Why would a young woman choose to serve in the military — and specifically the Navy — during World War II instead of other options, such as working in a plant as ‘Rosie the Riveter’ or planting a victory garden? This exhibit will outline the changing character of women’s work in the United States to see the challenges, and successes, women had in the years leading up to World War II.
Even before the United States entered World War II, the Navy was considering how women might be used to help win the war. The resulting negotiations to implement what to some was a controversial — and distasteful — proposal were both protracted and complicated. This exhibit explores how the process unfolded and the key players who helped to create the Navy WAVES.
Military brass in the Navy and Coast Guard were paying special attention to the uniform the women would eventually wear. There were high expectations; it was commonly known, as many of the women comment, that the Navy’s man uniform was the “smartest” in the service. The uniform would, after all, become the public face of the WAVES and SPARs, communicating both the image and the identity of the female volunteers. It would also become the focal point of the Navy’s public relations campaigns, seen in posters, photographs and film.
Posters were used extensively during World War II in a coordinated effored to win over the hearts and minds of American citizens. Posters came in a variety of sizes, from small table-top displays to roadside billboards. They were produced under the supervision of the Office of War Information, which coordinated with various organizations to get the message out quickly and effectively. A National Archives exhibition divided World War II poster output into two general themes: those that convey American strength and those that confront the viewer with the human and emotional costs of war.
Approximately 100,000 women were accepted into the Navy as WAVES. Another 13,000 were trained as Coast Guard SPARs. The Navy established a rigorous screening and training process designed to weed out women who didn’t meet the Navy’s high standards.
Boot camp lasted six weeks. Afterward, most women were assigned to an advanced training school, depending upon their abilities and the Navy’s needs. Like boot camp, first at Northern Iowa Teacher’s College in Cedar Falls and later at Hunter College in the Bronx, most of the training schools were established at colleges around the country.
Initially, just three jobs were open to women in the Navy: yeomen (secretarial work), storekeepers (bookkeeping), and radio communications. By late-1943, that list had expanded to 246 different job categories, including Link trainer instructor (training pilots in instrument flying), Aerographer’s Mate (weather forecasting), and carrier pigeon raising (a single class of recruits who learned how to breed and train carrier pigeons).
The Office of War Information had a specific goal during the war years: a message about the war in every bit of media produced, be it by a government agency or an independent author or film producer. As a result, the Navy tightly controlled the outside image of the WAVES. No matter the media source, the message often followed a script which was developed and approved by the Navy publicity bureau.
As the war progressed, the WAVES faced a number of challenges: rumors about their character, suspicions or resentment from military men and sometimes negative reactions from the community. But as the WAVES proved their mettle on the job, those attitudes would gradually change.
Initially, the Navy saw the WAVES as a small force of 10,000 women or less, based stateside in thee specific jobs. But as the number of women within the WAVES grew, and the number of jobs diversified, the Navy’s policy towards the women changed: from opening up the WAVES to different types of women, including African-American women, to allowing the women to serve in specific overseas Naval stations.
From Pearl Harbor to Pensacola, Washington (state) to Washington (DC), and everywhere in between, as the war came to a close in August of 1945, celebrations erupted. The WAVES joined sailors and soldiers in toasting the end of hostilities and anticipating a return to “normal.”
When women signed up for the WAVES, they enlisted for the duration of the war, plus six months. But as demobilization began, the Navy discovered that the women had become a crucial element of military service. And the women discovered that military service had an unexpected impact on their post-war lives.