped embark and disembark troops, served as recreation and canteen workers at home and abroad, handled communications for military families, and supplied 28 million care packages for Allied prisoners-of-war. USO entertainment groups toured domestically and worldwide, entertaining millions of servicemen and women. In America, their centers served as homes away from home for military personnel and service clubs attracted integrated audiences for Big Band and jazz dances. Following a long tradition of women in publishing, American women reporters wrote popular, prescient political columns and reported from the front lines. Photographers Margaret Bourke-White and Georgette “Dickey” Chapelle captured the war in images for Life and Look magazines to which words could not do justice.

            Civilian women assisted in disasters and emergencies. Civil Air Patrol pilots flew disaster, search and rescue, and forest fire patrols. Women replaced their husbands as forest fire fighters. Coast Guard Auxiliarists and WTRs performed port security duties and assisted at drownings, harbor fires, floods, and hurricanes. Military women volunteered in their off hours working in hospitals, canneries, on switchboards, and as drivers. Both military men and women brought in harvests on their leave times. Actresses and singers, such as Carol Lombard, a.k.a. Mrs. Clark Gable, and Lena Horne, helped sell war bonds. Lombard and her mother were killed in a plane crash in 1942, returning to Los Angeles from a Midwest bond drive.



The End




ollowing the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the Japanese government surrendered and World War II ended. Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker and Germany had surrendered in May. Having been notified of the coming announcement, the members of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band at Camp Le Jeune in North Carolina prepared to play for the celebration that began at approximately 1900 hours on August 14. The women marched for three hours, until blisters formed on their fingers and feet and their lips were sore. They played every song they knew by heart, because they couldn’t read the sheet music due to the chaos around them. When whole sections couldn’t play because of the tears in their eyes, the drummers just beat out the cadence. A Life magazine photographer captured the most famous picture of the V-J Day celebration: a nurse being kissed by a sailor in Times Square in New York City.



Awards and Memorials

NA #595150

Virginia Hall receiving Distinguished Service Cross from William J. Donovan, director of OSS. National Archives.




merican women, like the men, were recognized for their courage and achievements and decorated during World War II. Virginia Hall and the French Resistance workers have already been mentioned. Claire Phillips and Florence Ebersole Smith also received Medals of Freedom.

                  The directors of the women’s reserves received awards as follows: Blanchfield, Dauser, Hobby, McAfee: the Distinguished Service Medal; Streeter, Stratton: Legion of Merit. Army Nurse Corps members earned 1,619 medals that included, in order of precedence: the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Legion of Merit, the Soldier’s Medal, the Bronze Star, the Air Medal, the Army Commendation Ribbon, and the Purple Heart. Sixteen were awarded posthumously due to death by enemy action. The Women’s Army Corps members received 657 medals that included: the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Soldier’s Medal, the Bronze Star, the Air Medal, and Purple Hearts. Among navy nurses, for her work on Bataan and Corregidor, Ann Bernatitus received the Legion of Merit and the Army's Distinguished Unit Badge. Laura Cobb's group of nurses at Los Banos also received the latter award, as well as Bronze Stars with gold stars, signifying dual awards from the army and the navy. Fourteen other nurses were awarded Bronze Stars. Forty-four received the Secretary of the Navy=s Letter of Commendation. Twelve received the Army=s Distinguished Unit Badge. The Navy=s Unit Commendation Award was given to 224.  Forty died in service, including four in plane crashes. One Coast Guard SPAR received the Silver Life Saving Medal for saving a fellow member from drowning. SPAR Florence Smith was the first to receive the Pacific Theater Ribbon for her resistance work. CG Radio operators Irene Stone and Ruth Wohl were awarded a letter of commendation for maintaining their surfside post during the East Coast hurricane of 1944. A small number of Women Marines and Coast Guard Reservists died while in service, mostly in car accidents.

                  Women working abroad such as OSS analysts, Red Cross workers, and reporters also received high level awards. State Department women such as Eleanor Dulles who became known as the “Mother of Berlin,” returned to overseas postings and aided in the recovery.

                  Military women had combat ships named after them: the destroyer U.S.S. Lenah S. Higbee (Higbee was an NNC superintendent and WWI Navy Cross awardee); U.S.S. Grace Hopper (she retired from the navy as a rear admiral in 1986, at age eighty); U.S.C.G.C. SPAR. More than one hundred Liberty ships bore the names of American women. World War II women, especially nurses, were also memorialized by having hospital ships and, military, medical, and community facilities named after them.

            But as I wrote in the first edition of “Marching,” perhaps the best testimony to the women’s service came from the soldiers’ themselves. In October 1994, a few weeks before her death, Lt. Frances Slanger and others wrote an accolade to their fellow soldiers in the army’s Stars and Stripes. The nurses stated that, sure, they were roughing it, but compared to what the men were taking, they had no complaints. To them they doffed their helmets. Hundreds of soldiers wrote back with one replying: “We men were not given the chance of working on the battlefield or the home front. . . .We are here because we have to be. You are here because you were needed. So, when an injured man opens his eyes to see one of you. . .concerned with his welfare, he can’t but be overcome by the very thought that you are doing it because you want to. . .you endure whatever hardships you must to be where you can do us the most good.”

            It should always be remembered that every American woman who has joined every war effort, working in what ever way, has volunteered to do so.



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