WAVES: Women in the WW2 US Navy
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
In 1919, a small group of women served with the United States Navy as nurses, answering to male officers. 23 years later, in early Aug 1942, female officer Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander Mildred McAfee was commissioned into the US Navy amidst World War II to head up the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service program (WAVES). The use of the word "emergency", however, signified that when the effort to resurrect female service was in the planning stages, US Navy brass thought female service would cease when the emergency, or the war, came to and end. The reason for that was due to political resistance from many who did not believe women had a place in the US Navy, and for the program to take place, creative intrigue had to be used. Despite the resistance from conservative officers, however, the demand was clearly there; for example, as early as Jan 1942, the Office of Naval Intelligence was recruiting female college students. Even as President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Navy Women's Reserve Act into law on 30 July 1942, little did people know that female service in the US Navy would become something that would last far beyond the "emergency".
By mid-1943, 27,000 American women served in the WAVES program. While their WW1 counterparts served only as nurses and secretaries, these WW2-era women took up far more responsibilities. Secretarial and clerical jobs still made up a large portion of WAVES positions, but thousands of WAVES personnel performed other jobs such as aviation mechanics, photographers, control tower operators, and intelligence personnel. In late 1944, the WAVES program began accepting African American women at the ratio of one black woman for every 36 white women enlisted in the WAVES program. By the end of the war, over 84,000 women served in WAVES with 8,000 female officers, which constituted 2.5% of the US Navy's personnel strength.
After the war, the US Congress passed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act (Public Law 625) on 12 Jun 1948, allowing women to gain permanent status in all military branches of the United States, which put the WAVES program into obsolescence (although people still referred to female members of the Navy as a member of WAVES well into the 1970s). After the passage of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, on 7 Jul 1948, six women were sworn into the regular Navy: Kay Langdon, Wilma Marchal, Edna Young, Frances Devaney, Doris Robertson, and Ruth Flora. On 15 Oct 1948, eight women were commissioned as the first female officers of the regular Navy: Joy Bright Hancock, Winifred Quick Collins, Ann King, Frances Willoughby, Ellen Ford, Doris Cranmore, Doris Defenderfer, and Betty Rae Tennant.
Source: United States Navy Great Lakes Naval Museum, United States Navy Naval Historical Center, Wikipedia.
Last Major Update: Aug 2007
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945