WAC's arriving at Normandy 1944

While Hitler was skulking around Europe pretending to save Germany the erstwhile military minds in Washington were stonewalling womens organizations, patriotic pressures, and anyone who had the temerity to suggest that women should be in the military. The politicians, in typical gerrymandering fashion, made flimsy promises of considering an auxiliary of sorts while quietly hoping it would all go away and secretly trying to figure out how to stop it. Fortunately Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers and Eleanor Roosevelt thought otherwise.

Congresswoman Rogers introduced a bill on May 28 th, 1941, to establish a Women's Army Auxiliary Corps for service with the Army of the United States. By virtue of its being an auxiliary corps there was no hint of full military status for women.

box The bill was dissected, bisected, stalled, lost, amended, sandbagged,
and all but trashed until General George C. Marshall took an interest.

While several government departments cooperated, the Bureau of the Budget continued to stall in spite of pressure from Mrs. Roosevelt, General Marshall and other interested parties and groups. By late November of 1941 there was still no definitive action. At this point General Marshall literally ordered the War Department to create a womens corps. An incident in the Pacific reinforced this order.

Query due to the Pearl Harbor movie:

Were military women at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941?

Photo © Touchstone Pictures

Military nurses were very much involved in the turmoil at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, working under tremendous pressure during the aftermath of the morning's raids. The Japanese attack left 2,235 servicemen and 68 civilians dead. Eighty-two Army nurses were serving at three Army Medical Facilities in Hawaii that infamous December morning. Hundreds of casualties suffering from burns and shock were treated by Army and Navy nurses working side-by-side with civilian nurses and doctors. Nurses at Schofield Hospital and Hickam Field faced similar overwhelming numbers of wounded personnel. The Chief Nurse at Hickam Field, 1st Lt. Annie G. Fox, was the first of many Army nurses to receive a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

Four days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and twenty three years after the idea of women in the military was born, the Bureau of the Budget stopped objecting, planners began to plan and cooperation suddenly became the watchword. The bill was amended, reintroduced, stuck in committees, and stalled. The search was on for a director, a training center and the appropriate equipment. The military men in charge of logistics searched for ideas for no regulations existed. Finally on May 14th 1942 the bill to "Establish a Women's Army Auxiliary Corps" became law and Oveta Culp Hobby, wife of the former governor of Texas, was named director.


While bills were being bandied around Congress, women were being trained at the first WAAC Training Center in Fort Des Moines, Iowa. With a nudge from Eleanor Roosevelt, the Navy got its act together and began authorizing a Womens Naval Reserve and the Marine Corps Womens reserve. The Coast Guard followed soon after. The first director of the WAVES - Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service - was Lt Commander Mildred McAfee, President of Wellesley College. The SPARS, which came from the Coast Guard motto Semper Paratus - always ready, were led by Lt Commander Dorothy C. Stratton. The Marine Corps Womens Reserve was headed by Major Ruth Cheyney Streeter. The WAAC was changed to the WAC establishing it as a part of the Army and not an auxiliary by a second bill in July of 1943, signed in to law by President Roosevelt.

Women in the military were becoming a reality.

While all this politicking was going on the first WAAC contingent was serving at the Allied Forces Headquarters in Algiers, North Africa. By January of 1944 the first WACs arrived in the Pacific and in July of 1944 ,WACs landed on the beach at Normandy. There were over one hundred thousand women in uniform at this point in time. Nurses were already serving in England and Egypt.


Women continued to serve overseas through 1945 and at one point there were over 2000 WACs serving in North Africa alone. From there women were sent to Italy to serve with the 5th Army and these women moved all over Italy during the Italian campaign handling the communications; they earned commendations, bronze stars and the respect of their fellow soldiers as they sloughed through mud, lived in tents, dived into foxholes and dugouts during the Anzio air raids. During the battle on Anzio, six Army Nurses were killed by the German bombing and strafing of the tented hospital area. Four Army Nurses among the survivors were awarded Silver Stars for extraordinary courage under fire. In all, more than 200 Army Nurses lost their lives during World War II.
silver star

Toward the end of the war in Europe the European Theater boasted over eight thousand WACs stationed across England, France, and Germany in cities like Berlin, Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, and Heidelberg. If you're wondering where were the women of the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, ironically regulations did not permit them to serve overseas until the war was almost over. But Navy Nurses were serving on board hospital ships, in air evacs, and every place from Australia to the Pacific.


As the war escalated in the Pacific, women were sent to New Guinea, Leyte, and Manila in the Philippines, as well as the China-Burma-India theater. Over 5000 women served in the Southwest Pacific area. Army nurses served throughout the Pacific in increasing numbers between 7 December 1941 and the end of the war. Nurses were stationed on the islands of Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Saipan, Guam, and Tinian.

WAC Area on Leyte Island 1944

A Japanese suicide plane bombed the hospital ship USS Comfort off Leyte Island. In the attack 6 nurses, 5 medical officers, 8 enlisted men, and 7 patients were killed, and 4 nurses were wounded

Often ignored by history is the story of the women prisoners of war taken captive during World War Two. Sixty seven Army nurses and sixteen Navy nurses spent three years as prisoners of the Japanese. Many were captured when Corregidor fell in 1942 and were subsequently transported to the Santo Tomas Internment camp in Manila, in the Philippines. Santo Tomas was not liberated until February of 1945. Five Navy nurses were captured on Guam and interned in a military prison in Japan.

Here is a rare WWII poster featuring the Nurses on Corregidor in a Japanese POW camp. One seriously doubts that they would be in whites with red and blue capes while prisoners but the point was being made to appeal to defense workers.

nurse pow poster

Two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 5 Navy nurses on Guam were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Lieutenants (jg) Leona Jackson, Lorraine Christiansen, Virginia Fogerty and Doris Yetter, under the command of Chief Nurse Marion Olds. Later in 1942 their captors transported them to Japan. They were held for three months in Zentsuji Prison on Shikoku Island and were then moved to Eastern Lodge in Kobe. They were repatriated in August of 1942.

Nurses received 1,619 medals, citations, and commendations during the war, reflecting the courage and dedication of all who served. Sixteen medals were awarded posthumously to nurses who died as a result of enemy fire. Thirteen flight nurses died in aircraft crashes while on duty.

purple heart

Sixteen women received the Purple Heart , awarded to soldiers injured due to enemy action. The Bronze Star was awarded to 565 women for meritorious service overseas. Over 700 WACs received medals and citations at the end of the war.

bronze star

Countless women served in all branches of the service stateside and relieved or replaced men for combat duty overseas. Women performed admirably in every conceivable job imaginable including the dedicated WASPS who flew military aircraft to destination bases, suffered casualties, and yet were denied full miltary status.

Finally the war endedbomb

However, with demobilization thoughts of women as an integral part of the miltary were not on the minds of the powers that be... even though four hundred thousand women gave a part of their life to their country... suffering not only the hardships of war but the cutting edge of public opinion.


Women Were There!

On to more about Women in War: They Also Served - WASP

For a fascinating visit to a most comprehensive site about nurses in WWII visit the "Cherry Ames, War Nurse" site list of links
found at Cherry Ames - fiction meets reality

Visit the excellent 60th Anniversary of WWII web site for lots of information.

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Unless otherwise noted contents © 1996 to date by Captain Barbara A. Wilson, USAF (Ret),