The A to Z Challenge asks bloggers to post 26 posts, one for each letter of the English alphabet, in April. Most of us choose to make these posts on a particular theme. My theme for 2022 is Codebreaking in World War II, which fits with the topic of the novel that I’m writing. Visit every day (except Sunday) in April for a new post on my topic.
W is for WACs and WAVES
Not all the women who worked in codebreaking during World War II were civilians, especially in the Navy.
The WACs came first. They were initially formed as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) on 15 May 1942. The initial expectation was for 25,000 women, but women were eager to join up and about 150,000 women served during World War II. On July 1, 1943, the “auxilary” was dropped and they became active-duty service members. Members of the Women’s Army Corp served in many roles during World War II, including switchboard operators, radio operators, drivers, cooks, and postal clerks.
Despite fears that women would become hysterical in emergencies or that female voices were too soft to be heard, WACs worked in airplane control towers and did well. (p. 160, Code Girls by Liza Mundy)
WACS worked in two of the most secretive arenas of the war — The Manhattan Project and cryptography. Those stories are only now coming to light and most have already been lost, forever.
At Arlington Hall, where civilians outnumbered military members seven to one, when WACs arrived, they got the worst jobs (noisy work in machine rooms) and the most boring jobs (guard duty). But the Army, unlike other services, did allow women to go overseas for certain jobs.
Some WACs were trained in cryptography and sent to the war theater to encode American messages. They went to France, Australia and New Guinea, where they worked in bunkers, basements, and fenced-in compounds. (p. 234)
The Navy was a little slower to pull in women and took some prodding from President Franklin Roosevelt and from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, alongside women’s advocacy groups. The Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, WAVES, were formed in July 1942. The Navy made a greater effort than the Army to convert their civilian employees to service members.
What the creation of the WAVES meant, for the women working as civilian code breakers in Washington, was that they now would be commissioned as officers in the U.S. Naval Reserve. They were given a choice–a few would remain civilians–but the majority accepted commissions. (p. 163)
Later in the war, the Navy needed people to run the bombe machines to break Enigma messages from the German navy. The machines were built by National Cash Register of Dayton, Ohio, so that’s where the women were stationed. It must have been unexpected. Imagine volunteering for the Navy and finding yourself on the outskirts of a small midwestern city, 600 miles from the nearest ocean.
Code Girls by Liza Mundy is a terrific resource to learn more about these women who bucked tradition and who were assigned to cryptography when they joined the armed services.
The US Army Center for Military History has several ebooks about WACs, including The Women’s Army Corps: A Commemoration of World War II Service, The Women’s Army Corps, 1945–1978, and The Women’s Army Corps. I’m also intrigued by this book title: Creating G. I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II by Leisa D. Meyer.
The Naval Institute Press published Serving Proudly: a history of women in the U.S. Navy by Susan H. Goodson in 2001. I imagine that’s a very different take from Crossed Currents: Navy Women from WWI to Tailhook by Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall, published in 1993.
Do you know people who served as WACs or WAVES in World War II?