From Recruits to Boots
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.
From Recruits to Boots
The Navy had a specific, and complicated, process for women who wished to become a WAVE or a SPAR.
We sat [at the train station] and wondered, “What are we supposed to do?” We looked around the station. “There’s nobody here. What are supposed to do?” We went to the station master there, we showed him our orders and he said, “Just get over there on track five and get on the troop train.” “The troop train?” we thought. “Good grief! What’s that?”
We got on the train in Omaha, went down to St. Louis. And then we had to get on a train to come across the country, picking up boots along the ways. And then we went – I remember looking out at night at Columbus, Ohio, because I asked the porter where it was. It was so lit up and I had never seen a city lit up like that, especially at night.
For a woman, enlisting in the WAVES or SPARs wasn’t as simple as signing up with a recruiter.
Women first filled out a single page form, requesting more information and an application from the regional Office of Naval Officer Procurement. The form included questions about the woman’s marital status, education, and if she had previously “communicated in writing with the Navy concerning the WAVES or SPARs.”
Only inquiries deemed acceptable would be sent the complete application form, which asked for detailed information about the woman’s work experience, criminal record, hobbies and community involvement.
The Navy tested applicants to make sure they met certain standards. The test was similar to the present-day SAT, covering mathematical, grammatical and copy editing skills. The Navy also asked that women provide three letters of recommendation with the application.
Only if the application met the qualifications and had positive recommendations would she be invited for an interview. This was the final step to the application. The interview itself was a weeding out process, where candidates would be assessed for mental fitness as well as their physical condition. If a woman didn’t meet the qualifications, she would be turned away.
Those who did make the cut would be sworn in. Then the waiting period begain. It could take from a couple of weeks to a few months for a woman to get her official orders to report to duty. During that time, “normal” life continued. One recruit volunteered at the local recruiting office, signing up other military volunteers while awaiting her orders. Another was working as a teacher and asked if she would be finish out the school year. She signed up in December 1942. She got her notice to report to duty two months later, in February of 1943.
The Troop Train
The new recruits took what was known as a “troop train” – a military-only transport – or used vouchers to travel aboard a commercial carrier. They usually went with a group of other female recruits, taking over several cars as they went from their home towns to boot camp. But women who lived in remote rural areas weren’t necessarily able to make it to the depot on time. Roberta Moore, who lived near the Oregon/Nevada border, got her orders after the official transport had left, so she took a commercial train to boot camp alone.
The newspapers offered elaborate coverage of hometown enlistments, as these articles demonstrate. For instance, in the February 23, 1944 issue of the Oregonian, a full page spread proclaimed “OREGON WAVES HELP WIN THE WAR” (seen above). Another newspaper article talked about how the recruits from that area would be part of an “all-Oregon WAVES platoon.”
The “all-Oregon” unit showed how the Navy was able to keep a continuous stream of stories placed in a variety of Oregon newspapers, from the establishment of the unit to individual enlistments to the unit’s departure by train in late August.
From Recruits to Boots
The Navy’s first group of women entered training on August 28, 1942 at Smith College. The 120 women were given just one month to become fully versed in “the Navy way” before going on to train and supervise other Navy women. Smith College would remain the Navy’s Officer Training Center until December of 1944.
In August of 1942, the WAVES began setting up recruitment offices for officers and enlisted women. The initial class of officers was hand-picked by McAfee and the Advisory Educational Council; it included future WAVES leader Winnifred Quick Collins as well as future SPARs head Dorothy Stratton. Women involved in the organization of WAVES, such as Mildred McAfee, Elizabeth Reynard, and Joy Hancock avoided training altogether. These hand-selected future leaders were rushed though a pared down version of officer training and graduated in late September 1942.
Mildred McAfee helped the Navy establish high standards in order to attract high quality women. Officers were required to have, at a minimum, two years of college and two years professional work; many women had four-year-degrees and significantly more work experience. Enlisted women needed to have had some college or work experience. Women had to be at least twenty years old to volunteer; enlisted women could be no older than age thirty-six and officers no older than forty-nine at time of entry. The Navy believed “such requirements would insure the Navy of trainees of reasonable intelligence and a reasonably well-developed sense of responsibility.”
Because women’s involvement in the Navy was so tightly associated with higher education, through the Advisory Council and eventual WAVES leadership, the women recruits themselves became linked to a different cultural function: college attendance as a rite of passage to adulthood. Many recruits picked up on this, describing the WAVES as like a sorority or similar to going away to school. The fact that the women were initially trained and housed on college campuses only strengthened the impression.
The Navy came to an agreement with Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts to use the facilities to train officers in July of 1942. Training began the next month for the initial “fast track” class. Regular officer training began in October of that year and would continue through December of 1944. Enlisted training schools were set up at several other colleges around the country.
Officers learned advanced skills before heading out to bases or heading to other training facilities to instruct enlisted women.
Mount Holyoke College was originally used as an overflow officer training facility when the conditions at Smith College got too cramped. In August of 1943, it was converted from indoctrination to advanced communications and radio skills.
Harvard University in Cambridge was the Navy’s officer Supply Corps School; both men and women trained there, but the women were housed in dorms at Radcliffe College.
Officer trainees also took meteorology classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge) and at University of California, Los Angeles; aereological engineering officer training was at the University of Chicago.
One of the more unusual – and intensive – training facilities for officers was the Japanese Language School at the University of Colorado in Boulder. There WAVES officers trained alongside Navy men in an intensive, 14-month-long course in Japanese. It was assumed the trainees would be fluent in the language at the end of training. The school opened in July of 1943.
From Recruits to Boots
As the initial officers were trained, the WAVES set up training schools for enlisted women. By October, 1942, training facilities for both officers and enlisted women were operating full swing.
As the WAVES started in late 1942, the Navy thought that women could both be oriented in Naval protocol and receive instruction in their new jobs at the same facility. Women initially would be replacing men in three work areas: yeomen (secretarial), storekeeping (accounting/bookkeeping), and radio coding and transmission.
College campuses were used for the training. Oklahoma A&M College in Stillwater was selected as the training base for yeoman (secretarial and office work), Indiana University in Bloomington for storekeepers (accounting and bookkeeping), and University of Wisconsin Madison for radiomen (sending and receiving coded messages).
The First Boot Camp
The Navy quickly realized that women would need a brief orientation before moving on to speciality training. The Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls became the first boot camp in December, 1942. Women were oriented to the Navy way of doing things before moving on to speciality training.
By this point, other advanced training options were opening up to women. In addition to the three initial job opportunities, women were able to try for positions like Link instructors (simulated instrument flying trainers), machinist’s mates (airplane mechanics), pharmacist’s mates (hospital corps), parachute riggers, or aerographer’s mates (weather forecasters).
As with other campuses, Navy recruits shared space with current students on the Cedar Falls campus, bunking in a dormitory on the grounds.
Janette Shaffer was in one of the first training camps at Cedar Falls. One day, while in the university gymnasium, her drill instructor got distracted. Commands to stop or turn, which the recruits had been trained to listen for, ceased. So the recruits kept marching. At the edge of the room, rather than turn, they began climbing up the equipment stacked alongside the wall:
If they had it in a movie, I’d love to see Lucille Ball or somebody doing it. It was really funny.
Iowa State Teacher’s College was a temporary fix. Not only were new fields opening up to women, but the Navy realized that their experiment with women reservists was a success.
As a result, by early 1943 the Navy increased its initial WAVES personnel estimates, from 10,000 enlisted women to 75,000 or more. Cedar Falls wouldn’t be able to handle the increased number of trainees. An entire campus would need to be dedicated as a training facility.
Iowa State Teacher’s College would be used as a second training camp for yeomen for the duration of the war.
From Recruits to Boots
As the need for personnel increased, the Navy searched for another location for boot camp. Hunter College in the Bronx, New York, seemed an ideal solution.
They kept us boots busy all day long. Besides class work and getting out on the field marching and drilling and that sort of stuff. The exercise, calisthenics. And then marching from the apartment house, muster out in the middle of the street and then march in formation to the college where the dining room was, meals three times a day. And that evening, the first evening we ate there, they served liver and onions. I thought, “My God, I can’t survive in this Navy!”
They took me to Hunter to boot camp. And then when I got there it was all, orders this and orders that. And I remember distinctly thinking to myself, “How did I get into this mess?” [laughs] I was such a spoiled brat. “Gosh, you’re telling me what to do all the time?”
The Hunter Solution
Hunter College in the Bronx, New York, was a women’s campus, catering to commuter students from the nearby burroughs and suburbs. It’s now known as Lehman College and is part of the City University of New York system (CUNY).
After negotiations with the college president and CUNY officials, an agreement was reached to loan the campus to the Navy for the duration of the war. The Navy also commandeered apartment buildings surrounding the campus, which were converted into barracks for the women.
The first class of enlisted recruits entered Hunter College on February 16, 1943. Six thousand WAVE boots would be trained at any given time. Every two weeks, another group of two thousand recruits would arrive at Hunter College for basic training.
From the first boot camp in February of 1943 through the end of the war in August of 1945, 80,836 WAVES were trained at Hunter College. An additional 1,844 SPARs and 3,190 Women Marines also received training there at some point. The primary objective of the school, according to Joy Bright Hancock, was threefold:
- Adequate medical examinations determined fitness for service.
- Uniforming, drill, and personnel information requisite to the conduct of a recruit as a useful member of a military organization.
- The selection of recruits best fitted to fill the special quotas for service training.
Boot camp lasted six weeks.
A Tough Transition
I didn’t do anything very important. About boot camp, the toughest thing about boot camp was that we were given our shots, that time of year, New York is very hot in the summertime. And some of the typhoid shots your arm swells up. Your arm swells up after the typhoid shots. And you can get, you know, have a slight fever or something. And marching, some of the gals fainted along the side while marching. And I remember the officers saying, “Pay no attention, keep right along. Leave her there. Leave her there.” And I thought that was awful cruel. That was my very, one of my first impressions there at boot camp.
– Patricia Farrington Siegner, World War II Navy WAVE
The Hunter College training station was considered a success. Much of the credit goes to Elizabeth Reynard. After working in Washington to help establish the WAVES, Reynard returned to New York and, according to Mildred McAfee, built up the Hunter College training program:
The whole service was very much indebted to her because she really did a stunning job on this New York recruit school, which became very famous.
From Recruits to Boots
The first classes of SPARs trained at Hunter College alongside the WAVES. But the Coast Guard wanted their women to have a unique training center, so they quickly moved to develop their own training facilities.
A New Home
Though the SPARs initially trained alongside the WAVES, first at Cedar Falls and later at Hunter College, they relocated their training facility in May of 1943. The SPARs set up shop at the Biltmore Hotel in Palm Beach, a far different location than the colleges where WAVES trained.
The Biltmore became known as the “pink palace.” Recruiters played up the exotic locale, reminding women they could “train under the Florida sun.”
In 1945, the SPARs would move again, relocating boot camp to a regular Coast Guard facility on Long Island, New York.
The WAVES and SPARs wore uniforms that were identical to the outsider. Small details (different buttons and insignias) differentiated the uniforms.
One possible reason why the SPARs developed their own training facility was to help alleviate the confusion of two groups with same uniform training side by side.
The first thing they did down in Florida was put us in boot camp. We had to jump through the tires, you know. Then the next thing we had to do was we had to scale a wall. We couldn’t do it. I said to the girl in back of me, “Quinn, push, because I’ll never get over that wall”…There was a big rope and it had a knot on it. And there was a pit with mud here. We had to back up and jump and my friend Quinn who was with me, I said, “Quinn, I’m never going to make that pit.” She said, “Neither am I.” So we sneaked over to another line. We never had to go over it. We didn’t get caught. I said, “If we’re caught, we’re out. They’ll get rid of us.”
– Dorothy Riley Dempsey, World War II Coast Guard SPAR
Girls Next Door
The SPARs’ choice of training facility gave the group a different identiy than the WAVES. WAVES were elite “college girls.” SPARs, by contrast, were the fun-loving girl next door. Their training was at a hotel resort, or alongside men at regular Coast Guard facilities.
This difference is reflected in the women’s interviews. WAVE recruits talk about the disorientation they felt as they moved into the military world. SPARs talk about funny mishaps which happened in training.
It’s possible that the WAVES, by being so closely linked to college campuses, led the women to expect a collegiate experience while serving. Their discomfort would last while they adjusted to the structure of military life. The SPARs, training away from colleges, gave women no such expectations.
From Recruits to Boots
Boot camp was designed as a way to transition women from civilian to military life. Not everyone made the transition successfully. Some women struggled with their new lifestyle, and others washed out entirely.
Attending boot camp was disorienting for many of the women. Any comfort level the women had reached on the train trip across country, traveling with women of a similar geographic background, would quickly be erased.
Especially jarring were the living conditions. Women shared rooms with several others, getting a small “locker” (the Navy term for closet) for their clothes and personal belongings.
At Hunter College, nearby apartment buildings were converted into quarters. Women would live up to six in a room, with up to twelve women sharing a single bathroom. The apartment kitchens were off limits, never used for cooking.
The rigors of boot camp were often difficult for young women. WAVE Patricia Farrington remembered seeing a colleague faint while marching at boot camp, and being told to ignore her.
Other told similar stories. WAVE Virginia Gillmore told of seeing a large number of women fainting while standing at attention during a regimental review. Officers said that the recruit behind should catch the person in front as she fell, lie her on the ground and then stand back at attention.
One WAVE said she understood why the WAVES would force a young recruit to act against her empathetic instincts: it was way to teach the women to follow orders and not think for themselves.
Not every woman was able to make it through boot camp training. Failure was known as “washing out.”
One morning we were called to assemble in a big room, a lot of girls, probably 2,000 girls. We didn’t know why, but we were stood at parade attention as usual. And they brought in this girl between two officers. And in front of us they cut the buttons off her uniform and read her a dishonorable discharge. And when she turned around to go out they played drums and they drummed her out all the way. What a humiliating experience. But you can bet the rest of us shaped up.
– Virginia Gillmore, World War II Navy WAVE
Rules & Regulations
Women quickly learned military rules. They had to remain at boot camp for the entire six week training period, getting one short day-long leave the final weekend of training. Visits with family and friends happened only at scheduled times and there were often long lines for the few pay phones at boot camp. Letters became the most reliable way to keep in touch with family and friends.
WAVE Anna Fogelman described boot camp as “hard work, not glamorized.” The women were immediately and fully absorbed into the Navy life.
From Recruits to Boots
Transitioning to Military Life
“Military regimentation, such as the fish-out-of-water experience of boot camp, would cement (the women’s) new ties through social cohesion. In effect, the Navy would become a wartime family for th women, characterized by a shared military expeience,” Kathleen M. Ryan wrote when speaking about this WAVES and SPARs archive. “Surviving” boot camp became a crucial component of the women’s shared identity.
A New Life
You really had nothing personal in your life anymore. Every two girls had a chest of drawers. And the bottom, they were staggered. So when the inspection party would come in to look over and see if everything was just the way it should be. We were even told how to fold our slips and things like that, you know? And I still do it today [laughs]. Everything is in three. You know, you fold a towel in three? We fold our slips in three our underwear in three, and pajamas, everything.
– Dorothy Riley Dempsey, World War II Coast Guard SPAR
A Sub Spotted
SPAR boot camp memories were often lighthearted. One told of being roused in the middle of the night, because a German sub had been spotted off the coast of Florida. But in her story, this enemy threat wasn’t frightening. The boots all trooped out into the hallway in the middle of the night in full uniform, and were forced to wait there for hours until the danger cleared. Most of the women ended up sprawled in the hallway, falling asleep on the floor. When the lights came back on, Roberta Moore recalled:
It was the funniest thing you could ever see … It was like a bunch of drunks or something.
I remember clearly it was a Sunday morning and the building I was in at Hunter College the phones were right there. There was a whole bank of phones where you could call. I guess it was my mother who answered the phone, or my father, I forgot who, but I know that they answered the phone and I broke out crying. [laughs]. They’re saying, “What’s the matter? What’s the matter?” And I said, “I’m homesick.” I never thought I would get that way, but I did. Even now, it brings tears to my eyes. I remember feeling so lost at that point because you are with complete strangers.
– Dot Forbes Enes, World War II Navy WAVE