Since the Revolutionary War, women have continuously found a way to be of service to their country, from raising cattle for General George Washington’s army to commanding some of today’s elite Naval ships. During the Civil War, women served mostly as nurses. As time passed and World War I arrived on the scene these duties began to change.
During World War I, a large-scale employment of women was undertaken by the Department of the Navy to fill the clerical shortages after the men were deployed. These women received the classification of ‘Yeoman’. By the end of 1917, approximately 600 Yeomen women were on duty and shortly after the Armistice (December 1918), their numbers had grown to over 11,000. The majority of these women served in offices close to their homes where they processed the vast quantity of paperwork created during the war effort. At the end of World War I, the number of Yeomen quickly declined and by the end of July 1919, those still active were released from duty. With the exception of Navy nurses, women no longer appeared in uniform until 1942.
When the United States was drawn into World War II, a large number of patriotic-minded women sought to serve their country in the military. In 1941, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers introduced a bill to establish a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. This group was originally designed to act as a support group for the Army of the United States. The bill passed, with the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and General George C. Marshall. May 14, 1942, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) became a reality.
Three months later, the WAVES came ashore. After playing a part in establishing the WAAC, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt approached Congress about the creation of a women’s component to the Navy as well. Since the disbanding of the World War I Yeomen, female personnel in the Navy were very small in quantity. Now, however, the Navy prepared to accept a large number of enlisted women and this time, there would also be female commissioned officers to supervise them.
The establishment of the WAVES required new legislation be drafted due to the fact the rules in play allowed only men to be part of the armed forces. The Bureau of Aeronautics and other far-sighted individuals in the Department of the Navy realized the necessity of women during wartime. On July 30, 1942, President Roosevelt signed the legislation into law and the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) unit of the United States Navy was born. In August 1942, Mildred McAfee made naval history as the first woman to ever serve as a commissioned officer. Receiving the rank of Lieutenant Commander, she became the WAVES’ first director.
An important difference separated the WAAC from the WAVES. Unlike the WAAC, which was established as an ‘auxiliary’ organization to serve with the Army, the WAVES were an official part of the Navy, with members holding the same ranks and receiving the same pay as their male counterparts. They were also subject to military discipline in like manner as the men. In 1943, the WAAC converted to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and the Army women now paralleled their Navy counterparts by actually being ‘in’ the Army rather than ‘along side’ it.
Though the WAVES were ‘in’ the Navy and equal to the men in many ways, there were still areas the guys handled on their own. At this time, the WAVES were not allowed to serve aboard combat ships or airplanes. They were also restricted to stateside service in the beginning, though in time a number of them were sent to Hawaii and other U. S.overseas possessions. World War II ended before they were sent any further.
When the WAVES celebrated their first anniversary, they numbered 27,000 members. The greater percentage of the WAVES performed clerical work, though others branched out into aviation, Judge Advocate General’s Corp (JAG), communications, intelligence and medical professions, to name a few.