Magazine article The World and I

They Also Served: Women in World War II

Magazine article The World and I

They Also Served: Women in World War II

Article excerpt

James Roberts is director of Radio America.

As the nation prepares to dedicate the National World War II Memorial on the Mall on May 29, the crucial role that women played in winning the war has received little attention. While it is true that the men on the front lines did the fighting that defeated the Axis powers, women also made significant contributions to the war effort. The sacrifices of WAVES, WAACs, Army and Navy nurses, secretaries, Red Cross workers, and millions of Rosie the Riveters were crucial to victory. Nevertheless, as the late Adm. Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, frequently declared, "Women have never gotten the credit they deserve for what they did in World War II."

Women have been involved in all of America's wars, but World War II proved to be a watershed event, opening a host of professional opportunities that had not yet been available. The most obvious was in the military itself. Generals George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower closely studied the British experience during the two years prior to the U.S. entry into the war. In Britain, females were drafted, with some going to armaments factories and others to the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Women of all classes were affected. For example, Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth spent the war in the ATS, repairing trucks, and Prime Minister Churchill's daughter Mary was actually assigned a combat role as commander of an antiaircraft artillery unit.

At the urging of female leaders such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Congresswoman Margaret Chase Smith, and with the support of General Marshall, Congress passed legislation creating the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in May 1942. Two months later the Navy followed suit with the establishment of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). Soon thereafter the Coast Guard created the SPAR women's reserve unit; in February 1943 the Marine Corps established the Marine Corps Women's Reserve (MCWR).

All told, more than 350,000 ladies served in uniform during the war, most of them in clerical and other support capacities. (It took seven to nine individuals to support each serviceman at the front.) In other cases, however, women were allowed to be instructors to male recruits in such areas as operating vehicles, firing machine guns, and training pilots.

WASPs could sting

One of the most significant initiatives during the war was the creation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots Program (WASP). Twenty-five thousand volunteers applied for the program, and over one thousand served as WASPs from September 1942 to December 1944. WASP fliers logged more than sixty-six million hours of flight time in seventy-seven types of aircraft.

The WASP pilots went to flight school at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas, and received the same courses of instruction as male pilots. For half of each day they practiced primary, basic, advanced, night, and instrument flying; during the other half-day they had ground school, consisting of courses in physics, mathematics, radio, Morse code, map reading, engineering, and navigation. WASP pilots had to know how to take apart and reassemble airplane engines in case of emergency landings in remote areas.

Thirty-nine WASPs were killed in the line of duty. Lorraine Rodgers almost made the number forty. Rodgers was flying out of Avenger Field when her plane suddenly spun out of control and went into an inverted spin. "I struggled to get the canopy [of the airplane] open," she recalls. "Finally I succeeded, but by this time I was very close to the ground." Bailing out, she was knocked unconscious as she landed. When she came to, Rodgers says, "all I could see was blue. I wondered, am I alive or am I dead?"

Then, to her amazement: "Two cowboys on horseback galloped up, and I knew I was alive and that I was in Texas." Dismounting, one of the cowboys took off her helmet. …

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