Women at War
Since the creation of human’s, women have never had the opportunity to be that a contributing factor in the starting or stopping of a war. Not even until recently, was it even convincing to hear of women working in a career field in the military that had the slightest chance of going into a combat zone. When you think about an image of war, what do you see? If you are like most, you see a battlefield that is filled with men fighting each other and in the distant background are the women.
In centuries past, men and women have had different responsibilities. It was up to the men to get the food and to protect the family while women were in charge of taking care of the household. Over time this old adage held true, but at the outbreak of World War I, there was a need for more manpower so women were being allowed into the military to serve in certain career fields.
During the buildup for the start of America’s involvement in World War I, the military was trying to solve an emerging manpower crisis. In 1917, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels found a small loophole in the Naval recruiting regulations. He brought up the question of “Is there any regulation which specifies that a Navy yeoman be a man?” In no time at all, the Navy was enlisting women into such fields as clerks, radio electricians, chemists, accountants, telephone operators, and nurses. This move also got the Army to look at their own recruiting openings. When the Army began to recruit women, they decided to take a more conservative approach by allowing just nurses as well as a small number of occupational therapists and dieticians (Women were vital to military success in war).
Many other firsts came about as a result of World War I. This was the first time that both the Army and Navy nurse corps were activated. Physicals were being performed on all soldiers. So before they could be inducted, they had to be cleared as “fit for Service.” Because of this, women could no longer disguise themselves as soldiers as many had done in wars in the past. And this was also the first time that women served in the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Army Surgical Corps openly.
Laura Frost Smith, a nurse during WW I, is the oldest known American veteran still living. World War I is a war that marked the first time that women were officially allowed to serve in the military. Mrs. Smith, unlike most of her colleagues, was able to survive and tell her story of her experience through the letters that she had wrote during the war and in a family memoir that she had written while in her 90’s. Many of these stories tell a tale that is fearful to say the least.
“Do I look bad?” the soldier pleads. Half his face is gone.
Laura Frost hurriedly dresses the raw shreds that remain. There are still
men moaning on gurneys in the rain outside the operating tent.
walls. Her thin leather boots are coated with mud. Blood is smeared across
her nurse’s uniform. She tries to block out the sound of limbs dropping into
enamel pails as surgeons saw through mangled flesh and bones.
For a moment she presses her hand against her eyes. Sometimes the men
in their misery make her cry (WW I left its enduring mark).
Laura Frost Smith was just one of over 25,000 women that had served overseas during World War I. Another 15,000 worked as civilians through individual drive or with numerous volunteer agencies. Many of these were American nurses who went to serve in British, French, Serbian, Russian, and even German organizations during the war. Another 13,000 had joined the Navy with over 300 enlisting in the Marine Corps. These women did not go overseas, but they supported the cause of the war just as enthusiastically as those who did. These women worked in primarily clerical work. Some however work in other fields. Many of these women also made significant contributions through various home front efforts. Just a couple of these efforts include organizations such as; The Children of the Frontier, which collected and shipped money and clothing to France to help the children displaced by the war. The American Relief Clearing House which collected and distributed hospital supplies and operated the American Ambulance Service in France. Unfortunately, of those who did serve on combat area, 348 women were killed during the war as a result of bombardments or disease (Background on Women in World War 1).
Although the women served right along side the men during the war, many of them were victims of discrimination. Nurses serving in the military had to do so in a paramilitary status. Because they were women, the military had refused to award them rank or benefits that were justified for their positions. This was in contrast to their peers in the British military that were given both rank and benefits. Unfortunately, discrimination was prevalent during that time. While over 200,000 African American men served in World War I, only about a half-dozen women were allowed to serve in the war. This was because they were mostly barred from all volunteer organizations except for the YMCA. African American women were not allowed into the nursing corps until after the war (Background on Women in World War 1).
For nearly twenty-five years after the end of World War I, women began to increase in numbers and in stature within the military as World War II kicked off in 1941. Women were taking on more important rolls both in the military and at the home front to help in every way that they could. One of the big ways that they helped on the home front was by taking jobs in ship and airplane manufacturing plants. There was a big shortage of men within the country during this time because of the war so many women felt that they could also do their part for the war effort by keeping the assembly lines going and keep the planes flying.
Women were also given the opportunity to fly these planes as well. Originally called WAFS, these women are actually considered to be the first women to fly in and pilot military aircraft. These women were part of a ferrying squadron that was dreamed up and started by a woman by the name of Nancy Harkness Love. This soon was renamed to the Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASP. These women were responsible for the delivery of aircraft to their home bases and for ferrying them back and forth from the war (Women were vital to military success in war).
Women also served much like they did during World War I in which thousands worked with organizations in the theaters of war. Many of these organizations such as the YMCA, the YWCA, the American Red Cross, and the Salvation Army literally traveled with the soldiers over to Europe to aid in the fight. According to the Women’s Overseas Service League, an organization started in 1921 to help those women who have served, says that nearly 90,000 women would find their way overseas during this war. Of that number, about 33,000 were officially assigned with the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps (Women were vital to military success in war).
“What, Women Marines? You’ve got to be kidding. This was the first reaction of male Marines that had just been freed from a prison camp in the Philippine’s in early 1945 (World War II). This is because as WW II started, a woman in the Marine Corps was something that was unheard of. But on July 30, 1942, the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established and became part of the Marine Corps Reserve. Their mission was to provide qualified women for duty at all U.S. based establishments in order to release the men for combat duty.
Things even progressed further by February 1943 when American forces disposed of all the enemy opposition on Guadalcanal. This was a bitter fight and it soon became apparent that many more Marines were going to be needed if the war in the pacific was to continue. They soon learned that the pride of the Marine Corps was just as strong in women as it was in the men, as they all contained that “Once a Marine, always a Marine” mentality.
Women officers were soon being given a direct commission that was based on their ability and civilian expertise. These women did not receive any type of formal indoctrination or schooling and went onto active duty immediately. There were over two hundred different jobs that these women were assigned too. Many of these jobs include, radio operators, parachute riggers, drivers, aerial gunnery instructors, control tower operators, auto mechanics, and agriculturists. By the time that World War II came to a close, eighty-five percent of all the enlisted personnel that were assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps Headquarters were women. The influence that these women provided to the Marine Corps so great that a statue named Molly Marine was built and dedicated in New Orleans, Louisiana to honor all the women of the Marine Corps.
Women also served in the medical field as nurses just as they did during World War I. Nurses were a big part of finding some of the medical technologies that are used to this day because of the war. The wards within the U.S. were greatly reduced in the number of experienced nurses on hand and nursing students was actually running them. These nurses had to cut the way they were treating patients such as those who had just given birth because of the low manpower. Before the war, the nurses would do everything to take care of the patients from bathing to feeding the infant. When the war broke out, the nurses started to have the lower income mothers take care of themselves and to breast feed the infants why the nurses continued to pamper all the private patients. It didn’t take long before they noticed the difference between those staying in the wards and the private patients. Those in the wards were actually happier and the infants were healthier. This started precedence all across the country (A psychiatric nurse in the Philippines).
There are many contributions from nurses overseas during World War II that are often overlooked while reclaiming women’s history. In 1942 when the Japanese took Bataan and Corregidor, more than 100 military nurses were captured. Seventy-seven Army and Navy Nurses were held in Japanese concentration camps for a thirty-seven month period. But besides their hardships, the women of the Nursing Corps also received recognition for their actions. Over sixteen hundred Army Nurses and five hundred sixty-five WACS were recipients of these decorations. Many women also paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country. In fact, more than two hundred Army Nurses lost their lives during World War II. Seventeen of those are buried in American cemeteries on foreign land.
Through all of these women have given to their country, they weren’t given the same treatment or status in the military that was afforded by the men. When President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act in 1948, this perspective had change. Since World War I, the role that women have played in the military has grown tremendously over time.
Today women make up eleven percent of the military and are serving in almost all aspects. And it all started eighty-three years ago during World War I.
WW I left its enduring mark.
Background on Women in World War I.
Women were vital to military success in war.
http://www.wasp-wwii.org/wasp/stats.htm. WASP Entrance Requirements.
http://www.usmc.mil/history.nsf/54d36a3?59c642?OpenDocument&ExpandSection=13,11. World War II.
A psychiatric nurse in the Philippines.