The War to End All Wars, World War I, provided more than 35,000 American women the opportunity to serve in the military – the majority of these being nurses in the Army Nurse Corps and the Navy. The U. S. Army did not sanction the enlistment of women although leaders such as General John Pershing, the U. S. Commander-in-Chief in France, recognized the valuable service of British and French women and asked the War Department to send over American women with clerical skills. The Signal Corps employed some bilingual women telephone operators called “Hello Girls” while other women worked for the Quartermaster Corps as personnel clerks, cooks and bakers. The Medical Department hired women as physical and occupational therapists and dieticians.
There is no question that the service of these women during World War I helped propel the passage of the 19th Amendment in June 1919, granting female citizens the right to vote.
The Women’s Army Corps was established shortly after the United States entered World War II. Women stepped up to perform an array of critical army jobs. They worked in hundreds of fields such as military intelligence, cryptography, parachute rigging, maintenance and supply, to name a few. Additionally, more than 60,000 Army Nurses served around the world and over one thousand women flew aircraft for the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots.
Over 150,000 American women served in the Army during World War II and the Women’s Army Corps proved it was a vital part to winning the war. The selfless sacrifice of those brave women ushered in new economic and social changes that would forever alter the role of women in American society.
Women of World War I
Women served in many roles during World War I. The largest number were in the Army Nurse Corps. These women devoted their lives to the care of the wounded and sick soldiers on the battlefields. A significant number were struck with the same influenza virus that spread amongst the Soldiers, and many were debilitated by the “shell shock” that is known today as PTSD. Some were even sent home early to avoid irreversible breakdowns. Still, there was little complaining among both stateside and overseas nurses as they did their duty alongside the men.
Nurses worked tirelessly in conditions that tested them both mentally and physically, and all proved that they were an indispensable part of United States military.
6888th Postal Battalion
The 6888th Central Postal Battalion commanded by Major Charity Adams, was the only black WAC Battalion to serve overseas. First stationed in Birmingham, England and later in Rouen, France, the 6888th (also called the six triple eight) had the daunting task of rerouting millions of pieces of mail to all U.S. service personnel in the European Theater of Operation.
With mail going to Army, Navy, Marine Corps, civilians, and Red Cross workers, the 6888th redirected letters and packages for more than 7 million people. Troops moved quickly from location to location and it was no easy task to maintain updated information on them.
Yet, the 6888th worked three 8-hour shifts, 7 days a week, to clear the backlog, help boost morale at the front, and earn themselves respect amongst the ranks. Many of the black WACs that served during World War II would go on to become leaders in the Civil Rights Movement.
Ingenuity of Women
Exactly 38 days after D-Day, 49 WACs assigned to the Forward Echelon Communications Zone landed in Normandy, France. These women quickly took over switchboards abandoned by Germans and set up Allied communications in tents, cellars, prefabricated huts, and switchboard trailers.
By V-E Day, there were 7,600 WACs serving in the European Theater across England, France, and the German cities of Berlin, Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, and Heidelberg. Simultaneously, there would be thousands more serving in the difficult environment of the Southwest Pacific Area. There can be little debate that Women’s Army Corps was integral and vital to American success. The selfless sacrifice of these brave women ushered in new economic and social changes that would forever alter the role of women in American society. The items in this exhibit demonstrate how women adapted. The fur lined sweater was worn by a nurse stationed at a hospital in the Battle of the Bulge. The wedding nightgown was made out of a parachute brought by an American Soldier to a woman in the WAC in preparation for their marriage in France. The bathing suit was cut out of a man’s uniform for a WAC stationed in Papua New Guinea.