WAVES: It’s a Woman’s War Too!

Today’s post, from Alyssa Moore in the National Archives History Office, is in honor of Women’s History Month and looks at the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service program, or WAVES, during World War II.

Less than one year after the United States entered World War II, the Navy was facing a dire shortage of manpower. Searching for a solution, the Navy’s Women’s Advisory Council suggested that Congress pass a law permitting women to serve in the Navy. These women could operate the naval shore stations on the home front, releasing men for active sea duty abroad.

The idea of women joining the Navy was not popular in Congress or the Navy. But, after intense debate, on July 21, 1942, Congress passed legislation creating the WAVES, the women’s branch of the U.S. Naval Reserve. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law eight days later. Its creation can be credited in large part to the unrelenting efforts of the Navy’s Women’s Advisory Council, Dr. Margaret Chung, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Women were now permitted to serve as commissioned naval officers and at the enlisted level. However, Congress made clear that their inclusion was purely a war-time emergency measure. The law stipulated that WAVES were only allowed to serve for the duration of the war plus six months, and only in the continental United States and the territory of Hawaii. They were not permitted to board naval ships or combat aircraft, and they did not possess command authority, except within the women’s branch.

Their first director, Captain Mildred McAfee, successfully campaigned for WAVES to receive the same pay and benefits as naval men. Captain McAfee was also concerned that the WAVES maintained a positive public image, and set strict beauty and decorum rules that she required all WAVES to follow.

By the end of its first year, WAVES trained 770 officers and 3,109 enlisted women. The officer curriculum consisted of two months of intensive training. This was too brief to transform civilian women into fully trained naval officers, but it equipped them with a basic understanding of the naval environment and administrative policy.

Upon completing their training, female officers entered fields previously held by men, such as medicine and engineering. Enlisted women served as clerks and parachute riggers. Regardless if they were officers or enlisted, many women experienced workplace hostility from their male counterparts.

The legislation that established the program did not mention race, and many Black women applied to join. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, however, flatly refused to allow Black women in the WAVES. After Knox’s death in April 1944, his successor James Forrestal, under pressure from activists, reformed this policy, and on October 19, 1944, President Roosevelt authorized the Navy to integrate the WAVES. While training programs were integrated, Black women still faced unfair treatment, including segregated living accommodations on some naval bases.

The first Black WAVES officers were Lieutenant Harriet Pickens and Ensign Frances Wills, who enlisted on November 13, 1944, and were commissioned on December 21, 1944. Pickens and Wills went through officer training together. Upon completing their training, Pickens apparently climbed down from the top bunk in the room they shared, and said to Wills with a grin, “We made it, friend.”

Pickens was assigned to the physical training program at Hunter College and later worked as director of the Navy Material Redistribution and Disposal Administration in New York, and Wills became a classification test administrator for the enlisted at Hunter College in New York City.

By July 1945, 8,475 officers and 73,816 enlisted WAVES were contributing to the war effort, 72 of whom were Black women. WAVES served at 900 shore stations located throughout the United States and Hawaii. After the war ended, the demobilization process began on October 1, 1945, and was completed by September 1946.

At the time, it was not clear whether or not demobilization meant women would be phased out of the military entirely. Just two years later, in 1948, Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. From then onward, women could serve as permanent, regular members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. However, the number of women who could serve was capped at 2 percent of all personnel, and women service members were prohibited from fully participating in combat. Despite these limitations, the legislation was an important step for women’s right to serve in the Armed Forces.

Read about National Archives staff member Eunice Whyte, who was one of only two women to serve in the U.S. Naval Reserves during both World War I and World War II.

To learn about the WASP program (Women Airforce Service Pilots), the Air Force version of the WAVES, read Ashley Mattingly’s A WASP’s Story.

One thought on “WAVES: It’s a Woman’s War Too!

  1. Personally, this is a moving tribute to read, good to see Black women spotlighted as well.
    My wife’s aunt served in the US military during WW II, my aunt trained women to replace men working in factories in Canada, my mother worked in a munitiions factory … both in WW II. My daughter served in a combat role in the Israeli Defense Force (Iron Dome). Strong women all. Thank you. Paul Gronnerud.

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