Women In Armed Services

This 1952 stamp belatedly acknowledged women’s military roles in World War II, as well as the 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, when Congress integrated the new women’s services into the peacetime military.  For more than three years, between the 1945 end of the war and the 1948 law, women who wanted to serve in the military hung in limbo, not knowing if there would be a place for them.  Many active servicewomen were demobilized against their will.

From left to right, the images depict the Marine Corps, the Women’s Army Corps, the Navy, and the Air Force.

The Marines were the last female unit created during World War II – even though there had been “Marinettes” (and, in the Navy, “Yeomen Female”) during World War I.   On the positive side, though, when the Marine Corps began its unit in 1943, midway through the war, it was the least sexist.  Women were simply “Marines,” with none of the cutesy terms attached to those in other services.  Moreover, they trained at the historically tough Marine base of Parris Island, South Carolina.

The second image shows a WAC – an unfortunate name that initially was WAAC, or Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.  It was the first, with Massachusetts Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers filing the enacting legislation on Christmas Eve, 1941 – very soon after Japan bombed Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor.   “Auxiliary” was removed from the name in 1943 because of technical legal problems, but the name continued to be the source of countless jokes about being “wacky.”  A hundred thousand WACs nonetheless made a gallant contribution to World War II:  they served on all fronts, including Africa, Europe, and the Pacific, and many earned high decorations for bravery.

The third image, that of the Navy, was the WAVES in World War II.  It began soon after the WAC, with its lead congressional sponsor being Margaret Chase Smith of Maine.  The name was designed as an acronym, with the rarely used words -- Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service -- fitted around the abbreviation.  Approximately a hundred thousand women enlisted in the WAVES, but unlike the WAC, were not allowed to go abroad.  They trained on college campuses and made up 80% of Navy personnel in Washington.  WAVES were so common there, in fact, that upon seeing a Navy man, a child exclaimed to his mother:  “Look, a boy WAVE!”

The last image is that of the Women’s Air Force, or WAF.  The Air Force did not exist as a separate entity in World War II:  both the Army and the Navy had their own aviators under their command.  WACs who were assigned to the Army Air Corps, however, informally were known as Air WACs.  They did not fly, but worked as mechanics, taught courses such as celestial navigation to all-male classes, and trained men on flight simulators.

The stamp, however, omitted the women who did fly:  both the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and the Women’s Air Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) delivered planes from factory to field, were test pilots for planes with mechanical problems, and towed targets for gunnery students to shoot at – using live ammunition.  The WAFS were absorbed by the WASP, which never was granted full military status by Congress – even though more WASPs gave their lives proportionally than in any other service.

The similar names of WAFS and the postwar WAF, of course, added to the confused status of military women, and the stamp also failed to acknowledge the World War II service of the Coast Guard’s SPARS.  Their functions were similar to those of women in the other Navy branches, but the unit was completely disbanded when the war ended.  The Coast Guard had originated with a tax collection role under the Treasury Department, and after the war, it returned there from the War Department (today’s Department of Defense), and the SPARS was lost in the process.  Not until 1965 could women again join the Coast Guard.

Finally, the stamp also omits the oldest corps:  the Army Nurse Corps was founded in 1901, and the Navy Nurse Corps followed in 1908.  All were officers, but they were required to obtain their nursing credentials prior to enlistment.  During World War II, NNC members served in land-based hospitals, often abroad, as well as on hospital ships, where they commanded male medics who did the menial work.  The Army Nurse Corps was larger, and women did all sorts of work, including the first flight nursing in the tough theater of Southeast Asia.  They were prisoners of war, too, especially in the Philippines, and they were bombed in all theaters.  Hundreds gave their lives.