Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Tribute to the Women Who Served in World War II

Every year on the Thursday before Veterans’ Day, the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago, IL (next to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center) holds a luncheon for Women Veterans.  Each year, the luncheon has a theme and some sort of entertainment.  This year, they decided to honor the ladies who served in World War II.

Although women have followed the troops assisting them and often fighting alongside them since the beginning of time, the United States military did not officially include women until World War II, when the Army formed the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps.  Before the war ended, they dropped word “Auxiliary,” and it became the WACs, the Women’s Army Corps.  WACs mostly served in the Continental United States, or CONUS in military terms.  They were also allowed to go to the then-territories of Alaska and Hawaii.  A very few followed the men overseas to areas that had been secured if they had special skills—such as speaking more than one language.

The Nurse Corps was separate from the WACs and WAVEs in that they were allowed to serve in field hospitals.  By law, they were supposed to remain at least four miles behind the front, but there were nurses who got caught up in the Bataan Death March and held as prisoners of war in the Philippines, so I suspect at times the front caught up with them.

The Navy created the Women’s Auxiliary Volunteer Emergency Service.  At least that’s what they told me we were when I enlisted in 1971.  The ladies from the Pritzker Library in Chicago yesterday said we were “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.”  Either way, the WAVES no longer exist.  The girls are just sailors now.  Their casual uniforms are the same as the guys’.  I’m not sure how many jobs were open to women during World War II.  There were sixteen jobs open to us when I was in.  It’s wide open now.  I’m sure they were allowed to be Corpswaves (medics) which I was, and Yeomen (clerical staff).  I believe they were allowed to be radio operators as well.  Again, they were confined to CONUS, Alsaska and Hawaii.  When I enlisted, there were overseas hospitals open to us, as well.  Having had a cousin who was a Lutheran missionary in Japan, I was tempted by the Navy hospital in Yokusuka, but I met my ex-husband at the Chicago USO before I enlisted and we got engaged while I was in Hospital Corpschool at Great Lakes, IL, so I opted for the Navy hospital in Oakland, California, which was close to his duty station.

The Coast Guard also first admitted women during World War II.  They were called SPARS.  The Coast Guard motto is “Semper Paratus,” Latin for “Always Ready,” and that’s where the name comes from.  Again, the ladies were kept Stateside and in Alaska and Hawaii.

We did not have an Air Force during World War II.  The Air Force was still part of the Army.  We did, however, have about three hundred women called WASPS flying planes.  They ferried planes from the factory to various bases, towed targets for anti-aircraft practice, often landing with bullet holes in their own aircraft, and even flew as test pilots.  Thirty-eight of these brave ladies gave their lives for our country, but not all of their deaths were accidents.  Some of their planes were sabotaged—presumably by men who did not think women should be flying these missions and freeing them for overseas duty.  There were incidents of people putting sugar in the ladies’ gas tanks and cutting their rudder lines.  To add insult to injury, Congress declared these women were not veterans.  It took until 1979 for these ladies’ service to be acknowledged and then Congress voted to only give them death benefits.  They still do not have the full veteran’s benefits they so richly deserve.

We’d best not forget the Women Marines.  They opted not to take on a nickname, but the men gave them one and it’s not very flattering.  The men call them BAMs—Broad-Assed Marines.  While I was still a USO volunteer, I made the mistake of calling a Woman Marine that and fortunately, she set me straight without violence.  I thought that was what they were called like WACs or WAVES or WAFS.  I’m grateful she recognized my naiveté.  Those ladies have gone through the same boot camp as the men—complete with weapons and hand-to-hand combat training from day one.

They also recognized the efforts of USO and Red Cross volunteers as well as women who worked in defense factories.  Ladies who worked for three months with absolutely no tardiness or absences (often working six days a week), earned the name WOWS.  They received a hat with a scarf and a pin.  Most of them worked until their husbands came home from the war, or until the factories closed—whichever came first.  And very few made as much money as the men they replaced or the few men with whom they worked.  Equal pay for equal work was unheard of then.

Those of us who have served in the military or even those of us who have careers today, owe much of our success to those ladies who left their homes to enlist, volunteer, or work in the wartime factories and pave the way for us eighty years ago.  I sat at a table with four of these remarkable ladies, and it was an honor to listen to their stories, as they reminisced.

If you’re interested in more information about women in the military through the years, you can check out the Women’s Military Memorial in Washington, DC, or the Pritzker Library Special Collection in Chicago, IL.  If you served in the military, you can contribute your own story to the collections in the Library of Congress, at the Women’s Memorial, and if you’re in the Chicago area, at the Pritzker Library.

On this Veteran's Day, I would like to thank everyone who has served in the military, especially my fellow women vets, and most especially the ladies of World War II.

*The ladies in this photo each signed a media release from the VA.  Photo taken by RIW, 11-08-2012.


  1. I recently saw a film about the making of the Liberty Ships. Women were welders, cutters, and did everything the men did. One woman reminisced about climbing up to the top of the ships to cut sheet metal because she was agile and light and most men weren't.

    Women took on men's jobs then but it sure did take a long time for it to become common!

  2. Yes--they took on the men's jobs, but they didn't get the men's pay.

    By the way, the WAVES song said,

    "So carry on for that gallant ship and for every hero brave,
    Who will find ashore his man-sized shore was done by a Navy WAVE."