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American women in World War II

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American women in World War II

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American women in World War II became involved in many tasks they rarely had before; as the war involved global conflict on an unprecedented scale, the absolute urgency of mobilizing the entire population made the expansion of the role of women inevitable. The hard skilled labor of women was symbolized in the United States by the concept of Rosie the Riveter, a woman factory laborer performing what was previously considered man's work.


With this expanded horizon of opportunity and confidence, and with the extended skill base that many women could now give to paid and voluntary employment, American women's roles in World War II were even more extensive than in the First World War. Women worked in the war industries, building ships, aircraft, vehicles, and weaponry. Women also worked in factories, munitions plants and farms, and drove trucks, provided logistic support for soldiers, and entered professional areas of work that were previously the preserve of men. Women also enlisted as nurses serving on the front lines, and there was a great increase in the number of women serving for the military itself.

During World War II, approximately 400,000 U.S. women served with the armed forces and more than 460 — some sources say the figure is closer to 543 — lost their lives as a result of the war, including 16 from enemy fire. However, the U.S. decided not to use women in combat because public opinion would not tolerate it. Women became officially recognized as a permanent part of the U.S. armed forces after the war, with the passing of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948.

Both men and women of some ethnic groups were also placed in internment camps in the United States during World War II (see below).

Civilians aiding the military

The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), were civilians who flew stateside missions chiefly to ferry planes when male pilots were in short supply. In September 1942, General Henry H. Arnold agreed to form two units of women who would help fly aircraft in the United States. They were The Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS), led by Nancy Harkness Love and The Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), led by Jackie Cochran. These two groups merged in 1943 to create (WASP).They were the first women to fly American military aircraft. There was over 1,074 trained WASP pilots who flew from 126 bases in the United States and carried fifty percent of the combat aircraft during the war. Thirty Eight of these women died in service. The WASP was disbanded in 1944 when enough male veterans were available.("Women in World War II." Gale U.S. History in Context, Gale, 2014. U.S. History in Context,

Women also served as spies in the Office of Strategic Services, a United States intelligence agency, during World War II. Woman made up 4,500 of the 13,000 employees of OSS. Some of these jobs included clerk, operation agents, code-breakers, and undercover agents. Of the 4,500 women workers, 1,500 of them worked overseas. One women named Claire Phillips from Portland, Oregon, served as a spy in the Philippines without any training. She ran a spy ring out of Club Tsubaki, a cabaret in Manila that was popular with Japanese officers. She earned the nickname of "high-pockets" because she would smuggle information out in her brassiere. She would also funnel food, medicine, and other supplies to prisoners in Manila. However, two of the most notorious agents were Elizabeth Thorp Pack and Virginia Hall. Elizabeth would seduce men to extract information. She was most known for helping to acquire the first enigma machine form Polish intelligence and in securing Italian and Vichy French codebooks. Virginia was most known for disguising herself as a milkmaid in France. There she would report all enemy movements against Hitler and his forces. She was one of the most wanted people in Germany and the Gestapo claimed her to be "the most dangerous of all alien spies". For further information on this, see Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS, by Elizabeth McIntosh. (Published 2009, ISBN 978-1591145141).(Platt, Amy E. "'Go into the yard as a worker, not as a woman': Oregon women during World War II, a digital exhibit on the Oregon history project." Oregon Historical Quarterly, Summer 2015, p. 234. U.S. History in Context,

Home front

U.S. women also performed many kinds of non-military service in organizations such as the American Red Cross and the United Service Organizations (USO). Nineteen million American women filled out the home front labor force, not only as "Rosie the Riveters" in war factory jobs, but in transportation, agricultural, and office work of every variety. Women joined the federal government in massive numbers during World War II. Nearly a million "government girls" were recruited for war work. In addition, women volunteers aided the war effort by planting victory gardens, canning produce, selling war bonds, donating blood, salvaging needed commodities and sending care packages.

By the end of World War I, twenty-four percent of workers in aviation plants, mainly located along the coasts of the United States were women, and yet this percentage was easily surpassed by the beginning of World War II. Mary Anderson, director of the Women’s Bureau, reported in January 1942 that about 2,800,000 women “are now engaged in war work, and that their numbers are expected to double by the end of this year.”

The skills women had acquired through their daily chores proved to be very useful in helping them acquire new skill sets towards the war effort. Since men that usually did certain jobs were out at war, women tried to replace them. For example, the pop culture phenomenon of "Rosie the Riveter" made riveting one of the most widely known jobs. Experts speculate women were so successful at riveting because it so closely resembled sewing (assembling and seaming together a garment). However, riveting was only one of many jobs that women were learning and mastering as the aviation industry was developing. As Glenn Martin, a co-founder of Martin Marietta, told a reporter: “we have women helping design our planes in the Engineering Departments, building them on the production line, [and] operating almost every conceivable type of machinery, from rivet guns to giant stamp presses”.

It is true that some women chose more traditional female jobs such as sewing aircraft upholstery or painting radium on tiny measurements so that pilots could see the instrument panel in the dark. And yet many others, maybe more adventurous, chose to run massive hydraulic presses that cut metal parts while others used cranes to move bulky plane parts from one end of the factory to the other. They even had women inspectors to ensure any necessary adjustments were made before the planes were flown out to war often by female pilots. The majority of the planes they built were either large bombers or small fighters.

Although at first, most Americans were reluctant to allow women into traditional male jobs, women proved that they could not only do the job but in some instances they did it better than their male counterparts. For example, women in general paid more attention to detail as the foreman of California Consolidated Aircraft once told the Saturday Evening Post, “Nothing gets by them unless it’s right.” The United States Department of Labor even states that when examining the number of holes drilled per day in the aircraft manufacturing industry, a man drilled 650 holes per day while a woman drilled 1,000 holes per day.

Two years after Pearl Harbor, there were some 475,000 women working in aircraft factories - which, by comparison, was almost five times as many as ever joined the Women's Army Corps.

Other industries that women entered were the metal industry, steel industry, shipbuilding industry, and automobile industry. Women also worked in plants where bombs, weaponry, and aircraft were made.


Citizens of enemy countries were not expelled; some were put in internment camps. Almost 120,000 Japanese-Americans and resident Japanese aliens on the West Coast were relocated to such camps. In addition, at least 10,905 German citizens were held in more than 50 internment sites throughout the United States and Hawaii. Italian nationals in the United States during World War II were classified as "enemy aliens" and some were detained by the Department of Justice under the Alien and Sedition Act. In 1942 there were 695,000 Italian enemy aliens in the United States; some 1881 of them were taken into custody and detained under wartime restrictions.

In the military

More than 60,000 Army nurses (all military nurses were women at the time) served stateside and overseas during World War II. They were kept far from combat but 67 were captured by the Japanese in the Philippines in 1942 and were held as POWs for over two and a half years. One Army flight nurse was aboard an aircraft that was shot down behind enemy lines in Germany in 1944. She was held as a POW for four months. In 1943 Dr. Margaret Craighill became the first female doctor to become a commissioned officer in the United States Army Medical Corps.

The Army established the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1942. WAACs served overseas in North Africa in 1942. The WAAC, however, never accomplished its goal of making available to "the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of the women of the nation.". In 1942, Charity Adams (Earley) became the first African-American female commissioned officer in the WAAC. The WAAC was converted to the Women's Army Corps (WAC) in 1943, and recognized as an official part of the regular army. More than 150,000 women served as WACs during the war, and thousands were sent to the European and Pacific theaters; in 1944 WACs landed in Normandy after D-Day and served in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines in the Pacific. In 1945 the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion (the only all African-American, all-female battalion during World War II) worked in England and France, making them the first black female battalion to travel overseas. The battalion was commanded by MAJ Charity Adams Earley, and was composed of 30 officers and 800 enlisted women. WWII black recruitment was limited to 10 percent for the WAAC/WAC—matching the percentage of African-Americans in the US population at the time. For the most part, Army policy reflected segregation policy. Enlisted basic training was segregated for training, living and dining. At enlisted specialists schools and officer training living quarters were segregated but training and dining were integrated. A total of 6,520 African-American women served during the war.

Asian-American women first entered military service during World War II. The Women's Army Corps (WAC) recruited 50 Japanese-American and Chinese-American women and sent them to the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, for training as military translators. Of these women, 21 were assigned to the Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. There they worked with captured Japanese documents, extracting information pertaining to military plans, as well as political and economic information that impacted Japan's ability to conduct the war. Other WAC translators were assigned jobs helping the US Army interface with our Chinese allies. In 1943, the Women's Army Corps recruited a unit of Chinese-American women to serve with the Army Air Forces as "Air WACs." The Army lowered the height and weight requirements for the women of this particular unit, referred to as the "Madame Chiang Kai-Shek Air WAC unit." The first two women to enlist in the unit were Hazel (Toy) Nakashima and Jit Wong, both of California. Air WACs served in a large variety of jobs, including aerial photo interpretation, air traffic control, and weather forecasting. Susan Ahn Cuddy became the first Asian-American woman to join the U.S. Navy in 1942.

More than 14,000 Navy nurses served stateside, overseas on hospital ships and as flight nurses during the war. Five Navy nurses were captured by the Japanese on the island of Guam and held as POWs for five months before being exchanged. A second group of eleven Navy nurses were captured in the Philippines and held for 37 months. (During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, some Filipino-American women smuggled food and medicine to American prisoners of war (POWs) and carried information on Japanese deployments to Filipino and American forces working to sabotage the Japanese Army.) The Navy also recruited women into its Navy Women's Reserve, called Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), starting in 1942. Before the war was over, 84,000 WAVES filled shore billets in a large variety of jobs in communications, intelligence, supply, medicine, and administration. The Navy refused to accept Japanese-American women throughout World War II. USS Higbee (DD-806), a GEARING-class destroyer, was the first warship named for a woman to take part in combat operation. Lenah S. Higbee, the ship's namesake, was the Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps from 1911 until 1922.

The Marine Corps created the Marine Corps Women's Reserve in 1943. That year, the first female officer of the United States Marine Corps was commissioned; the first detachment of female marines was sent to Hawaii for duty in 1945. The first director of the Marine Corps Women's Reserve was Mrs. Ruth Cheney Streeter from Morristown, New Jersey. Captain Anne Lentz was its first commissioned officer and Private Lucille McClarren its first enlisted woman; both joined in 1943. Marine women served stateside as clerks, cooks, mechanics, drivers, and in a variety of other positions. By the end of World War II, 85% of the enlisted personnel assigned to Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps were women.

In 1941 the first civilian women were hired by the Coast Guard to serve in secretarial and clerical positions. In 1942 the Coast Guard established their Women's Reserve known as the SPARs (after the motto Semper Paratus - Always Ready). YN3 Dorothy Tuttle became the first SPAR enlistee when she enlisted in the Coast Guard Women's Reserve on 7 December 1942. LCDR Dorothy Stratton transferred from the Navy to serve as the director of the SPARs. The first five African-American women entered the SPARs in 1945: Olivia Hooker, D. Winifred Byrd, Julia Mosley, Yvonne Cumberbatch, and Aileen Cooke. Also in 1945, SPAR Marjorie Bell Stewart was awarded the Silver Lifesaving Medal by CAPT Dorothy Stratton, becoming the first SPAR to receive the award. SPARs were assigned stateside and served as storekeepers, clerks, photographers, pharmacist's mates, cooks, and in numerous other jobs during World War II. More than 11,000 SPARs served during World War II.

In 1943, the US Public Health Service established the Cadet Nurse Corps which trained some 125,000 women for possible military service. These women were providing 80% of nursing care in US hospitals.

In all, 350,000 American women served in the U.S. military during World War II and 16 were killed in action. World War II also marked racial milestones for women in the military such as Carmen Contreras-Bozak, who became the first Hispanic to join the WAC, serving in Algiers under General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Minnie Spotted-Wolf, the first Native American woman to enlist in the United States Marines.

Partial timeline

  • 1938: The (U.S.) Naval Reserve Act permits the enlistment of qualified women as nurses.
  • 1942: The Women's Reserve of the U. S. Coast Guard Reserve program (officially nicknamed the "SPARs"), was first established in 1942.
  • 1942: YN3 Dorothy Tuttle became the first SPAR enlistee when she enlisted in the Coast Guard Women's Reserve on the 7th of December, 1942.
  • 1942: The Marine Corps Women's Reserve (MCWR) was authorized by the U.S Congress in July 1942 to relieve male Marines for combat duty in World War II.
  • 1942: U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Public Law 689 creating the Navy’s women reserve program on 30 July *1942.
  • 1942: The U.S. Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was founded.
  • 1942: The name of the U.S. Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) is officially changed to Women's Army Corps (WAC).
  • 1943: The U.S. Women's Army Corps recruited a unit of Chinese-American women to serve with the Army Air Forces as "Air WACs."
  • 1944: Public Law 238 granted full military rank to members of the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, who were then all women.
  • References

    American women in World War II Wikipedia

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