CONGRESS APPROVES WOMEN’S AUXILIARY ARMY CORPS (WAAC)

Washington, D.C. May 14, 1942

Early in 1941 Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massa­chu­setts informed Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall that she in­tended to intro­duce a bill in the U.S. Con­gress to estab­lish a volun­teer women’s Army corps, sepa­rate and dis­tinct from the existing Army Nurse Corps. After long debate—and after the nation had been sucked into fighting a global war on multi­ple fronts—Con­gress passed the Women’s Army Aux­il­iary Corps (WAAC) bill on this date, May 14, 1942. Signed into law the next day by President Frank­lin D. Roose­velt, the new women’s Army corps had many weak­nesses, among them lack of equal pay with service­men of similar rank (indeed, the names of equi­va­lent ranks differed), no govern­ment life insur­ance, and no pen­sion, dis­ability, or death bene­fits avail­able to U.S. mili­tary veterans. These weak­nesses were removed on July 3, 1943, when the Corps, which hither­to had worked with the U.S. Army, was inte­grated directly into the Army and the name “Auxiliary” dropped.

Originally the WAAC’s recruitment goal was set at 25,000. Six months later it was revised to 150,000. By then enlisted women were replacing male cleri­cal workers, switch­board oper­a­tors, and motor pool drivers, all of whom were needed else­where in the armed forces. After basic Army training, service­women often entered the work­force in non-tradi­tional roles: mechanic, armorer, sheet metal worker, aerial photo­graph or map analyst, radio oper­a­tor and repair­man, air­port con­trol tower oper­a­tor, and cryp­tog­ra­pher. The Army Air Forces obtained 40 per­cent of all WAACs/­WACs and by Janu­ary 1945 just 50 per­cent of their service­women held tradi­tional assign­ments such as file clerk, typist, and stenog­ra­pher. Army Service Forces received 40 per­cent of all WAACs/­WACs, who worked as drafts­men, mechanics, elec­tri­cians, and lab­o­ra­tory, sur­gi­cal, X-ray, and den­tal tech­ni­cians. Many rou­tinely were sent to spe­cial­ist schools. The remaining 20 per­cent were employed by Army Ground Forces, which afforded service­women neither addi­tional edu­ca­tional oppor­tun­i­ties nor advance training. Lamented one WAC: “I went in as a stenog­ra­pher clerk and came out as a stenographer clerk.”

Women’s Army Corps members served in all com­bat the­a­ters—North Africa, the Med­i­ter­ra­nean, Europe, the Middle East, the South­west Pacific, China, India, and Burma. Over­seas assign­ments were highly coveted, even though the vast major­ity con­sisted of cler­i­cal and com­mun­i­ca­tions jobs, which Army brass considered women to be most pro­fi­cient at. Only the most highly qual­i­fied women received over­seas assign­ments. A detach­ment of 300 WACs served at Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower’s Supreme Head­quarters Allied Exped­i­tionary Force (SHAEF). Orig­i­nally stationed in London, these WACs accom­panied SHAEF to lib­er­ated France and even­tually to Germany. Some worked in SHAEF’s G-2 (Intel­li­gence) Sec­tion. In Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur’s South­west Pacific Area skilled office workers were scarce, so 70 per­cent of the 5,500 WACs in the SWPA worked in administrative and office positions.

The Army acknowledged the substantial con­tri­bu­tions of the Women’s Army Corps to the war effort. Of the 150,000-plus WAAC/­WAC offi­cers and enlisted women who served in World War II, 637 received medals and citations, including Bronze Stars (565), the Legion of Merit (62), and Purple Hearts (16). In 1978 the Women’s Army Corps was absorbed into the regular U.S. Army.

In Standing Up Against Hate: How Black Women in the Army Helped Change the Course of WWII award-winning young-readers author Mary Cronk Farrell tells the remark­able, little-known story of how the only all-women, all-black unit of the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) ever deployed over­seas brought speed, effi­ciency, and order to a chron­ically chaotic mail processing and delivery system in the last six months of the war in Europe. Letters and pack­ages from the States were stacked floor to ceiling in six air­craft hangers in England. Under the plucky leader­ship of Major Charity Adams, a former high school math teacher from South Caro­lina, the 6888th Central Postal Direc­tory Bat­talion began the process of sorting and deliv­ering mail to over seven mil­lion GIs, civil­ians, and Red Cross workers during the remainder of the war, first from Birming­ham, England, and later from out­posts in Rouen and Paris, France. The motto of the Six-Triple-Eight, as the women liked to call their bat­talion, was “No mail, low morale.” Farrell’s book is a must-read addi­tion to the canon of coming-of-age books that saw the U.S. armed forces trans­formed from a racially seg­re­gated force into a deseg­re­gated one where the color of one’s skin slowly but even­tually mattered far, far less than a person’s talent, ability, posi­tive atti­tude, and hard work. In Farrell’s first-rate account, Major (later Lt. Col.) Adams (1918–2002) is a prime example of this saga operating on a personal level. Her accounts of other black service­women add to her thesis: namely, the prom­i­nent role African Amer­i­cans of both sexes played in over­coming insti­tu­tional pre­ju­dice and desegregating the U.S. mili­tary. A monu­ment dedi­cated to the 855 sol­diers who served in the 6888th Central Postal Direc­tory Bat­talion was erected at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in late 2018.—Norm Haskett



The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in World War II

Women’s Army Corps (WAC) servicemembers mail for ETO delivery Women’s Army Corps (WAC) armorer repairs rifle, Camp Campbell, Kentucky

Left: Using a GI’s military unit number written on the enve­lope, WACs at this U.S. Army base post office in 1944 England sort mail destined for mili­tary person­nel in the Euro­pean Thea­ter of Oper­a­tions. In February 1945 800 WACs in the all-black 6888th Cen­tral Postal Direc­tory Bat­tal­ion arrived in England to ration­alize and speed up a chron­ically chao­tic mail process­ing and deliv­ery sys­tem in the last six months of the war. Because per­son­nel at the front moved fre­quently, the 6888th kept an up­dated infor­ma­tion card on each of the seven mil­lion mili­tary and civil­ian peo­ple in the ETO. (For more about this remarkable all-black WAC battalion, see the boxed text above.)

Right: A WAC armorer repairs a 1903 Spring­field rifle, Camp Camp­bell, Ken­tucky, 1944. An early WAAC slogan, “Release a Man for Com­bat,” sup­posedly had sex­ual over­tones, so the slogan was changed to “Replace a Man for Com­bat.” Anti-WAAC feelings orig­i­nated with the many en­listed sol­diers who, safe and com­for­table in their state­side jobs, did not neces­sarily want to be “freed” for com­bat abroad. Neither did their mothers, wives, sisters, and fi­an­cées. A nega­tive public image of the female sol­dier emerged in 1943 and rumors abounded such as this one: 90 per­cent of the enlisted women are pros­ti­tutes and 40 per­cent are preg­nant. Scur­ri­lous rumors were some­times started by resent­ful civil­ian workers who feared their jobs might be taken from them by arriving female service­members. Pre­vailing stere­o­types of the woman’s role in Amer­i­can society also tended to limit the ini­tial range of employ­ment for the first wave of women in the Army. The press, how­ever, was usually sym­pa­thetic to the adjust­ments being made by or caused by women in the mili­tary and sectors of the economy affected by critical labor shortages.

Black Women’s Army Corps (WAC) lab tech, Fort Jackson, South Carolina, 1944 Women’s Army Corps (WAC) servicemembers operate teletype machines on Eighth Air Force base

Left: Women recruiting posters sometimes played on the WAAC’s ini­tials, as when Major Charity Adams, the first African Amer­i­can officer in the Women’s Army Aux­il­iary Corps, famously pointed to a 1943 Army recruit­ment poster: “Women! Answer America’s Call. Serve in the W.A.A.C.” It may have been enough to induce this young African Amer­i­can, a lab­o­ra­tory tech­ni­cian pictured above, to volun­teer for the WAACs. She is shown con­ducting an exper­i­ment in the serol­ogy lab at Fort Jack­son Station Hospital, South Carolina, in 1944.

Right: In this photo WACs assigned to the U.S. Eighth Air Force in England oper­ate tele­type machines. The first over­seas con­tin­gent of WACs landed on July 14, 1943, in England in support of the U.S. Army and Army Air Forces. Under the USAAF’s two com­manding gene­rals, Lt. Gen. Ira Eaker and Lt. Gen. James Doo­little, the Eighth Air Force played a leading roll in the Allies’ heavy bom­bard­ment oper­a­tions that reduced German cities, arma­ment fac­to­ries, com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­­works, and oil refin­eries to use­less rubble, thereby hastening the end of the conflict in Europe.

Women’s Army Corps (WAC): “It’s Your War, Too,” U.S. War Department Film, 1944