WAACs celebrate 50th anniversary of Army drab war

July 20, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Before women could be permitted to join the military, Congress, of course, had to have its say.

"Take the women into the armed service? Who will then do the cooking, the washing, the mending, the humble, homey tasks to which every woman has devoted herself?"

Thus spoke a member of the House in March 1942, three months after Pearl Harbor.

Once Congress was finished with its debate that May, finally having voted to authorize a Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), the bureaucrats got their hooks into matters.

Should the women wear skirts or pants? Carry handbags or shoulder bags? And what about foundation garments? The Army could not require women to wear them unless it issued them. But was it legal to issue garments to women it didn't issue to men?

The battle ran for weeks, with generals, congresspeople, civil libertarians and fashion designers all putting in their two cents.

Was this any way to run a women's army?

Fifty years ago today, July 20, 1942, a group of 440 women from the then-48 states gathered at an old cavalry post near Des Moines, Iowa, to begin training as officers in the WAAC. They were the first of 400,000 women who served in the World War II military, the pathfinders for today's full integration of men and women in the military.

Betty D. Berg of Huntingdon Valley, Pa., remembers that the uniforms weren't ready. Neither, she recalls, were the male instructors. "They didn't know how to treat us. They were scared to death to get near us or touch us."

Though female nurses had served in all wars -- and a few, as in the Civil War, had posed as men to fight -- none had ever stood in the place of these women that steamy July. The word "auxiliary" meant that the women were denied equal standing with the men in the Army. That would come a year later when the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps gave way to the Women's Army Corps (WAC). But the WAAC was a start.

On July 30, as the first WAAC officers were in their eight weeks of training, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill creating a women's service within the Navy -- the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service.)

The same bill authorized a Marine Corps Women's Service. Four months later, the Coast Guard got into the act with SPARS -- "Semper Paratus" ("Always Ready"), derived from the Coast Guard motto.

From Day One, military women caused a stir. Reporters and cameramen turned out in battalion strength on the first day of WAAC training at Fort Des Moines.

There was a smirking, juvenile quality to some of the coverage that today would be called sexist. Mattie B. Treadwell, the official historian of the women's corps, wrote: "The photographers required the most supervision because of their tendencies toward photographing female underwear or latrine scenes."

Thirty-thousand women applied the first day. They took an aptitude test geared to eliminating 55 percent of them, according to Ms. Treadwell. They were interviewed, given a physical and, if they were lucky, invited back for a second interview.

Oveta Culp Hobby, the director of the corps -- age 37, mother of two, wife of a former Texas governor -- made the final selections.

The women were housed in four red-brick barracks, three for whites and one for blacks. "We did nothing together," Ms. Berg said. The women assembled on the parade ground at 6, attended classes until 5 p.m. and, after dinner, had a study hour. Before lights out, they washed and pressed their uniforms.

The uniform was olive-drab khaki -- a skirt with no pleats, shirt with tie, tan oxfords or tennis shoes, rayon stockings (cotton for work), shoulder bag and foundation garments. The cap was flat, with a long bill. The women called them Hobby Hats.

Janyce Stovall Taylor, a graduate of West Philadelphia High, sneaked off to join the Army in June '43.

"I didn't tell my family I was going because my grandmother and my aunt would have had a fit. They did have a fit . . . but there was no point in screaming at me, because it was too late."

When Ms. Taylor went off for basic training at Fort Devens in Ayer, Mass., she found total segregation -- women from men, white women from black women. For a black woman, the Army was a small world. "I guess we just took it as a normal thing -- I mean, segregation. A lot of the girls were from the South and they knew more about it than we did."

In those days, the Army had a quota for blacks WACs -- 10.6 percent, the same as for black men. The WAVES and other women's services took no African Americans until the last days of the war. But the WAVES were first to integrate.

% By 1978, separate women's services -- including Women in the Air Force (WAF) -- were phased out.

The main role of the services had been to free men for combat. A study of WACs in World War II found that 46 percent had served in administrative capacities, 6 percent in medical roles, 5 percent as drivers and 4 1/4 percent in supply. Women maintained airplanes, operated radar and plotted the weather.

Twelve WACS were wounded in action. In the Army Nurse Corps, established in 1901 by Congress, 16 were killed in action, 32 were wounded and 71 became POWs.

For Berg, now 87, some memories of World War II have faded. Odd details remain sharp, such as her serial number -- "304015," she said without a blink. "I remember that. I'm the only one in my family with dog tags."

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