THE AMERICAN WOMAN AT WAR
She only Nursed and Cooked and Fought and Flew
and Freed Our Arms for Action
The Fort Point Salvo
Newsletter of the Fort Point and Army Museum Association
Volume 5, No. 5
“Whadda ya mean - A MILLION WOMEN in our men’s wars?!”
That’s right, Sarge. At least a million women and probably more have served in the armed forces of the United States - Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard. Every one has been a volunteer. And almost every one, in one way or another, has had to fight for the privilege of serving her country.
Now the women’s story of two centuries of courage, devotion, compassion and plain guts is being told in a first-of-its-kind exhibit at the Presidio Army Museum.
Why did our women go to war? Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy in World War I, explained it best: “Women are in the war,” he said, “because the war cannot be conducted without them.” His observation applies to every war we have ever fought.
Women were stirring up revolt over 200 years ago, before our War for Independence began.
“Mother of the Boston Tea Party”
Among them was Sarah Bradlee Fulton. She helped hatch the plot at her house to dump England’s tea in Boston Bay. And it was to her house the “Braves” returned to scrub off their war paint and burn their feathers.
A group of young women organized the “Daughters of Freedom” as an auxiliary to the “Sons of Freedom”. So resolute were they in leading boycotts of English goods, the “Sons” declared: “With the ladies on our side we can make every Tory tremble.”
Fulton was a member of the “Daughters” and so was Susan Livingston, the sharp tongued daughter of the Governor of New Jersey. She gave a British search party such a verbal scalding “the poltroons slunk off with their tails between their legs.” It was a good thing for Susan that they “slunk” instead of searching. If they had, they would have found the list of spies they very much wanted stashed away under her mattress.
What, a “Female Paul Revere”?
Yes, two young girls shared the title. They were Sybil Lundington and Deborah Champion. Time after time they slipped past the British lines riding the byways and back trails through the night carrying messages and warning the colonists when the enemy was on the march and what routes he was taking.
There was Phoebe Fraunces, George Washington’s black housekeeper who saved his life. By pretending to be a friend of some Tory spies she overheard a plot to murder him by serving him a dish of poisoned peas. She threw the peas out the scullery window and poisoned the chickens instead.
Enlist Women in the Continental Army? - Never!
But they were there. Adventurous women who disguised themselves as young men and beardless boys. Few questions were asked. The Continental Army was so short of men that fresh faced boys as young as 12 years were in the lines. The fighting women handled muskets and the Colonists’ deadly accurate squirrel rifles as well as men. Some served through the war, their sex undetected. Some were unmasked. None threw down their arms and quit.
One of the best known line soldiers was Deborah Samson who enlisted twice in the Continental Army. In 1780 she started her first hitch as Robert Shirtliffe in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment and served as a common soldier. She saw action at Tappen Bay, Tarrytown and Yorktown. Later as she was serving as an orderly to a-general officer she came down with a fever and was examined by a surgeon. He quickly discovered that she was not “Robert” but Deborah. She was quietly discharged. On her death her husband was granted a pension for her service.
The Truth about Mary Hays
She probably is known to more Americans than any Revolutionary hero except George Washington.
On a hot, muggy June day in 1778, the British were drawn up at Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey. So were Washington’s ragged troops, among them John Hays, artilleryman of the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment, and his wife, Mary. The battle was joined. Mary filled and refilled a water pitcher and unmindful of shot and shell moved among the wounded, binding their wounds, giving encouragement, slaking their thirst with cool water. Many of the troopers recognized her and began calling for her to bring her pitcher, “Molly, pitcher!” “Molly, pitcher!” “Molly, pitcher!” From that day on Mary Hays was known by the nickname Molly Pitcher. You read about her in grammar school.
Molly was a soldier as well as an angel of mercy. In the thick of the battle she suddenly sensed something was wrong. Looking around she saw her husband’s gun was silent. She ran back to the battery and found it had taken a direct hit. Artillerymen lay dead in the grass. John Hays was badly wounded. Molly dragged him out of the line of fire, then grabbed his rammer and swabbed out his hot cannon.
One Joseph P. Martin who claimed to be an eye witness told what happened next: “While in the act of reaching for a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat. Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky it did not pass any higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else, and continued her occupation.”
She got the gun firing and kept it firing until relieved by an artilleryman. She was immortalized in the old rhyme:
“Molly Pitcher she stood by her gun
And rammed the charges home, Sir,
And there on Monmouth’s bloody field
A Sergeant did become, Sir.”
She received a pension from the State of Pennsylvania “for services rendered in the Revolutionary War.”
Title to the nickname “Molly Pitcher” is not entirely clear. There are partisans who hold that the “true” Molly was Margaret Corbin. She, like Mary Hays, was the wife of an artilleryman whose place she took when he was wounded in the Battle of Fort Washington.
However, historians point most often to Mary Hays so this correspondent will go with her as America’s original “Molly Pitcher.”
Sustaining Washington’s Forces
Molly was representative of the women who went with the Army in its battles. And they were needed. With General Washington always desperately short of manpower it is hard to see how his Continental Army could have been sustained in the field or even in garrison without women.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common practice for poor but perfectly respectable women to go with their men in the Army. In a great many cases they had no place else to go. The Army authorized usually three to six women per company to draw rations for themselves and their children. In return, they cooked, sewed, washed the Army’s clothes and nursed.
In addition, the Medical Service, in particular, hired civilian women. About one matron and 10 nurses were authorized for every 100 wounded. These were not trained nurses; there weren’t any. But they were mature women who had nursed their families through sickness and knew the rudiments of patient care. Perhaps the greatest gift they gave their country was compassion for the common soldier. Although these women were civilians, they were spared none of the gore, the grime, the horror of war.
Demobilization, as if there would be no more wars
When the Revolutionary War was won our new Nation adopted a mental attitude that carried down almost to World War IL We demobilized almost completely. General Washington’s Continental Army shrank to a force of about 80 men. And the women who had served faithfully, many beyond the call of duty, were completely forgotten. It was as though we thought we could lay down our arms for good.
To the Colors - 1812
Again, women followed their men to war and did much the same backbreaking “housekeeping” chores for the Army. They cooked, sewed, washed, nursed. Those who were determined to get into the front line action masqueraded as men. They fought for Andrew Jackson at New Orleans, acted as couriers and spies. One Lucy Brewer even enlisted in the Marines as George Baker and served three ‘years on the U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides”. She was later acknowledged by the Marine Corps as the first “Lady Marine”.
1846 - 1847
We demobilized at the end of the war of 1812 only to start from scratch with the outbreak of the War with Mexico in 1846. Again, there were women nursing and in men’s clothing, fighting. One of the latter, Sarah Borginis, during the attack on Fort Brown in 1846, reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel under General Zachary Taylor.
THE CIVIL WAR
Women Make Great Leap Forward in Saving Lives
In the War between the States women made perhaps their biggest single contribution to their country by bringing organized nursing to the armies. Though most medical officers resented women nurses as did enlisted corpsmen, the soldiers loved them. They eased the pain, helped save lives, and were trusted much more than many of the doctors.
By 1861, the role of American women was changing. They were becoming better educated and they were coming out of their very private lives at home. Women’s clubs and organizations of all kinds with many different purposes were being formed. When war broke out virtually every one of these organizations, inspired by the work of Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, was determined to contribute to the war effort. There were literally hundreds of uncoordinated military-aid programs. The result was well-meaning chaos.
In April 1861, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, believed to be the first woman physician in the United States, formed the Women’s Central Relief Association in New York City to train battlefield nurses. She is reported to have talked to President Lincoln about the necessity of an umbrella organization to bring all the aid efforts into one program.
In June the President created the “United States Sanitary Commission”. Dr. Blackwell’s Central Relief Association affiliated with it. The Commission grew into a huge organization with branches in 10 northern cities. It trained nurses, supplied hospitals, arranged transportation for the wounded, and did prodigious work in establishing and raising standards of sanitation and hygiene in Army camps. This was sorely needed. For horrendous as Civil War battle casualties were, it was estimated that the Union suffered two and one-half deaths from disease for every battlefield loss. On the Confederate side the ratio was three-to-one.
In addition to their other duties, members of the Commission held sanitary fairs and raised over $50,000,000 or the Union cause.
Dorothea Dix, already well known for her work in the reform of insane asylums, was appointed superintendent of women nurses. The qualifications she set up for recruitment reflected the mores of the times. Applicants had to be “plain women over 30”. And they must dress in black or brown when on duty. In a get-up like that Helen of Troy whose beauty, poets have said could launch a thousand ships, would have been hard pressed to launch a row boat. Nurses pay was to be $10 a month with one ration a day which put them at the bottom of the military payroll. In spite of all this over 6,000 women enlisted and the soldiers came to think of them as “angels”.
Women of the south no less than those of the north mobilized to nurse and support their men in battle. Perhaps the best known was Sally Tomkins who nursed 1,300 men in her own hospital and was commissioned a Captain for her work. Every Confederate nurse available was with the troops. Many black women, some of them slaves, some freed slaves, nursed competently and compassionately in southern hospitals.
First Woman to Wear the Medal of Honor
In the north a number of women distinguished themselves.
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a maverick and early feminist, gave up her medical practice to go with the Army as a nurse. Female doctors were not acceptable, in fact they were hardly known.
Dr. Walker served as an espionage agent as well as a nurse. She was captured at the Battle of Chattanooga and later released in a prisoner exchange. In 1864 she was commissioned a 1st Lieutenant, the highest rank attained by a woman in the Union Army. She finished her military career as an assistant army surgeon and thus became our first female Army doctor. She was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor, our highest award for valor.
After the war there was doubt as to whether she should have received the Medal of Honor. The story goes that a delegation was sent to retrieve it. Dr. Walker greeted the gentlemen graciously, a 12-gauge shotgun cradled in her arms. The meeting was polite but brief. The doctor kept her medal, her proudest possession. She was buried with it pinned to her tunic.
In 1917 her award, along with those of a number of men, was withdrawn. But in 1976 it was reinstated by a special act of Congress. So now Dr. Mary Edwards Walker may really rest in peace.
A slip of a girl who gave her all was Annie Etheridge. “Gentle Annie” went through 28 battles nursing for the 2nd Michigan Infantry. She was awarded the Kearney Cross of Valor.
A Black Nurse, Our Only Female Troop
She was Harriet Tubman. Before the war she was an operative in the “Underground Railroad,” the hazy, almost unorganized system of helping slaves escape from the south. Tubman played a role 1n slipping Negroes past the sheriff’s posses, the road blocks, the rifles and dogs of angry slave owners up to the Mason-Dixon Line. From there people in the north passed them from one to another until they crossed the Canadian border.
She was also our only female troop commander, leading a force of 300 black soldiers in a daring and successful night raid at the Combahee River.
However, her most important contribution was her knowledge of healing herbs found in the bayous where she grew up. With these she saved the lives of countless soldiers ill with dysentery.
Harriet Tubman was just one of an uncounted number of black women who served the Union cause. Many of them nursed and took the hard, dirty jobs in the hospitals. Many others in the south risked their lives night after night slipping food in to starving prisoners in Confederate stockades and helping those who were able to escape. Nothing stopped them from serving men from the north they had never seen before and would never see again. Men who could not help them if they were caught as some of them were. But these men needed help so desperately. And they were Mr. Lincoln’s men. And he had freed the slaves.
“Angel of the Battlefield”
When war broke out Clara Barton left her desk in the Patent Office to find means of getting medicine to the sick and wounded. As an organizer and a doer she was a giant. Operating on her own and often at her own expense she became an important supplier to the Union army. She personally collected supplies and medical equipment and saw to it that they got to the troops in the field. She nursed the wounded, comforted the dying on the battlefield even after a hair-breadth escape from death in the Battle of Antietam. “Angle of the Battlefield” she surely was.
After the war Barton was responsible for establishing the first National Cemetery at Arlington, Virginia where she personally marked some 12,000 graves of soldiers who had died in the Confederate prison at Andersonville.
She was the first to propose a tomb for the unknown soldier. A little later she founded the American Red Cross and served as its president for 20 years.
The War of Mary Bickerdyke
Like Clara Barton, Mary Bickerdyke was a dynamo operating at full power. She was an Illinois woman of middle age when she volunteered as an army nurse in August 1861. In the course of a war she organized diet kitchens, nursing services, bathing facilities, laundries, hospitals.
Mary was first heard of when she took a prominent part in shipping out five boat loads of wounded after Grant’s capture of Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River early in 1862.
She moved on with Sherman’s division to the blood bath at Shiloh in April. There she found the wounded “not half provided for”. She stepped in and ran the nursing care. It made no difference to her if the wounded were in ragged gray or blood-stained blue. They were young men and boys in agony and they would get from her all her human hands could do.
One of the medical officers purloined for his own use some desperately needed supplies sent to her. She marched straight to General Grant. The officer was arrested and the supplies returned forthwith.
Although many medical officers disliked her intensely, the troops loved her the more. She was fighting for them and she could win!
It probably was at Shiloh that Mary became "Mother" Bickerdyke. Many of the troops on both sides were young farm boys who had never been in a battle before. They were confused, frightened, and terrified when they fell. Bickerdyke gave them kindness and motherly care they never forgot.
She nursed Sherman's wounded in the Battle of Chattanooga, then went with his Army of Tennessee to the siege of Vicksburg. There her enemies among the medical officers went after her.
One of their number showed up drunk for duty. She had him dismissed, thrown out of her hospital. His friends disputed her report and this time they went to the General, to William Tecumseh Sherman himself.
Was this an Army or a mob? What was to become of the whole Army command structure if an old battle axe of a nurse who was not, and never would be a member of the Army, was allowed to go around ordering commissioned officers off the premises? Who’s in charge here?
Their case was presented with passion and color, some of it blue. “Mother” was not one of the terms used to describe Mary Bickerdyke. When it was over the General mused, “Bickerdyke, eh?”
“If it was she,” he said, “I can’t help you. She ranks me!” With that he clapped on his hat and went out to inspect his siege lines. The meeting was over. The fired doctor stayed fired.
Nurses in the Navy? … Unheard of!
Northern women got permission to convert transports into primitive hospital ships. Probably the first “Navy nurses” were four Holy Cross nuns who served on the Red Rover, a confiscated blockade runner. They and other nurses on the hospital ships worked under the most difficult conditions - without staff, provisions, or even mattresses for the wounded who jammed the vessels to the hatchways. But they did the job somehow.
Wire Cutters, Bridge Blowers, Femmes Fatales
Women, both black and white, served as saboteurs, scouts, couriers, spies. They blew bridges, cut telegraph wires, torched off arsenals and warehouses, helped prisoners escape. And on both sides there were some fascinating spies.
Among the more famous on the Confederate side were Mrs. Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a Washington society hostess and Belle Boyd, a southern charmer.
Mrs. Greenhow supplied General Beauregard with information about Union troop movements before the first Battle of Bull Run, July 18, 1861. Shortly thereafter Allan Pinkerton, head of the famous detective agency, uncovered her activities by the simple expedient of peeping through her drawing room window and listening. She spent part of the war in Old Capital Prison.
Belle Boyd, who was irresistible to some Union officers, is best remembered for her dash across the fields waving her sunbonnet to attract Stonewall Jackson and give him information she had gathered. She also organized a ring of teenage girl spies in Virginia and carried her secrets past enemy lines on midnight rides. Like Mrs. Greenhow, Belle was found out and spent time in a Union prison. After the war, to show there were no hard feelings, she married a Union officer.
On the Union side, among others, was seductive Pauline Cushman, a theatrical ingenue, who won Southern confidence by toasting Jefferson Davis from a Louisville stage. When she went farther south, she was unmasked and sentenced to death. Luckily her captors were retreating and she was saved by the timely arrival of a Union patrol.
One of the most interesting spies was Elizabeth Van Lew. She posed as an eccentric called “Crazy Bet”. The Confederates thought her harmless and talked openly of their plans as she puttered about their lines. Her cackling laugh never aroused suspicion that she was laughing at them. She was storing everything they had said in her alert mind to be dispatched to General Grant.
And Soldiers by the Hundreds
Some estimates say more than 400 women served as soldiers on both sides. How many more may have done so will never be known. Most of them masqueraded as men so the names they used tell us nothing. Perhaps the most famous was Sarah Edwards who served as a nurse, courier, spy and soldier in the Union Army.
Then there was Anna Carrol, self-styled, strategist, who was supposed to have suggested the strategy General Grant used in his Tennessee campaign which was a turning point in the war.
Surely the most spectacular woman soldier was beautiful Loreta Velasques, well educated and affluent. When her husband, a southern officer, went to war, Loreta, over his objections, bought a Confederate uniform, pasted on a mustache and chin whiskers, recruited troopers and set herself up as their commander under the name of Lieutenant Harry T. Buford. She and her outfit fought in a number of battles including the first Battle of Bull Run before she was wounded and unmasked. When she recovered, she enlisted as an infantryman, but soon decided she would rather be a mounted officer and wangled herself a commission in the Confederate Cavalry. After being severely wounded in battle the second time she called it quits. She buried two husbands and was last heard of heading for the gold fields of California.
“God Bless the Women of America”
At long last the war ended. So impressed was President Lincoln with the contribution women had made he paid them this tribute:
“ ... if all that has been said by orators and poets since the creation of the world in praise of women, was applied to the women of America, it would not do them justice for their conduct during this war. God bless the women of America.”
When the guns stopped firing in 1865, true to tradition, the Army demobilized and the women, despite all they had done in so many ways, went quietly home. With few exceptions without veterans status or benefits. The blessing of a thankful president was about all they had to take with them. Undoubtedly their service would have been more adequately recognized had Mr. Lincoln lived.
TRIAL BY WILDERNESS, INDIAN WARRIERS, RATTLESNAKES, INDIFFERENCE
Although they wore no uniforms perhaps the toughest battle women of the Army had to fight was the taming of the western frontier in the 1870’s and 1880’s, the days of the Indian Wars.
Cavalry wives went with their husbands to the raw edge of civilization. Alongside their men they chopped wood, built cabins, drove wagon teams, fought rattlesnakes, handled rifles. Warned by their husbands not to be captured alive, many Army women carried pistols for their own destruction in case of Indian attack: They bore their children tended by Army doctors who knew how to clean gunshot and arrow wounds but little or nothing about gynecology, obstetrics or pediatrics.
The schools they found for their children were dismal. At one post school was taught by two deserters who conducted their classes while still in leg irons. So the women taught the schools themselves.
The heaviest cross of all to bear was the nation’s seeming indifference. All kinds of road blocks were thrown in the way of married soldiers. At one point wives and children were denied free transportation to join the men at their frontier posts. Treatment got so bad that General Sherman, then commanding the Armies, snapped to a Congressional Committee: “Does Congress wish to prohibit marriage in the Army? If so, why not meet the question?”
“Oh! of course not, BUT . . . “And the debate went on and on. If there ever was a test of women’s internal toughness and fortitude, life on the western frontier during the Indian Wars provided it. In spite of hell and high water they served their families and their country.
An Army Surgeon stationed at Fort McDermitt, Nevada in 1876 wrote: “The Army women merit a book of description and praise. … They were fine and rare exemplars of gentility and culture in their rough, hard-drinking frontier world, and they shared the courage, the cheer, and the adventurous spirit of their rougher neighbors.”
It was no coincidence that women in the frontier territories - Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Idaho - were the first to be awarded the right to vote. The rough frontier appreciated all they had gone through and all they had done.
“REMEMBER THE ‘MAINE’ – 1898”
On January 15, 1898 the U.S. Battleship “Maine” blew up in Havana Harbor taking more than 260 men with it. The cause of the explosion unknown but suspected.
For years the United States had been sympathetic to Cuba’s struggle for independence and had supplied the Cuban patriots with arms. Now we were directly involved.
“Remember the ‘Maine’” became a national slogan as war fever shot up. On April 21, “a state of war” was declared. The Spanish-American War was on.
The Army which was demobilized after the Civil War - stripped to its bare bones - was short of everything, men, arms, and ammunition, clothing, supplies of every kind. And nowhere was the shortage more acute than in nurses for the wounded.
The situation was further aggravated by the outbreak of a typhoid fever epidemic in the Army camps.
A frantic attempt was made to recruit 6,000 or more men to handle patient care, but this didn’t work. Who else to turn to? Why the women, of course. Under the direction of Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee, 1,200 women volunteers were recruited in two months. More than 1,500 were to serve before the war was over. They were hired as civilians and still had no military status.
These nurses were different. In the 33 years since the Civil War, nursing had become a respected profession. More than 30 accredited nursing schools had gone into operation. Their graduates were trained nurses able to lift the level of nursing care far above anything that had gone before. They were the Army nurses of the Spanish-American War. And they served for $30 a month - saved lives for a dollar a day.
“My God, Boys It’s Clara Barton!”
Although in her middle-70’s, Clara Barton, “Angel of the Battlefield” in the Civil War, sailed for Cuba with medical supplies, nurses, food and clothing.
When she arrived at the 1st Division hospital of the V Army Corps, she found 800 sick and wounded men. She recalled in her memoirs, “The sight that greeted us on going into the so-called hospital grounds was something indescribable.” Wounded men lay naked on the grass. Beside the lack of cots and clothing, these men of the Rough Riders had no food or medical supplies. Many of them hadn’t eaten in four days. One of the men recognized Miss Barton and shouted, “My God, boys, it’s Clara Barton. Now we’ll get something to eat!” And they did.
Clara Barton’s Red Cross nurses were the first women to be sent overseas in war time. They served in the steamy forests of Cuba and the Philippines as well as in stateside hospitals. In his report of 1899, the Surgeon General declared:
“American women may well feel proud of the record made by these nurses in 1898-99, for every medical officer with whom they served has testified to their intelligence and skill, their earnestness, devotion, and self-sacrifice.”
The report also included this note of deep appreciation from Lieutenant Colonel Pope, Chief Surgeon of the V Army Corps:
“For such help at a moment of supreme need, coming from people in no way connected with the military service, the deep sense of gratitude, not only of the medical department, but of the whole of the Fifth Corps, cannot be conveyed by words.”
The Army was coming to realize it needed trained nurses within the service itself. As a result, the Army Nurse Corps was founded in 1901 and the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908. It was the outstanding performance of the civilian nurses in the Spanish-American War that finally opened the doors of the Armed Services to women. But their path was far from easy.
Dita H. Kinney, graduate of the Massachusetts General Hospital School of Nursing, became the first superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps. Its members were “In the Army now”, as the song goes, but they did not enjoy the rank, pay or benefits available to men. Until the Red Cross stepped in “Kinney’s nurses” even had to buy their own uniforms. However, their best stayed on and gave the nation an organized nursing service ready for duty when World War I struck.
WORLD WAR I
Farsighted Josephus Daniels into the Breach
Realizing that the United States was bound to become involved in the war in Europe and that when it did the Navy, of which he was Secretary, would not be able to meet its requirements for clerical help as men were drained off for service with the fleet, Mr. Daniels ca1led in his legal eagles and asked:
“Is there any law that says a yeoman must be a man?” No, only a citizen, was the answer. “Then enroll women in the Naval Reserve as yeomen, and we will have the best clerical assistance the country can provide.” So it was.
In March 1917, a month before we entered the war, the Navy Department authorized the enlistment of women in the rating of yeomen, electricians (radio) or such other ratings as might be essential.
But How to Assign Navy Women to Ships?
At that time all yeomen were supposed to be assigned to ships. But Navy regulations forbade women at sea. Mr. Daniels and his staff solved that, too. They assigned their women to a group of barnacle-encrusted tugs which were resting in peace on the bottom of the Potomac River.
All told 12,500 women volunteered in the Navy. Known as “Yeomanettes” they not only performed the clerical duties of yeomen, they soon moved into such other fields as draftsmen, translators, camouflage designers, recruiters. Some saw duty with hospital units in France and with intelligence units in Puerto Rico and overseas. They received the same ranking, pay and benefits as their male counterparts. They were the first women aside from the nurses who became actual members of the Armed Forces.
By August 1918 the Marine Corps found its stateside bases so drained to man combat units it started recruiting women who were called “Marinettes.”
Despite the urging of the chiefs of Army branches and of field commanders, the War Department stuck to its outworn tradition that war is the business of men only. No women except nurses served as members of the United States Army in World War I.
Letterman Hospital’s Dora Thompson Leads the Nurses
In 1902, a year after the Army Nurse Corps was founded, a young nurse, Dora Elizabeth Thompson, with a sparkle in her eye and a strictly “for duty” mouth that seemed to want to break out laughing and often did, reported to Letterman Hospital, Presidio of San Francisco.
By 1905 Miss Thompson was head nurse. Then on April 18, 1906, she went through her baptism of fire, literally. At 5: 16 in the morning the great earthquake in five minutes shook the city into a bloody shambles and started the fire that raged for four days.
As Letterman Hospital’s chimneys collapsed around them, Dora Thompson and her staff went on instant alert. Soon ambulances, coughing automobiles, buggies, wagons, even wheelbarrows began bringing in the sick, the shocked, the wounded - over 1,000 the first day. Almost every conceivable medical emergency, including the birth of triplets, had to be met and was. After the earthquake and fire ordeal, there were few new crises even a world war could show Miss Thompson. She won the “highest commendations” from the medical officers with whom she worked. She was on her way.
In 1914 she was called to Washington and became the first Army nurse to head the Nurse Corps. In April 1917 Dora Thompson led her 403 nurses into World War I.
A month after war was declared 400 were dispatched to staff six base hospitals sailing for France to serve with the British Expeditionary Force.
From 403 to 21,000 Strong
In a year and a half the Corps was built up to a magnificent body of 21,480 highly skilled nurses. Foreseeing the need for nurse anesthetists, Superintendent Thompson sent selected groups to the Mayo Clinic for special training. Under her jurisdiction graduate dieticians were employed in Army hospitals for the first time. To assure a more adequate supply of nurses she saw to the establishment of the Army School of Nursing with branches in 32 military hospitals.
About 10,000 Army nurses served in Europe in field, mobile, evacuation, base and convalescent hospitals. They also were assigned to troop trains and transport ships.
The Navy Nurse Corps expanded from 460 to 1,400. By the end of the war, more than 34,000 nurses had served in the Armed Forces.
They were not only a dedicated, but a brave and decorated Corps as well. Three members wore the Distinguished Service Cross, a combat medal second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. Twenty-four nurses wore the Distinguished Service Medal, 28 the Croix de Guerre, 69 the British Royal Red Cross, 2 the British Military Medal. Miss Thompson herself wore the Distinguished Service Medal.
She, more than anybody, had built a Corps about which Colonel M.A. Delaney, American Liaison in the British War Office, wrote: “Perhaps the only organization of the American Army that went to France which at once went into action without special training for the new kind of warfare was the Army Nurse Corps. Our American nurses, in strange surroundings and in a strange land, marched in and took their places. It will always be a pleasure to praise these pioneers and devoted - representatives of young American womanhood who were never found wanting.”
On her retirement Dora Thompson held the rank of Captain. Today her successor as Chief of the Army Nurse Corps is a Brigadier General and deservedly so.
“J’Ecoute” – “Number Please”
When General Pershing arrived in France in 1917 he found the French telephone system pretty well devastated after 3 years of war. But it had to be his first line of communication with his American Expeditionary Force (AEF) - an Army that knew little or no French. There was no time to teach French operators English even if he could round up enough of them. So in October he called the War Department for 100 uniformed telephone operators who could speak French. What he got was a group of contract civilians.
Girls that were Something Special
In their late teens and early 20’s these girls left university classes, jobs, travels, whatever they were doing. They went through crash courses in switchboard operation, traded silk lingerie for long flannel nightgowns and heavy woolen stockings, bought their own uniforms and sailed for France across a submarine- infested ocean to help “Black Jack” Pershing fight the war.
Answering “J’Ecoute”, “I am listening”, the French equivalent of “Number Please”, these women serving with the Signal Corps built a telephone system second to none in speed and reliability. “Nous avons complete l’appel” (We got the message through!) said Louise Le Breton, who at 19 was the first Bay Area volunteer for the unit. In all about 300 young women served in the telephone unit.
When the St. Mihiel drive opened, September 1918, a squad of operators went way up front to transmit command messages men’s lives depended on. Their telephone shack was hit and started to burn but the operators kept plugging the calls through to the very last minute as their shack burned around them. The whole women’s telephone unit envied the girls who came closest to being casualties.
“These girls are real soldiers”, said General Pershing. And he tried to get them enlisted in the Army but the War Department turned him down. The telephone operators, believed they were part of the Army. So did the Women’s Overseas Service League and kept up their fight for recognition.
On November 11, 1979, the 61st anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War 1, a group of surviving members of the women’s telephone detachment in the Bay Area came to the San Francisco Presidio Army Museum to have their World War I Victory Medals pinned on. They also opened the first museum exhibition anywhere to recreate their “Great Adventure” for everyone to see.
“We Always Knew We Were in the Army”
A few months earlier the Department of Defense had determined that the telephone volunteers had indeed performed military service and were entitled to the full benefits afforded to any veteran for honorable service. “We always knew we were in the Army”, laughed Mrs. Louise Le Breton Maxwell. “It just took them 60 years to admit it.”
The Army’s experience with women telephone operators serving under military authority with troops in a war zone helped pave the way for the formation of the Women’s Army Corps in World War II.
In addition to General Pershing’s telephone detachment, quite a number of women served as contract civilians overseas in Ordnance, with the Quartermasters, in the Signal Corps and other agencies of the Army.
The Home Front Pours It On!
The home front really joined the Armed Forces in World War I.
By 1917, about 2,000,000 women were employed in industry. The war opened the flood gates to a new wave of women into the shipyards, aircraft plants, factories, and offices of every kind. Virtually every women’s organization in the country from social clubs to professional societies, to church groups and on to the end of the list, found a way to participate in the war effort. The National League for Women’s Service was formed as an umbrella organization to coordinate the work. of all the women’s groups. It had branches in every state in the union and worked around the clock.
About 5,000 women were recruited for service overseas. Salvation Army Lassies dispensing doughnuts and hot coffee to the troops. Red Cross workers. Groups caring for war orphans. Others bringing relief to ravaged communities if not whole countries. You name them, they were there - and working.
Among other things many women learned to drive automobiles in World War I. About 7,000 joined the Red Cross Motor Corps. To be eligible, women had to have chauffeur’s licenses, pass a physical, and demonstrate some knowledge of first aid and automobile mechanics. They drove trucks, ambulances and their own cars here and overseas.
The Corps was of inestimable value during the terrible influenza epidemic of 1918-19 which killed more of our people than all the guns of the great war. Corps members drove night and day getting supplies and patients to hospitals, running a million vital errands. The lives they saved can never be counted.
“We have Made Partners of the Women in this War”
In September 1918 President Woodrow Wilson went before the Senate and made a dramatic plea:
“Are we alone to ask and take the utmost that our women can give, -- service and sacrifice of every kind -- and still say we do not see what title that gives them to stand by our sides in the guidance of the affairs of their nation and ours? We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”
The President’s wholehearted support, aroused in large part by women’s many contributions to the war effort, provided the final push needed to pass the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. Congress acted on it in June 1919. The states ratified it in August 1920.
We All Go Home Again
The signatures of the Armistice agreement, signed November 11, 1918, were hardly dry when demobilization started.
Of the military women only the Nurse Corps survived and it was cut back to peacetime strength. In recognition of their wartime service the nurses were granted the status of officers with “relative rank” from Lieutenant through Major. They could wear their rank badges but they didn’t get full rights and privileges such as base pay equal to their male counterparts.
When the Navy cut its yeomen back to peacetime strength Yeomanettes and Marinettes went home. There was little complaint. Military women like military men were tired of war and wanted to pick up their peacetime lives.
The 1920’s ushered in a period of reaction against war as the nation slipped back into isolation. During the great depression of the ‘30s, many could think of little else but their next meal. Only a great national emergency could wake us. World War II provided that!
WORLD WAR II - THE STUPENDOUS STRUGGLE
Over 100,000,000 men and women were to be engaged in the fighting forces of the warring nations. The wealth and resources of the world would be concentrated on destruction. The belligerents would suffer 20 million casualties and 10 million more would die. World War II would be the most stupendous military struggle in recorded history.
General Marshall, Admiral King and all the high command saw it reaching out to engulf America. They also foresaw heavy drains on their manpower, especially certain skills which would cause choking bottlenecks in our war effort.
Early in 1941 the Army General Staff backed a bill introduced by Congresswoman Edith North Rogers which provided for a small auxiliary corps “for the purpose of making available to the national defense the knowledge, skill and special training of the women of the nation”. The bill had a rough time in the House of Representatives. The very idea of women, yes women, in our Army fighting a war was unthinkable to many Congressmen or so the bellowing from the rostrum proclaimed. The bill was finally passed by a narrow margin May 1, 1942 and the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) was born.
WAAC Scores the Breakthrough
At last women were in the Army, almost. The WAACs were run by the Army but as auxiliaries they were still not part of the Army. This started them out as low men on the totem pole in many ways. And made life for their Director hell on wheels.
Their Director was Mrs. Oveta Culp Hobby, Newspaper publisher, lawyer, civic leader, and wife of a former governor of Texas, whom General Marshall had persuaded to help get the WAAC legislation through Congress.
She was quality all the way and had staying power. Fortunately she was possessed of an unflappable air of serenity and always gave the impression that everything was in hand and coming out right. How she needed that!
The WAAC was the first of the Women’s Service Corps and the largest. It made all the beginner’s mistakes many of which the Navy’s WAVES, the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, MCWR, the Coast Guard’s SPARS, profited by.
When Director Hobby met her first WAAC recruits on a steaming summer day in 1942 at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, she found their morale extremely high. Few if any of them knew anything about the Army, but they had come to serve their country and they knew they were needed.
Look what had gone on in the first six months since Pearl Harbor. Much of Europe had fallen to Hitler. Rommel’s Africa Korps was slashing its way through North Africa like a hot knife through butter. German Panzers and a million men were moving eastward toward Russia’s oil fields in the Caucasus. The British, having escaped Dunkirk, were mostly pinned down defending their home islands. General Douglas MacArthur had been forced out of the Philippines and had gone to Australia to start the long march back. Corregidor had surrendered; Guam had fallen. And our Pacific frontier had been pushed back to Hawaii.
Many commanding officers who were steeped in the tradition that the Army was strictly a man’s preserve had taken the attitude the “over my dead body will I take military women!” But they were having to change their minds, however grudgingly. Our noses were being thoroughly bloodied. We had to get more men up front in the combat units. Yet the avalanche of non-combat work that was increasing every hour also had to be done or the Army couldn’t fight.
So the WAAC recruits who presented themselves to Director Hobby at their first training center, recently a cavalry post with stables and all, had to be allowed on the premises. They were 400 white and 40 black women selected from 30,000 applicants.
They were all volunteers; 99% had been successfully employed in civilian life; 90% had college training - most had degrees, some several degrees; the majority were between 25 and 40 years of age; one out of five was married.
Like most of the thousands who were to follow they had given up good jobs as sales managers, lawyers, college faculty, office managers, reporters, editors, teachers, social workers, executive secretaries.
As might have been expected pioneering the first women’s corps in the Army wasn’t easy. The men whom they were to replace in most cases didn’t believe they could do the job in an Army whose habits, hang-ups, rules and traditions they didn’t know. But they did do their job in spite of everything and there was plenty of that.
Almost Fatal Demand
The first WAAC officers and enlisted women had hardly gotten into training when demands for MORE came crashing down on them. War Department plans called for 12,000 recruits the first year with a corps strength of 25,000 within two years. But recruiting offices were deluged with applicants from the minute they opened their doors. And requisitions for 80,000 WAACS started coming from field commanders and other agencies. So force level was raised to 25,000 the first year. That goal lasted just three months and had to be upped again.
Then the General Staff went overboard with a recruitment goal of 1,500,000. This was totally unrealistic and the recruiting drive to obtain it did not succeed. However, the pressure on Director Hobby, her staff and all concerned in trying to gear up for such an avalanche of recruits almost wrecked the corps.
The Navy Played It Smarter
The Navy stood on the sidelines and watched the Army’s confusion. Its task was easier. It had fewer bases and would need fewer Navy women. As the WAAC struggled to get organized the Navy asked Virginia Gildersleave, Dean of Barnard College, to organize and chair a prestigious Advisory Council of Women college presidents, deans and civic leaders across the country. They had clout and their recommendations were listened to. Among other things they opened up the campuses of some of the nation’s finest women’s colleges, thus giving the Navy’s WAVES a touch of class right off the bat.
The Midship School for indoctrination of officers was set up at Smith College, Northhampton, Massachusetts and later supplemented by Mount Holyoke College nearby. Boot camp for training enlisted women was set up at Hunter College, New York.
On recommendation of the Advisory Council Mildred McAfee, President of Wellesley College was selected to head the WAVES, and was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander in the Naval Reserve, the highest rank authorized by law. She was no “Director” of an Auxiliary Corps. She was an officer in the United States Navy.
A woman with impressive credentials in education, “Captain Mack”, as she was affectionately known, had a special knack of getting along with people. And she would need it.
The Navy Personnel Chief set up a recruiting goal of 75,000 enlisted women, 12,000 officers, and stuck to it. Incidentally “Captain Mack” wanted her command known simply as “Women in the Navy” but when a Washington newspaper came out with the headline “GOBLETTS Come To Town”, she reluctantly agreed to call her women WAVES.
Next was the matter of uniforms for the military women.
General Somervell versus Mainbocher
No supporter of the WAAC program to begin with, LTG Brehan Somervell, Commander of the Services of Supply (SOS), turned over the matter of clothing and outfitting the Army’s women to his Quartermaster General feeling there would be “no unusual difficulty” in the assignment. This proved to be one of the great miscalculations of the war.
The services of Supply and the Quartermaster’s Corps with very little experience in women’s clothing decided upon designs, materials, colors and items to be issued. WAAC Director Hobby could act as an advisor only and much of the time she was not asked for her advice. In spite of the Quartermaster’s lack of knowledge, the basic design of the WAAC uniform was not all that bad. But the finished product, turned out by men’s uniform manufacturers was something else! It bulged in the shoulders where it should have slimmed, was flat in the chest where it should have bulged, too tight in the hips where it should have broadened. Sizes weren’t right, colors didn’t match, materials weren’t up to snuff. And bad as it was, the Army couldn’t supply it to nearly all the women recruits as they reported. f or duty!
Navy Unveils a New Look
The Navy engaged the well known fashion designer Mainbocher in New York to create its WAVE uniforms and contracted with the fashion industry to make them. The design was excellent, so good in fact that with only minor modifications it has endured to this day.
So the WAVES went on duty looking trim and tailored while the WAACS looked a little “Sad Sack” by comparison. (This has changed, praise be, and before the war was over our Army and Air Force women were trim and sharp with style of their own.)
Despite its designer coup the Navy still had a uniform problem.
“Battle of the Black Stockings”
On a visit to Canada the Chief of Naval Operations was so impressed with the Women’s Royal Service in black stockings he insisted that our Navy women wear them too. The WAVES were up-in-arms but nothing could budge him, not even his wife and daughter. Then a guest at a dinner party one evening told the CNO that a dye used in the making of gun powder was in short supply because so much of it went into the manufacture of women’s black hosiery. Could he in good conscience see the Navy’s gun powder walking around on the legs of the Navy’s women? Hell no! So the WAVES got the tan rayon stockings they wanted.
Overseas - “First American Women’s Expeditionary Force” in History
Three days before Christmas 1942, five WAAC officers arrived in North Africa aboard a British destroyer. Their troop ship bound from England and one day out of port had been torpedoed and sunk with the loss of all equipment and many lives. The WAACS, dirty and bedraggled, had lost everything. Two had been plucked from the burning ship, the other three had been picked up from a life boat along with several men. They had come on the urgent request of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, then directing the North African invasion as Theatre Commander. Though pioneer WAACS they were not the first Army women in the theatre: Army nurses had landed on the day of the invasion with a surgical hospital.
The first detachment of enlisted WAACS arrived in Algiers June 1943. They were critically needed stenographers, typists, telephone operators, drivers, cooks, bakers. Almost all were linguists and over half were eligible for Officers Candidate School. They were received with open arms. The only complaint: There weren’t enough of them.
General Eisenhower with them all the way
Much of the success of the first WAAC deployment can be attributed to General Eisenhower. In his book “Crusade in Europe” he said: “From the day they first reached us their reputation as an efficient, effective corps continued to grow. Toward the end of the war the most stubborn diehards had become convinced and demanded them in increasing numbers”.
Many of the women who arrived in North Africa in early 1943 served on the southern front through the war. Some were assigned to the 12th Air Force. Others to the Signal Corps, and to General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army.
They moved with the advancing forces into Sicily and Italy to within 12 miles of the front lines. They lived in whatever billets were available from tents to abandoned schoolhouses. Their average stay in one place was two weeks. They had no more facilities and comforts than the men with whom they worked. Their uniforms were inadequate for field wear and for the climate. So they wore men’s fatigues which didn’t fit. Through it all their morale was high. They knew they were contributing directly to winning a war.
Battalions to the ETO
By far the largest overseas deployment of Army women was to the European Theatre of Operations (ETO). On the insistence of General Ira C. Eaker the Theatre Air Commander, an entire battalion of WACS shipped out to England under priority orders. They arrived in July 1943 under command of Captain Mary A. Hallaren, a tiny woman standing 5 feet on tiptoe, who was to become Director of the WAC and a giant among women in the military.
The ETO WACS were an immediate success; 99% were highly skilled and more than half had the mental test scores required of officers. Eight out of ten were stenographers, typists or telephone operators. “One of the factors in their success”, General Eaker commented later, “was their courageousness. I saw this demonstrated when German planes came over ... they kept more calm than the men in emergencies.” Incidentally 16 of them were awarded Purple Hearts for injuries incurred in the air raids.
On To France in the Invasion of Normandy
Less than a year after they arrived in England WACS moved to France aboard LST’s (Landing Ship Tanks) as part of the invading Armies. They followed right behind the fighting forces, slept in the field, ate field rations, washed in their helmets in cold water and worked night and day.
By this time the ETO’s demands for skilled WACS were insatiable. It would have taken the entire WAC recruiting intake to fill all their requests. But there was more than war in Europe, lots more.
Second Largest Deployment to the Southwest Pacific
Starting in 1944 about 5,500 WACS served in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) under conditions far rougher than in Europe.
In New Guinea enlisted women were housed within barbed wire compounds. They could go nowhere without an armed guard. They were allowed no leaves or passes. There was no break in the work schedule - 10 to 14 hours a day. And this rugged policy followed them all the way to Manila. The official explanation was that they were serving with troops many of whom had not seen a white woman for 18 months or longer.
Despite their stockade treatment, plus the blowing mud of New Guinea, the hub deep mire of Leyte, the 100 degree humid heat for which their clothing was unsuited, the women hung in there. As always the morale was highest in the farthest forward areas. General MacArthur recalled later:
"I moved my WACS forward early after occupation of recaptured territory because they were needed and they were soldiers in the same manner that my men were soldiers. Furthermore, if I had not moved my WACS when I did, I would have had mutiny ... as they were so eager to carry on where needed."
MacArthur called them "my best soldiers" and LTG George C. Kenney, Commander of his Allied Air Force, not only praised the women but stated they each had "better than replaced a soldier". When the war was over, SWPA Commanders rated the deployment of WACS to their theatre an unqualified success.
Fighting a Slander War
While military women were advancing with the Armies overseas back in the states they were facing a most vicious slander campaign not only obscene but totally false which began in 1943.
This was not a new phobia. The Army nurses had faced some of it in World War I and attacks on the morals of the women in the British and Canadian Armed Forces was nasty in both wars.
The WACS took the brunt of the smut offensive but women in the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard came in for a smirching, too. The press got into the act and circulated unfounded barracks room gossip and rumors to all points of the compass. Dirty jokes, snide remarks, cartoons, G.I. crank letters made the rounds. Unprintable material was printed and circulated on every Army post.
The whole thing got so out-of-hand the President, the First Lady and the Secretaries of the Armed Services themselves tried to squelch it. The FBI was called in at one point. Some thought the slander was the work of Nazi agents. It wasn't.
The smut barrage arose out of the rough, tough, often obscene barracks room humor of the troops. Sex and women have always been prime ingredients of this raunchy so-called humor and military women were fair game.
Army, Navy and Marine Commanders saw nothing funny in it. Discipline was tightened; the dirty jokes grew stale, and the women's contribution to the war effort was so apparent, the slander gradually subsided.
A Shot in the Arm When It Was Needed
In the late summer of 1943 the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) was integrated into Regular Army command channels and became the WAC, Women's Army Corps. This conversion coming in the middle of the smut war was a shot in the arm. It gave the women the official message that they were wanted and needed in the Army. Relative WAAC ranks were converted to Army ranks. Director Hobby was commissioned a Colonel.
A few months later this correspondent met Colonel Hobby. She was an officer and a lady, sure of her WACS, and quietly in command, although she must have been seething inwardly at the slander her troops were enduring. After talking with her there was one thing you knew for sure. She would never command a sleazy outfit. And she never did.
The Sting of the WASPS
The most controversial and certainly one of the most competent women’s units in the war was the Women’s Army Service Pilots (WASPS).
When asked in 1941 if there would be women pilots in the Air Corps, General Henry H. (Hap) Arnold went through the ceiling. When he descended from the rafters and was calm enough to speak, he said there were no plans to use women pilots “at this time”. Those were the “Wild Blue Yonder” days. The Air Corps was the elite of the Army and the fighter and bomber pilots the elite of the Corps. They were men, gung-ho men!
But two years iater the need for service pilots became acute. General Arnold changed his mind, and admitted “Frankly, I didn’t know in 1941 if a slip of a young girl could fight the controls of a B-17 in heavy weather”. “Young girls” could, and 1,000 of them showed him they could fly about anything with wings.
In 1943 Jacqueline Cochran, one of the finest fliers, male or female America has produced, became Director of Women Pilots. She organized the Women’s Army Service Pilots (WASPS).
These women were carefully selected seasoned pilots. Some of them, like Cochran herself, had ferried bombers to England before Pearl Harbor. They were hired as civilians whose primary duty was to free male pilots for combat. They were not really a part of the Army. The WASPS bought their own uniforms, paid most of their own ground transportation and reported for duty trim and trig in Santiago blue and wearing silver wings.
They ferried military aircraft, towed air gunnery targets, taught AAF cadets how to fly. But they were a thorn in the side of the men fliers; they had pricked the bubble of male superiority. As one AF officer said later: “They were too damned good for their own good”.
They were disbanded late in 1944 some months before the war ended. In their tour of duty they had flown virtually every plane the Army had including fighters and bombers. And 28 of them had lost their lives doing it. Their record was fully as good as that of Air Force men on similar duty. They were not allowed to fly combat missions.
In spite of the rough treatment the WASPS got in World War II, Jacqueline Cochran thinking of some future emergency later wrote General Arnold:
“If a shooting war should eventuate ... I would willingly ... crawl across the country on my hands and knees to be of aid to my country.”
Air WACS All Over the World
Under the leadership of General “Hap” Arnold and his staff, L TG Ira Eaker, Air Commander in Chief in Europe and LTG George C. Kenney, Air Commander in the Pacific, no stone was left unturned to impress the nation with the need for Air WACS. All AAF schools except combat flying schools were open to women and they were welcomed in every job classification for which they could qualify. As a result about 40,000, nearly half of the Army’s women served as Air WACS. In addition to holding down clerical jobs they were control tower operators, link trainer instructors, gunnery instructors, engine mechanics, celestial navigation instructors, parachute riggers. You name it. The Air WACS did it.
They served all over the world in every occupation except actual combat. Some even served in the Manhattan Project at White Sands, New Mexico where the nuclear age was born.
In the Navy one in four WAVES, over 23,000, served in Naval Aviation. A third of the women Marines also served in aviation.
The Nurses - Heroines Again
A total of 57,000 nurses, including 600 black nurses, served in World War II. They were up front where the shells were bursting helping save lives as never before.
By the time the first WAACS landed in Africa Army and Navy nurses had seen action in Bataan and Corregidor. Six Navy nurse prisoners-of-war in Japan were repatriated in a prison exchange early in the war. But 11 Navy and 66 Army nurses were held in Santo Tomas Prison in the Philippines. They cared for the sick in the steaming stockade for three years.
After landing in North Africa the first day of the invasion Army nurses followed in close support of the fighting men.
They waded ashore in Anzio five days after the first American assault wave hit the beach.
In Normandy, four days after we cleared Omaha Beach, taking all the fire the Nazis had, they were there with field and evacuation hospitals.
They nursed the wounds and jungle fever of MacArthur’s forces all the way from Australia back to Japan.
They took merciless bombing and strafing on land, torpedoing at sea, anti-aircraft fire in the air.
Army nurses participated in developing the entirely new concept of recovery wards for immediate post operative care that saved countless lives. As flight nurses they flew with the wounded from every corner of the world providing expert care on evacuation flights, another new idea that cut casualties dramatically.
Navy nurses served at sea aboard 12 hospital ships, in air evacuation, in Naval operations in Alaska, Australia, the islands of the Pacific, Africa, England, Italy and other locations.
Of all the United States women’s components, the nurses took the heaviest casualties. More than 200 lost their lives in line of duty. Of those who died, six were at Anzio Beachhead when the Nazis bombed their hospital. The survivors ran through bomb bursts and flying shrapnel to rescue their patients. Four of them were awarded the Silver Star, the first women ever to wear this decoration. In all, 1,600 nurses won decorations including Distinguished Service Medals, Silver Stars, Distinguished Flying Crosses, Soldier’s Medals, Bronze Stars, Air Medals, Legion of Merit Medals, Commendation Medals, Purple Hearts.
What the front line soldiers thought of the nurses was expressed in a letter signed by hundreds of G.I.’s and published in the European editions of Stars and Stripes, October 21, 1944:
“To all Army nurses: We men were not given the choice of working in the battlefield or the home front. We cannot take any credit for being here. We are here because we have to be. You are here because you felt you were needed. So, when an injured man opens his eyes to see one of you ... concerned with his welfare, he can’t but be overcome by the very thought that you are doing it because you want to . . . you endure whatever hardships you must to be where you can do us the most good.”
“Rosie the Riveter” Leads Home Front to War
Norman Rockwell’s painting of “Rosie”, hard hat tipped back, smile on her face and determination in her eyes, said it all – America’s women were going to war – in every vital industry. In addition to all the clerical jobs that were crying for them, they were building ships, building fighter planes and bombers from engines to tail fins, operating cranes on construction jobs, driving big rigs delivering the goods. They were working like troopers. They were troopers!
And they were proud. Proud of what they could do. Proud of the plants they worked in. Proud of the country they were serving.
World War II changed the position of women in the American labor force more than anything else in this century. In 1940 women accounted for 25% of the civilian labor force. In 1945 they made up 36% of the force. So important were women in war industry and agriculture that the War Manpower Commission, supreme arbiter in the allocation of human resources, was imposing restrictions on where the armed services could recruit and whom they could enlist. And this at the time we were preparing our assaults on Normandy and New Guinea!
September 2, 1945 - WAR’S END
That day General MacArthur handed the surrender document to the Premier of Japan. It was signed and the war was over after four long bloody years.
At the end, of the 12,000,000 Americans in the Armed Forces nearly 280,000 were women. In all, 350,000 women had actually served in the military. They were all volunteers. And with the exception of the nurses had served in programs that had started from scratch less than four years earlier. Commanders of the services not only praised their work but commented openly and often on the positive effect of their presence. As one put it: “They seemed to brighten up the whole place”.
Despite their problems and frustrations most of the women were satisfied that they had made a meaningful contribution to victory, and would look back on their experience in uniform as a high point in their lives.
Both military men and women were ready, willing and anxious to go home. Most of them did. Active forces in the Armed Services shrank from 12,000,000 to 1,400,000 in just two years.
Most military strategists, to say nothing of the public, took the view that since the United States had a monopoly on the atomic bomb and the means to deliver it, conventional wars were obsolete and no large conventional forces were necessary.
The Communist-inspired civil war in Greece and the Red take-over of Czechoslovakia punctured their euphoria. Then in April 1948 Red troops cut off access to Berlin. To prevent a take-over of the city, the United States and Great Britain embarked on the greatest airlift in history and within a year broke the blockade. These events led American military leaders and Congress to re-think manpower requirements in case of trouble.
Integration at Last, But . . . . .
In June 1948 Public Law 625, integrating women in the Armed Forces was passed after a year of bitter debate. The services were allowed to take women, but special provisions in the Law made full integration almost impossible and put equal opportunity in promotions out of reach. The real purpose of the Law was to consolidate the ground gained by women in World War II and prepare for the mobilization of womanpower in the event of another one.
In August 1949 the Joint Chiefs of Staff directed the Services to use military women “to the maximum extent practicable”. But right then the Berlin Airlift ended and the matter of women was pushed to the back burner again to wait for another manpower crisis. It came in 1950 with the Korean War.
Nurses to the Front!
During 1948 and 1949 the United States had withdrawn troops from Korea after the Joint Chiefs of Staff had declared the country was without strategic value. But on June 25, 1950 the Communist Army in North Korea smashed across the 39th parallel into the Republic of South Korea which was our ally.
Two days later President Harry S. Truman ordered U.S. naval forces into South Korea. On July 1st the U.S. combat troops landed and America found itself in war again.
Exploiting their initial breakthrough the Communists dashed southward pushing the Republic of Korea troops almost to Pusan, the peninsula’s southernmost port. We got there just in time.
Four days after our first troops landed, 57 Army nurses reached Pusan to set up a hospital. The next day they were caring for battle casualties. Two days later 12 nurses moved forward with the first Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (M.A.S.H.) to Taejon on the edge of the War Zone. Within a month more than a hundred nurses were on duty in South Korea. Between 500 and 600 served in the War Zone supporting combat troops during amphibious landings on the east coast up to the Yalu River and during the disastrous retreat before the charging Chinese Armies which was finally stopped almost at the gates of Seoul.
Most of the nurses served in M.A.S.H. units, tent-housed surgical hospitals just 10 minutes from the battlefield by helicopter. Their operating tents were seldom empty and the lives they saved by quick surgical attention to the wounded cannot be counted.
In addition to our Army Nurse Corps, Britain, France and other United Nations allies also sent nurses to Korea.
Nurses were not the only military women to serve in the Korean War. By June of 1951 there were 1,500 WACS stationed in Korea, Japan and Okinawa. Their prime purpose was releasing men for combat. The women Marines also were mobilized for service.
Vietnam didn’t start with a BIG BANG like the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II. In fact it had been going on quite a while before the United States became involved. But once we did, it grew on us faster than we had expected.
In 1961 there were about 1,000 U.S. military advisors in South Vietnam. A year later there were ten times as many. In 1965 when we really moved in, two battalions of battle-ready Marines landed at DaNang in March. By June 1967 463 ,000 Americans were in Vietnam fighting a war that was fast turning into a stalemate and more were on the way.
Except for the nurses in Korea, military women had not served in a combat zone since World War II. Many military men and quite a few women contended that a war in Southeast Asia, much of it fought in the jungles using guerilla tactics and terror attacks, was no place for American women. However, our military women considered themselves soldiers and they expected to serve and wanted to serve where they were needed. As one WAF (Women in the Air Force) Master Sergeant put it when she was turned down,
“I Served in North Africa and Italy - I Sure as Hell Can Serve in Vietnam!”
If it hadn’t been for the Commander of the United States Forces, General William Westmoreland, the Vietnam war might have been an all male affair. But like every commander in World War II, he found out he was fighting two wars: The red hot shooting war for which he had to have men, and the paper support war right behind them for which he desperately needed military women. All told about 7,500 military women served in Vietnam.
TET Offensive Changes the War
At 4 o’clock in the morning, June 30, 1968, the Viet Cong launched a coordinated offensive on Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital, catching the American Command completely by surprise.
The first attack hit downtown. Fire and smoke were everywhere. Snipers seemed to be in every alley way and behind half the trees. WACS and women Marines were routed out and wasted no time getting behind sandbags near their billets. At daylight they reported for duty and it was rugged duty. The Army and Marines were really scrambling and taking heavy losses.
The second big attack came about 1 a.m. the next day, Sunday. A WAF officer reported to her director: “that loud whap! whap! sound when the first mortars hit the base jolted me awake. In only a minute or two, all of Tan Son Nhut looked ablaze. There were over a hundred rounds of mortar and rockets within a 15-minute period. The chapel took a direct hit and burned to the ground. Six aircraft were hit, base operations were damaged, two fuel trucks burned, not to mention various smaller targets”.
A Marine Master Sergeant reported to her superior: “Our young ‘uns (and me too inside) were scared, but you’d have been proud of them.”
Days of fanatic fight-to-the-death attacks and counterattacks swept over Saigon before our forces could flush the Viet Cong out of the city.
The Nurses Took the Heat
The day TET began a nurse working in the emergency room of an evacuation hospital exclaimed: “I’ve never seen so many wounded in my life!” And that was just the beginning.
The 12-hour day was standard. But the nurses would come to the end of an exhausting 12 hours only to hear the helicopters coming in with more wounded. That would start another 12-hour shift and this could keep up for 48 or even 72 hours. “You stayed until you either dropped or it stopped,” an operating room nurse said.
Then there were the air raids. Time after time the nurses had to stop everything and drag their patients under the beds or pull mattresses over them. “The Viet Cong seemed to think the cross on top of our hospital tent was a target to aim on”, one nurse recalled.
As well planned as it was, the TET offensive was not a military success for the Viet Cong. But it was one of the greatest propaganda victories in history. It made Americans view the Viet Cong not as a rag-tag gang of guerillas, but a competent army that didn’t count its casualties and was capable of taking everything we had and giving it back.
Our Life-Saving Record
As war fury mounted our Army doctors and nurses broke all life-saving records in the history of warfare. Because we were able to evacuate our casualties from battlefield to hospitals quickly by air and because of the extraordinary care and dedication of Army doctors and nurses, less than 2% of the casualties treated died of their wounds. Hospital ships cruising just off the coast a few minutes from the battlefield were major factors in the high recovery rate of Marine casualties in Vietnam also.
Covering Six Million Miles
The Army’s airlift covered roughly six million square miles, most of it over water. And how did the Air Evac nurses spend their days including Sundays? For example nurses at Clark Field, the Philippines, headed for the flight line at 4 a.m. After being briefed on the day’s pick-up in Vietnam and storing their gear and medications, they took off at seven for a 4-hour flight over the ocean, calm or storm-tossed. At the pick-up point in Nam as many as 60 casualties or more were usually waiting. Getting them aboard had to be fast and it was chancy, too, if the pick-up was in an unsecured area which it often was.
Then came the tough part, the long run back. The Air Evac nurses were prepared to and often did perform the functions of doctors as well as nurses. In the fight to save sinking patients the nurses gave blood transfusions, performed emergency tracheotomies, administered intravenous feeding.
If a case turned desperate, the nurse could declare “Medical Emergency!” - the Air Evac equivalent of “May Day!” - and in effect take command of the plane. She could direct the pilot to change altitude or cabin pressure, turn back or make an emergency landing at the nearest medical facility. Despite the dangers and responsibilities, nurses considered flight duty the most prestigious in the Air Force.
Nurses showed more strength and stamina than anyone expected. Another example from a nurse during the TET offensive: “We had several guys come in with live grenades still in their bellies. We operated with sandbags around the table. If you allowed your own fears to show through, you could lose the person in front of you on the operating table. You couldn’t do that, so you blocked it out!”
But there was one thing the nurses and all the Army women and the GI’s couldn’t block out:
A nurse tells the story. As her plane came in for a landing at Seattle, she and the other returning GI’s screamed for joy at being home. When they got off the plane they kissed the ground and headed for the airport. There their joy got a quick, hard chill. People greeted them by throwing fruit and yelling obscenities. “It made you wonder why the hell did I go?” she says. “If I had the choice right then, I would have gone back to Vietnam!”
If anything, the bitter homecoming our military men and women received was harder on the women. For all of them were volunteers. The nurse explains: “I requested Vietnam because it seemed the humanitarian thing to do. If our men were over there, the least I could do was go over there and help. I’m proud of my accomplishments. If I had to do it over again, I’d go again.” This correspondent takes off his hat to that.
The Vietnam war ended after drawn out and frustrating negotiations. Many, but not all, of the traumas and breakdowns are healing at last.
But what are military women doing now? They are pushing ahead their
In spite of all the doubts and fears about women in combat zones (they have served in combat zones in every war we’ve fought) and all the fulminations in Congress and out, the United States leads the world in its reliance on women in the national defense. In the past 12 years the number of women in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps has jumped from 40,000 or about 1% of the active forces to more than 180,000 today. They make up fully 8.5% of the total defense establishment. In addition, 78,000 are in the Reserve and Guard subject to call in an emergency. And 1,700 more are in the Coast Guard which becomes part of the Navy in war time.
The climb military women have made this last decade has been steep, it has been rugged too. It was only in 1970 that the Army promoted two women to Brigadier General - Anna Mae Hayes, heading the Nurse Corps, and Elizabeth Hoisington, Director of the WAC. The next year the Air Force promoted WAF Director Jeanne Holm to Brigadier and a few months after that E. Ann Hoefly, Chief of the Nurse Corps received her star. In July 1972 Alene B. Duerke, Chief of Navy Nurses, became the first female Rear Admiral (lower half) equivalent to Brigadier General.
In 1975 individual weapons training, once taboo for women, went into effect. In the fall of 1976 women enrolled at West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs, and the classes of 1980 became the first coeducational classes in the history of the academies.
Pilots and Missile Launchers
Although they still are not serving in combat wings, women are flying every other type of plane the Navy and Air Force have. They are flying transports and helicopters for the Army. Cruise missiles planned for early deployment are being designed for mixed (men and women) launch crews. The fact is that women properly trained can perform and are performing almost all of the functions required in the armed services except actual combat.
The March Goes On
The forward march of women in the armed services during the 1970’s has slowed recently for more studies and more debate. The latest question is: “the combat effectiveness of the (military) organization as you have large members of women in them.” Says one outspoken Colonel: “If the Army has readiness problems, women are the least of them!”
For the future one thing seems sure: to paraphrase the words of Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy in World War I: women will play a vital part in our defense establishment because it is impossible to conduct the defense of the United States without them. They will bring to the armed services high levels of skill and dedication. They also will add to the courage of the country. Two lines in a poem read by Clara Barton, “Angel of the battlefield” in the Civil War and founder of the American Red Cross, say it best:
“Did the women quail at the sight of a gun?
Will some soldier tell us of one he saw run!
Last Armistice Day, Colonel Eugene D. Hawkins, Post Commander, Presidio of San Francisco, read this message from Lieutenant General David E. Grange, Jr., Commanding the Sixth United States Army who had to be away from the city:
“The men and women of Sixth United States Army join me in saluting the Presidio Museum for their outstanding exhibit honoring the American Woman at War. This display makes an important statement about the many contributions made to the Armed Forces of the United States by women throughout our history from the American Revolution to the present ...”
Colonel Hawkins went on to say: “Today, 11 November . . . I believe is a most significant Veteran’s Day - as two events are occurring within our country. One - which has received national recognition, is the opening of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D. C. which recognizes the devotion and sacrifice of thousands who were involved in a very unpopular war - but who performed admirably.
“The second event less publicized - but just as important, is the opening here at the Presidio of San Francisco, of our exhibit telling the story of the American Woman at War. If the Veterans’ Memorial is overdue, then this exhibit is more than overdue. For it recognizes the great contribution that women of America have made to its development and defense.
“To all the women here and throughout our country and to your fallen comrades who have given selflessly so much, I salute you.”
Rising to answer the salute was Brigadier General (Ret.) Mildred C. Bailey, one of the last Directors of the WAC before it gave up its separate identity, and its members became completely integrated Army personnel. She spoke with great pride of the Army women pushing forward in spite of every obstacle toward full equality in the service which their performance surely entitled them to. She spoke frankly of some of the roadblocks which had to be overcome and were. She looked with faith and confidence in the future of the revolution military women have wrought in the armed services, a revolution which is still unfinished.
You knew that her military service was not only General Bailey’s career, it was the great adventure of her life. You got the same feeling as you walked among the women veterans who crowded the Presidio Army Museum exhibit.
The SALVO wishes to express its most grateful thanks:
First to Ms. Carol Lynne Tondorf for the use of her thesis “War and the Status of Women” submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts at John F. Kennedy University, Aug. 1981. Ms. Tondorf’s well researched document served as an invaluable reference in the construction of the Presidio Army Museum’s exhibit on which she worked for two years with Curator Eric Saul.
Second, our most sincere appreciation to Major General Jeanne Holm, USAF (Rec.) for the help and guidance provided by her comprehensive and lively book, “Women in the Military, An Unfinished Revolution” published by Presidio Press, Novato, California, 1983. This book tells a wonderful story of the contributions America’s women have made in our wars which the public has always considered the exclusive preserves of men.
Enlisting as a truck driver, Jeanne Holm retired after 33 years of service as a Major General, the highest ranking woman ever to serve in the armed forces. For three years she was Director of W AF (Women in the Air Force). She served as Special Assistant for Women to the Preside11t and currently is an advisor on personnel to the Department of Defense.
Further acknowledgment is due to the writing of the late historian of the Civil War Bruce Catton. Also to the work of Frank Moore, “Women of the War”.