The WAC Overseas
In July 1943 the first battalion of WACs to reach the European Theater of Operations (ETO) arrived in London. These 557 enlisted women and 19 officers were assigned to duty with the Eighth Air Force. A second battalion of WACs earmarked for Eighth Air Force reached London between 20 September and 18 October. The majority of these women worked as telephone switchboard operators, clerks, typists, secretaries, and motor pool drivers. WAC officers served as executive secretaries, cryptographers, and photo interpreters. The demand for switchboard operators and typists remained so high that in 1944 two classes of approximately forty-five women each were recruited within the theater and received three weeks of basic training in England.
A detachment of 300 WACs served with the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). Originally stationed in Bushey Park, London, these WACs accompanied SHAEF to France and eventually to Germany. As stenographers, typists, translators, legal secretaries, cryptographers, telegraph and teletype operators, radiographers, and general clerks, these women assisted in the planning of D-day and all subsequent operations up to the defeat of Germany. WACs handled highly classified material, worked long hours with few days off, and were exposed to a significant amount of danger.
WAC stenographer Ruth Blanton, assigned to the G-2 (Intelligence) Section of SHAEF, held a typical assignment. Blanton's work consisted of recording and translating reports from the French underground. These reports were received from short-wave radio, decoded, and made available to those responsible for planning the invasion of France. The information detailed the number and location of bridges and railroad facilities sabotaged; the movements and strength of the German troops occupying France; and the activities of German officers. SHAEF staff members compiled files on individual German officers containing information on their education, family, hobbies, and length of service. Each morning Blanton typed the briefing reports the intelligence officers presented to the General Staff. During the afternoon she helped to bring the situation map up to date. This map covered one end of the G-2 office and showed Europe, Asia, and Africa. Battle lines were shown by map buttons listing the units engaged in each section and the enemy units opposing.
SHAEF WACs worked around the clock throughout the planning period for D-day. Plans were changed daily, and WACs typed both the critical changes and the alternate plans and routed them through the Allied command.
During this period the SHAEF compound located in Bushey Park near Kingston on the Thames River came under hostile fire. On 23 February 1944, an incendiary bomb struck the WAC area at Bushey Park, causing substantial damage to the WAC billets, mess hall, and company offices. As soon as the "all clear" sounded, WACs went to work putting out fires and soon had the area orderly and under control.
After D-day, 6 June 1944, German V-1 and V-2 missiles hit Bushey Park and London in increasing numbers. There was little defense against either the V-l, a pilotless aircraft traveling 400 miles an hour and falling to the ground when out of fuel, or the V-2 ballistic missile. On 3 July a V-l "buzz bomb" fell on the quarters of American soldiers and WACs in London. WACs administered first aid to injured soldiers, drove jeeploads of soldiers to the hospitals, and operated a mess in their own damaged building for civilian relief workers. The attacks stopped only after Allied ground forces cleared the German launch sites off the Cherbourg Peninsula.
On 14 July 1944, exactly one year after the first contingent of WACs landed in England and thirty-eight days after D-day, the first forty-nine WACs to arrive in France landed in Normandy. Assigned to the Forward Echelon, Communications Zone, they immediately took over switchboards recently vacated by the Germans and worked in tents, cellars, prefabricated huts, and switchboard trailers.
In February 1945 a battalion of black WACs received its long awaited overseas assignment. Organized as the 6888th Central Postal Battalion and commanded by Maj. (later Lt. Col.) Charity Adams, these 800 women were stationed in Birmingham, England, for three months, moved to Rouen, France, and finally settled in Paris. The battalion was responsible for the redirection of mail to all U.S. personnel in the European Theater of Operations (including Army, Navy, Marine Corps, civilians, and Red Cross workers), a total of over seven million people. When mail could not be delivered to the address on the face of the envelope, it was sent to the Postal Directory to be redirected. The 6888th kept an updated information card on each person in the theater. Some personnel at the front moved frequently, often requiring several information updates per month. The WACs worked three eight-hour shifts seven days a week to clear out the tremendous backlog of Christmas mail.
Each shift averaged 65,000 pieces of mail. Although the women's workload was heavy, their spirits were high because they realized how important their work was in keeping up morale at the front.
In general, WACs in the European theater, like those in the North African and Mediterranean theaters, held a limited range of job assignments: 35 percent worked as stenographers and typists, 26 percent were clerks, and 22 percent were in communications work. Only 8 percent were assigned jobs considered unusual for women: mechanics, draftsmen, interpreters, and weather observers. Some WACs were so anxious to serve overseas that they were willing to give up promotions and more interesting work assignments for the privilege. By V-E Day there were 7,600 WACs throughout the European theater stationed across England, France, and the German cities of Berlin, Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, and Heidelberg.
In the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA), the need for WACs became acute by mid-1944. WACs were stationed at Hollandia and Oro Bay, New Guinea, and at Leyte and Manila in the Philippines. Women who served in this theater faced numerous difficulties, only a few of which were inherent to the geographic area.
Because the Southwest Pacific Area Command was one of the last theaters to request and receive WACs, skilled office workers were scarce. Consequently the theater was sent numerous drivers and mechanics, many of whom were retrained on the spot as clerks and typists. Eventually 70 percent of the 5,500 WACs who served in the theater worked in administrative and office positions, 12 percent were in communications, 9 percent worked in stockrooms and supply depots, and 7 percent were assigned to motor transport pools.
The women learned that office work far behind the front lines was frequently crucial to the success of men in the field. T4g. Patricia Gibson was one of those who could see a direct relationship between her assignment and the war effort. Gibson prepared the loading requisitions for several vessels involved in successful amphibious landings against the Japanese at Morotai and Leyte. T. Sgt. Ethel Cahill was responsible for receiving and coordinating requests from the field forces for both personnel and equipment. Her carefully kept personnel records enabled her to promptly deploy properly trained and equipped personnel to combat forces as needed. WACs assigned to supply depots kept records which allowed them to send troops in the field the proper types and amounts of ammunition, motorized vehicles, and gasoline.
Many WAC officers worked as mail censors and became very skilled at this sensitive work. "Women seem to have an uncanny knack for discovering the tricky codes soldiers devise for telling their wives where they are," claimed the WAC officer's supervisor, reflecting the prevalent belief that men and women had different abilities. Censors on the job over a year became susceptible to depression because of the endless bitter complaints and reiterated obscenities in the majority of letters home. Supervisors suggested that women were "more sensitive than men by nature" and should not be given this type of work in the future.
Clothing requisitions posed severe problems in the SWPA. The WACs arrived in winter uniforms complete with ski pants and earmuffs (both of which would have been welcomed by the women in France) and heavy twill coveralls issued while en route. The coveralls proved too hot for the climate and many women developed skin diseases. The theater commander insisted the women wear trousers as protection against malaria-carrying mosquitoes, but the khaki trousers worn by the troops were scarce. Heat and humidity kept clothing wet from perspiration, and due to supply problems most women did not have enough clothing and shoes to allow laundered apparel the chance to dry before being worn again.
WACs in the SWPA had a highly restricted lifestyle. Fearing incidents between the women and the large number of male troops in the area, some of whom had not seen an American woman for eighteen months, the theater headquarters directed that WACs (as well as Army nurses) be locked within barbed-wire compounds at all times, except when escorted by armed guards to work or to some approved recreation. No leaves or passes were allowed. The women chafed under these restrictions, believing they were being treated like children or criminals. Male soldiers complained frequently in their letters home that WACs were not successfully "releasing men for combat" in the Southwest Pacific because it took so many GIs to guard them. The WACs in their turn resented the guards, believing them unnecessary and insulting.
After the WACs had been in the SWPA for approximately nine months, the number of evacuations for health reasons jumped from 98 per thousand to 267 per thousand, which was significantly higher than that for men. The high rate of WAC illness was directly related to the theater's supply problems. Among the leading causes of illness was dermatitis, a skin disease aggravated by heat, humidity, and the heavy winter clothing the WACs wore in the theater. The malaria rate for women was disproportionately high because WACs lacked the lightweight, yet protective clothing issued to the men and often failed to properly wear their heavier uniforms. Pneumonia and bronchitis were aggravated by a shortage of dry footgear.
Tropical custom imposed a lengthy working day on the WACs, with time off in the middle of the day to eat and rest. Many worked through the day, believing it was too hot during those hours to do either. Those who skipped meals often became run down.
Many women lost a significant amount of weight during their year's stay in the Pacific. Although the WACs performed well in the Southwest Pacific under daunting conditions, they did so at considerable personal cost. Regardless of the high incidence of illness, WAC morale remained high.
In July 1944, 400 WACs arrived in the China-Burma-India theater to serve with the Army Air Forces. Theater commander Lt. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell had successfully blocked the employment of WACs in his theater prior to this time. He finally allowed Army Air Forces commander Maj. Gen. George E. Stratemeyer to obtain a contingent of WACs on the condition that they would serve only with his units. WACs assigned to these areas served as stenographers, typists, file clerks, and telephone and telegraph operators.
One month after V-E Day, 8 May 1945, WAC Director Oveta Culp Hobby resigned from the corps for personal reasons. Colonel Hobby's dedicated and skillful administration was the primary force behind the wartime success of the organization from its formation and overall philosophy through its rapid growth, the conversion from the WAAC to the WAC, and its accomplishments overseas. Hobby recommended as her successor Lt. Col. Westray Battle Boyce, Deputy Director of the WAC and former Staff Director of the North African Theater. Colonel Boyce was appointed WAC Director in July 1945 and oversaw the demobilization of the WAC after V-J Day in August 1945.
The Army acknowledged the contributions of the Women's Army Corps during World War II by granting numerous individual corps members various awards. WAC Director Oveta Culp Hobby received the Distinguished Service Medal. Sixty-two WACs received the Legion of Merit, awarded for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of duty. These awards went to WAC Deputy Director Lt. Col. Westray B. Boyce and the WAC staff directors of every theater of operations in which WACs were employed, as well as enlisted women such as Sgt. Maxine J. Rohkar, who received her award for "devotion to duty in administering classified documents pertaining to operations at Salerno and Anzio," and Sgt. Lettie F. Ewing, who "initiated and put into motion new methods of processing quartermaster requisitions."
Three WACs received the Air Medal, including Sgt. Henrietta Williams, assigned to an aerial reconnaissance mapping team in the China-Burma-India theater. Ten women received the Soldier's Medal for heroic actions (not involving combat). One such incident occurred at Port Moresby, New Guinea, when an oil stove in the women's barracks caught fire and three WACs brought the fire under control by smothering it, sustaining severe burns in the process. Sixteen women received the Purple Heart, awarded during World War II to soldiers injured due to enemy action. The majority of the WACs received their injuries from exploding V-l bombs while stationed in London. The Bronze Star was awarded to 565 women for meritorious service overseas. A total of 657 WACs received medals and citations at the end of the war.
Much of the Women's Army Corps was demobilized along with the rest of the Army starting immediately after V-E Day in Europe. Not all the women were allowed to return home immediately, however. In order to accomplish its occupation mission, the Army granted its commanders the authority to retain some specialists, including WACs, in place as long as they were needed. Within six months the Army bowed to public and political pressure and sent most of its soldiers home. On 31 December 1946, WAC strength was under 10,000, the majority of whom held stateside duty and who hoped to be allowed to stay in the Army.
Earlier in 1946, the Army asked Congress for the authority to establish the Women's Army Corps as a permanent part of the Regular Army. This is the greatest single indication of the success of the wartime WAC. The Army acknowledged a need for the skills society believed women could provide. Although the bill was delayed in Congress for two years by political conservatives, it finally became law on 12 June 1948. With the passage of this bill, the Women's Army Corps became a separate corps of the Regular Army. It remained part of the U.S. Army organization until 1978, when its existence as a separate corps was abolished and women were fully assimilated into all but the combat branches of the Army.
Questions and Activities
- Briefly describe the main functions of this branch of the military.
- Explain why women were so pivotal in these capacities.