During World War 2 (1939-1945), American men left their home to defend their country against Hitler and the Japanese Empire. Since the majority of the male workers left, many jobs were in demand to support the troops with supplies. Until this time women were frustrated at not being able to actively contribute to the war efforts because of law and traditions. The vacant jobs allowed the women to give their energy, time, and even some gave up their lives as well as sacrificing their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers away to the war efforts. The American women were both at home and in uniforms playing important roles. Almost 350,000 American women served in various uniforms such as: Women’s Army Auxiliary Co. (WAACs) or Women’s Army Corp. the Navy Women’s Reserve (WAVES), the Marines Corps Women’s Reserve, the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS), the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPS), the Army Nurses Corps, and the Navy Nurse Corps.
Some women were stationed near the front lines and this is where 16 army nurse corps, gave their lives as a result of direct enemy fire. In the Philippines, 68 American service women were captured as POWs. Over 1,600 nurses were decorated for bravery under fire and 565 WACs won combat decorations.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a great supporter of the women’s contributions, she even called them ‘A weapon waiting to be used’. In all the media’s like movies, posters, newspapers, and even a Norman Rockwell-painted Saturday Evening Post cover, the Rosie the Riveter campaign talked about the patriotic need for women to go to work. It took a lot of effort but soon the US Army organized the Women’s auxiliary Army Corps in 1941 (WAAC) this was changed to be (WACs) in 1943.
The WASPS provided one of the lesser known roles in the war effort. All of these women had received their pilot’s license prior to the war. They took planes from factories to bases, transported cargo and participated in simulations like strafing and targeting missions. They accumulated more than 60 million miles in flight.
The Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) was created to train women pilots. The WFTD training school was located at avenger field in Sweetwater, Texas. There 1,074 women were trained to fly ‘the Army way’ even though they were never officially members of the military.
Female members of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) were sometime called upon to act as Secret Agents. As secret agents, their jobs were especially dangerous because one mistake could lead to capture, torture and even death. These secret agents were to find out all they could to help the allies. This was especially important for the planned Normandy landings in 1944. Violette Szabo and Odette Churchill were two civilian SOE members awarded the George Cross for their work.
In order to free the men for combat duty, many of the women in uniform took over jobs such as driving trucks, repairing planes, rigging parachutes, operating radios, analyzing photographs, and working as lab techs. Some women even test flew newly repaired planes across country or even acted as targets for anti-aircraft training. The aviation industry saw an increase of more than 310,000 women working in the industry which was 65% of the total work force. The munition industry campaigned with posters featuring Rosie the Riveter geared to the female workers.
In 1942, the Navy created the WAVES (Women Appointed for Volunteer Emergency Services). The WAVES performed many of the same assignments as the WACs. This included control tower operators, even though some worried that women could not handle the multiple tasks required.
The United Service Organizations (USO) included six private organizations like YMCA, YWCA, National Catholic Community service, National Jewish Welfare Board, Travelers Aid Association, and The Salvation Army. The USO was created to pool their resources. The USO provided recreation for the military while on leave, but the most well-known contribution were the Hollywood’s USO Camp Shows.
Hollywood actresses found ways to use their celebrity to support the war effort. In addition to acting in films and plays promoting Americans participation in the war and anti-Nazi films, many of them made short films/interviews about the importance of buying war bonds. A number of the Hollywood elite also risked their lives when they performed in USO shows for the troops overseas.
War production made it necessary for many US factories to be changes. New factories increased industrial output and women were a large part of the labor force. Even though, women kept the country going by filling these jobs, female workers rarely earned 50 % of the male workers’ wages.
The US needed to create and manufacture superior weapons to help win the war. Women helped nuclear research. The Manhattan Project, a secret program to create the atomic bomb, used at least 300 military and civilian women. Most of these jobs were clerical and service jobs, but some women with a lot of technical training worked in important research.
In addition to factory jobs, women helped raise money for war bonds aided in civil defense, tended victory gardens, and hosted troops. Many women worked as volunteers for the Red Cross collecting blood, rolling bandages, and made surgical dressings. Women volunteered to drive for the Red Cross to transport the sick and wounded and deliver supplies. As a result of volunteer efforts many servicemen’s lives were saved and military morale was improved.
‘Government Girls’ was the name given to women to work as federal employees as clerical staff for the various government offices. More than a million women, a lot of them young and single, moved to Washington DC for government jobs. These women knew they were not promised careers and knew they can only hold the jobs during the war. By 1944, more than a third of civil service jobs were held by women.
Many of the great-grandmothers or even great great-grandmothers we know and love had life altering experiences during World War 2, and they are the unsung heroes of this era.