by Rodney R. Baker, PhD
VA Psychology Historian
The reference to WWII mothers and sisters in the military in this commentary is quite accurate. Many do not realize that women did in fact directly serve military positions during WWII and have been doing so since the Revolutionary War. I began my VA psychology historian role in the 1980s while still a chief of psychology at the VA Medical Center in San Antonio. In that historian role, I first became interested in collecting stories about women in the military while working on a research project I published with two Vietnam nurses about the military nurse experience in Vietnam. My collection of stories continued when I retired in 2004 and have grown in number. The stories have impressed me with the diversity and impact of women in the military in our nation’s wars as well as their courage and sacrifice. In my historian role I am convinced that history is all about what happened and what happened is a story. I have many stories about women in the military from our nation’s early beginning, and I am pleased to share some of them with you from WWII in this narrative.
Those of you who are reading this and have seen my letter to the editor know that I referred to the WWII Fathers’ articles in the November 2023 Psychology Times as inspiring. The photos in those stories added to their impact, and I would like to start my sharing of stories of WWII women in the military with two photos of exhibits from the Nimitz National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas. The first photo notes that nurses were among the first women to arrive at the Normandy beachhead after D-Day and assisted in the operating theater. The second photo shows a woman who served in the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) who ferried aircraft from the factories to air bases, served as test pilots and flight instructors, shuttled officers around, and towed targets for artillery practice.
It is estimated that 350,000 American women joined the military during World War II. They served roles as nurses, drove trucks, repaired airplanes, and performed clerical work. Some were killed in combat or captured as prisoners of war. Over 1600 female nurses received various decorations for courage under fire. As many as 543 women died in war-related incidents, including 16 nurses who were killed from enemy fire. Although U.S. political and military leaders had decided not to use women in combat because they believed that public opinion would not accept such roles, nurses were needed to provide care to soldiers in combat zones and they ignored any technical distinction between serving in combat or serving in combat zones.
The Army established the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1942, with WAACs serving overseas in North Africa. The WAAC was converted to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1943. Recognized as an official part of the regular army, more than 150,000 women served as WACs during the war with thousands sent to the European and Pacific theaters. In 1944, WACs landed in Normandy after D-Day with WACs also serving in
Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines in the Pacific.
The National Archives and Records Administration reports that in September 1942, the Army Air Force (AAF) created the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and recruited highly skilled and experienced female pilots who were sent on noncombat missions ferrying planes between factories and AAF installations. Eventually, over one thousand women completed flight training in the program. As the ranks of women pilots serving the AAF swelled, the value of their contribution began to be recognized, and the Air Force took steps to militarize them. As a first step the Air Force changed their unit name from WAFS to Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Thirty-eight WASPS died in accidents in their assigned duties. Women were finally recognized as a permanent part of the U.S. armed forces with the passage of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948. However, they were not granted veteran status until 1977, and finally only became eligible for the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.
Records at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans note that among the more than 27,000 American military personnel held as POWs in the Pacific were 77 US military nurses. The women, members of the Army Nurse and Navy Nurse Corps, would come to be known as the “Angels of Bataan and Corregidor.” Taken prisoner in the Philippines, the nurses were held with POWs in the Santo Tomas and Los Banos Internment Camps. In those critically undersupplied internment camps, they were able to provide vital professional care to all Allied POWs held there. Santo Tomas became a POW city of roughly 6,000 people The nurses helped to establish the Santa Catalina Hospital on the grounds of that camp and did their best to help stem epidemics in the overcrowded camp as well as organized a public health campaign in the most unsanitary conditions. They treated patients with minimal supplies in spartan conditions for accidents, disease, and malnutrition. The weight loss due to starvation in the camps averaged around 32 percent of an individual’s body weight. The American nurse POWs were not just waiting to be liberated, they were fighting to survive and to ensure the survival of others for whom they were proving care.
Miraculously, all 77 of the nurse POWs survived the almost three-year long imprisonment from May 1942 to February 1945, The Army nurses were liberated from Santo Tomas in early February of 1945. I have added a photo from the National WWII Museum in New Orleans that shows that the Navy Nurses, who had been moved to the Los Banos Internment Camp, were liberated three weeks later. After liberation, the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor received little recognition as military prisoners of war. But most of the nurses said that they did not do anything extraordinary, they were just doing their jobs.
I will finally note that the Military Women’s Memorial (described at
https://womensmemorial.org/) was established by a grateful nation to honor women who have served in or with the United States Armed Forces. It is unique in inviting military women to register and submit their stories, thus preserving those stories for future generations. The memorial is located at the gateway to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, USA. Dedicated in 1997, it is the only major U.S. national memorial that recognizes the courage and patriotism of an estimated three million women who have defended their country throughout history starting with the Revolutionary War.