"Margret Mildred Kittredge, ma'am," Kit said, giving her full name to the elderly woman behind the counter at the registration office at Ft. Des Moines, Iowa. The Second World War had officially ended only weeks earlier, but most members of the military had yet to arrive home.
The Cincinnati Register, Kit's hometown newspaper, had dispatched her on what she, in her young journalism career, believed was the assignment of a lifetime. For the next few weeks, she would travel all around the country to interview four women who had, for the first time, officially served with in various branches of United States military. She would interview a WAC, a WAVE, a WASP, and a SPECS, then write an article detailing how these new units had contributed to the Allies winning the war.
Ft. Des Moines had been the first WAC training center, so her journey would begin there.
Kit knew what a special this opportunity was. During the war, the Army had kept the press away, not wanting any critical information floating around in the public domain. She was also well aware that, during the war, WACs had been the subject of some slanderous reporting in the press, mainly by newspapers columnists who wanted to harm the new program by spreading untrue reports about the conduct of these women who not only worked closely with men, but also worked under the male-dominated culture in the military. Now, Kit hoped that her article would do justice to these special women.
The woman behind the counter handed her a press pass and pointed down the hallway, "First Officer Noah is waiting in the third room on the left—I'm sorry, but they'll only giving you an hour. What with the war over, most of the stateside WAC's are packing up to go home."
"Thank you," Kit nodded in understanding, "I suspected that I wouldn't have a lot of time." She smiled warmly, "They were quite generous to give me the hour."
She hurried down the hall, pausing briefly to knock gently before she pushed the door open. On the other side, she found a tall beaming young woman, not quite thirty years of age.
Tucking her shoulder-length auburn curls behind her ear, First Officer Noah stood up, smoothed her already well starched uniform, and extended her hand, "Please, call me Allie."
"Only if you'll call me Kit."
"It's a deal, Kit."
The two women slid into their seats and Kit asked her first question almost before her pen was posed over her paper.
"When did you join the Women's Army Corp, Allie?"
"Oh, just as soon as I could after the program was announced in 1942. The Army let you sign up if your twenty-one through forty-five, at least five feet tall, and one hundred pounds or more. Space was limited, so I was thrilled to get in with the first group to train as an officer. Over thirty-five thousand girls applied for the first thousand positions, so I was ecstatic when I found out that I'd made it. A lot of the girls who didn't make the cut to be an officer came back see if they could fill an enlisted spot though, so a lots of them got in that way."
As an afterthought, she added, "They called it the Women's Auxiliary Army Corp—or W-A-A-C back when it started, because the bigwigs didn't want girls spoiling the Army's culture. But by 1943—a little over a year later—we'd proved to be such great help that they made us fully part of the Army—and dropped "auxiliary" out of the name."
"What made you want to join up?"
"Oh, I have five brothers who went off to war. There wasn't any way that I was going to get left at home while they were out there fighting to keep our country safe. I must say, Mother and some of her friends didn't like the idea me going into the Army at first, but they came around pretty well after a while. I still don't think I could describe how happy I was when my mother told me that she was proud that I was serving like my brothers." Then she added, "I was also wonderful to hear men like General Eisenhower and General MacArthur give the WAC's special praise too."
"How did the WAC start up?"
"Well, the idea came from Mrs. Edith Nourse Rogers, a Congresswoman from Massachusetts. Back in 1941, she told General George C. Marshall, the Chief of Staff, that she wanted to establish Women's Corp. that was separate and distinct from the existing Army's Nurses Corp. Unfortunately, her idea didn't gain steam till after Pearl Harbor, but President Roosevelt signed the bill into law in 1942 and Mrs. Oveta Clup Hobby—she's the wife of former Texas Governor William P. Hobby—was appointed as our first director."
"What gave Congresswoman Rogers the idea to start the WAC?"
"She remembered that during the First World War, women had voluntarily served overseas, but they didn't get any official recognition. That meant that they had to get their own food and living quarters and they had no legal protection or right to medical care. Then, when they got home, they couldn't get the disability benefits or pensions like the guys were eligible for. She wanted to change that and she figured that the best way to do it was to get us into the Army."
"WAC's got paid a little differently, didn't they?" Kit asked.
"Yes," Allie, confirmed, "As a First Officer, my rank was comparable to that of a Captain, but I got paid the same as a First Lieutenant." Then she shrugged, "Could I go off the record for a minute?"
"Sure," Kit replied.
"Well see, I suppose I can see where the unequal pay thing might be an issue later on, but as for me, during the war, when we were fighting so hard to keep this country and our allies safe and free, I was just glad to do my part to help out. I thought winning the war was more important than worrying over who got paid what and I know a lot of girls who'd say the same thing."
"There now, you can go back on the record—hmm, I think that last bit could go in too."
They both laughed, then Kit continued, "What was basic training like?"
"We had the same basic training as the men, except for combat training. We did physical training and learned administration skills and about military justice, first-aid, military customs and courtesies and how drills and ceremonies are done. We also learned how to read maps and how to maintain and use equipment."
Allie's eyes lit up then, "I think my favorite part of training was our bivouac week—that's a week of living under field conditions. Oh! They also let us learn how to fire a carbine rifle, if we wanted too. That was voluntary though."
She grinned, "I got to be pretty good."
Kit asked, "What kind of jobs did WAC's do in the Army?"
"Oh, we did all sorts of things!" Allie enthused, "The first batch of us—officers and enlisted women alike—were sent to various Aircraft Warning Service units to work the filter boards. That's what I did because I joined at the very beginning. We plotted and traced the path of every airplane to come into our area. There was always about twenty girls at each station. Gosh, it was a boring job sometimes, waiting for the phone to ring and tell us of an aircraft sighting, but we did it and we did it well."
"Later on," Allie continued, "WAC graduates were formed into companies and sent into three different divisions of the Army: the Army Air Force, Army Ground Forces, and Army Service Forces. At first, those girls did clerical work or small rudimentary jobs like file clerks, typists, stenographers, and motor pool drivers—a motor pool is a secure designated area for personal to park vehicles."
"After a while," Allie continued, "the Army figured out that we could do a lot more, and they let us. I can't imagine how many guys were freed up to go fight in the war when the top brass figured out that women were good competent workers."
"The Army Air Force put girls to work as weather observers and forecasters, cryptographers, radio operators and repairman—or repairwomen."
The two women laughed, then Allie continued.
"Let's see, WACs were sheet metal workers, parachute riggers, Link trainers—that is, we trained pilots in a fight simulator to fly with just their instruments. The simulators are named after their inventor, a guy named Edwin Link."
"WACs were also bombsight maintenance specialists, aerial photograph analysts, and control tower operators and we worked with statistical control tabulating machines—they kept personal records."
Allie beamed, "By this past January, only fifty percent of WAC's were still working the traditional clerical jobs. That's really something, isn't it?
It is indeed," Kit replied, with a delighted smile.
"Not too many girls served with the Ground Forces, and the ones that did got reassigned in a heartbeat if they weren't up to the tough standards. In the Antiaircraft Artillery Command, the girls got to teach antiaircraft defense to the guys and they served in the control tower to keep the tow-target plane—that's the decoy—on course. They also gave fire signals over the telephone and computed the correct angle and accuracy of the fire."
"In Armored, Field Artillery, and Cavalry Schools, the girls repaired and installed radios in tanks, bantams—that's the new Army Jeep that came out in 1940—and other vehicles. We also trained the guys to send and receive codes."
"There was a lot of debate about WACs serving with the Ground Forces at all, but there was a shortage of guys for the positions they put us in, what with so many needed overseas, so we got the call. I'm just glad that they gave us a chance and we proved them right."
"That is awesome," Kit agreed.
Allie went on, "The girls that served in the Army Service Forces—and that ended up being forty percent of WAC graduates—went on to serve in several different departments. In the Ordnance Department, they computed the velocity of bullets, measured bomb fragments, mixed gunpowder, and loaded shells. Others were draftsmen, mechanics, electricians, and ordnance engineers."
"In the Transportation Corps, we processed men for overseas assignments, handled personal files, and issued weapons. Near the end of last year, the Army experimented by assigning WAC's as radio operators on three hospital ships. The Larkspur, the Charles A. Stafford, and the Blanche F. Sigman each took three enlisted girls and one officer. The experiment worked out, and WAC's got assigned to more hospital ships after that."
"The girls that were assigned to the Chemical Warfare Service worked in both laboratories and in the field. They were glassblowers and made test tubes and they tested walkie-talkies and surveying and meteorology equipment."
"In the Quartermasters Corps, the girls kept track of the stockpiles of supplies in depots across the country—that means that we inspected and procured supplies, and managed stock-control and storage. We also had fiscal and contract termination oversight."
"In the Signal Corps, the girls were switchboard, radio and telegraph operators, cryptographers, photographers and map analysts. Photographers were trained to develop and print photos, repair cameras, mix emulsions, and finish negatives. Map analysts were taught to assemble, mount, and interrupt mosaic maps."
"And, last, but far from least," Allie said, drawing a deep breath, "the girls in the Army Medical Department became laboratory, surgical, X-ray, and dental technicians, and also medical secretaries and ward clerks." A bright smile of satisfaction spit Allie's face, "They freed up the Army nurses to take care of our boys."
"Wow!" Kit said, "That is an amazing array of assignments. I have to admit, it's more than I had imagined. Did WAC's have to adhere to any special rules?"
"Oh my, yes!" Allie said, growing serious again, "Other than the regular Army rulers and regulations that we were subject too, Mrs. Hobby made it clear that if we got pregnant, we'd be dismissed." She paused then added, "I have to say, I know some folks spoke out against that rule, but I was perfectly okay with it. I know I couldn't have done my job as well if I had a baby inside me."
"Were WAC's allowed to serve overseas?"
"Yes, yes. I was in England for almost a year and my best friend was in North Africa for a while. I also know a few girls who were assigned to places in the Pacific."
"While I was in England, I didn't get to take in very any tourist attractions, but I was there to do my job, so I didn't mind." Then her eyes lit up, "Oh, I did get to met Princess Elizabeth! She came to see us in action one day while I was on duty. She was super nice."
Next, Kit posed an increasingly delicate question, "Is the WAC segregated?"
"Yes, we are—like the rest of the Army. There were forty candidates of color with me in the first training sessions. We took meals and did our training together, but all the base facilities were segregated, as were the units that we were sent to after basic training." Then she added, "Those girls came from the same sort of background as the rest of us though—college educated, then worked as teachers or in some office somewhere."
"Alright, one last question," Kit said, noticing their hour was winding down, "If you can tell me, what did you do on your most interesting day at work?"
"Oh well," Allie blushed, "I had settle an argument between two pilots who wanted to take off at the same time. Apparently, they were buddies who'd gotten into an off-duty squabble at some bar the night before and they were intent on carrying on with their "discussion"—as they called it—while they were on duty. I won't name names now, because that's not my place now that the war is over, but I'm afraid that's as lively a day as I can talk about."
She smiled coyly, "Maybe in another thousand years, I'll be able to tell about other things, but the Army doesn't like its people to kiss and tell so soon after a war has ended."
Author's Notes: First off, I'd like to say that, while the factual things in the interview are true, I made a good deal of the other stuff up. Even the name "Allie Noah" is made up, coming from the first names of the two main characters of Nicholas Sparks' book, The Notebook. I also made up the incident on First Officer Noah's most interesting day. It sprang up as a fairly dumb down version of a story my uncle, who served in Vietnam, tells about from when he was stationed in Italy during peacetime.
A Look Back: WAC personal served in both Korea and Vietnam, doing the same types of jobs that the early WACs did but, eventually, the Army desired to assimilate its women more closely into its structure and eliminate any feelings of separateness, so the WAC was discontinued on Oct. 29, 1978, by an act of Congress.