Top of page

A 1940s poster featuring Half-length portrait of member of Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, facing left, holding whistle, in front of marching soldiers.
Speed them back--Join the WAAC--Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. U.S. Army--Apply at any U.S. Army recruiting and induction station. Created by the United States. Army, Recruiting Publicity Bureau, 1943.

Women in the Military During World War II: Family Listening Activities

Share this post:

This is a guest blog by Siobhan Miller,  the fall 2022 Teaching with Primary Sources intern at the Young Readers Center & Programs Lab.  For more information on the Teaching with Primary Sources internship opportunity, please follow this link.

Did you know that every branch of the US military employed women during World War II ? Women played an essential role in filling non-combat positions so men could be freed to fight overseas. If your family is curious about women’s military history, we invite you to explore the sources and complete the activities below to start conversations with your children about women in the military during World War II.

The Army created the   as the first women’s auxiliary organization in 1941. The Navy followed soon after with the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), the Marines with the Women Marines, and the Coast Guard with the SPARS (after their motto, Semper Paratus or “Always Ready”). The Army Air Forces created the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) as a civilian female pilot program in 1943.

Black and white photograph of three light-skinned women working as mechanics on a 1940s propeller plane. One is under the plane's nose, the other sits ontop of the wing and uses a tool on the engine, and the third is on top of the plane's nose. They are all dedicated at work.
WAVES help keep the Navy’s planes flying. Official US Navy photograph, 1944.

Women worked in different roles throughout the military, serving as mechanics on training bases, pilots transporting military planes, and postal workers delivering overseas mail. Women also continued to serve as nurses in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. Unlike women in auxiliary programs who were kept far away from combat, nurses were often required to serve in active war zones close to the front lines. By the end of the war, over 350,000 women had served in uniform.

Twenty four female African American nurses standing on bleachers, at attention. They are in full uniform with brass buttons, hats, and skirts. They stare at the camera and look posed on the bleachers.
First African American Nurses Land in England, August 21 1944. Photograph by the US Army Signal Corps. Forms part of: Visual Materials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records.

 

Although the military was still segregated at this time, women of color enlisted in many women’s military . African American women served in all Black units in the Women’s Army Corps, the Navy’s WAVES, and the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. The first African American women to serve abroad were the members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. Watch a clip with your family from the “All American News” newsreel below to see footage of these women stationed in England. The segment about the division starts at 5:12 and ends at 6:55. Ask your child the observation question:  What kind of work were these women doing?

Japanese Americans on the west coast incarcerated during World War II were encouraged to “prove their loyalty” by joining the military. Both men and women responded. Photographer Ansel Adams took several portraits of Japanese American women in uniform at the Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp, such as the one featured below.

A Japanese-American woman wears a woman's army uniform with a button down jacket and skirt. She holds white pressed gloves in her hands and smiles broadly at the camera. She is wearing glasses and her hair is pulled tightly back.
Japanese-American U.S. Naval cadet nurse, Kay Fukuda, Manzanar Series / photograph by Ansel Adams.

As you view this image, ask your children:

  • What do you know about Japanese Americans during World War II?
  • What do you know about the military during World War II?
  • How does this image alter what you know?

As an intern at the Library of Congress, I began by researching the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). WASPs ferried planes from factory to base, trained male cadets, towed anti-aircraft gunnery targets, served as test pilots, and helped with weather data gathering. The 1,074 women who served in the WASP program were the first women to fly military aircraft in the United States, and their efforts helped pave the way for future generations of women in aviation.

Starting conversations with your children about the history of women in the military.

Take a look at personal narratives from the Library’s Veterans History Project, which contains many/several oral history interviews with female World War II veterans. Explore collections together , including curated collections about African American women in World War II or the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Choose one woman’s oral history to delve into. Some of my favorites include:

  • Marcella Ryan Le Beau of the Army Nurse Corps (watch from 13:53-15:41 to hear her day-to-day experience as a Native American woman overseas in the Army Nurse Corps, and from 25:30-28:10 to hear what happened during the Battle of the Bulge).
  • Catherine Vail Bridge of the WASPs (watch from 36:30-42:00 to hear about being a ferry pilot).
  • Dorothy E. Jenkins of the WACs and the 6888th Postal Directory Battalion (watch from 38:35-45:10 to hear about her service and duties in England).
A woman in a full flight suit carries bags and walks away from a plane with a propeller in a black and white photograph.
Aviatrix Leaving Plane, circa 1941, photo courtesy the Office of War Information.

After listening to the oral history, reflect together:

  • When and where was this woman born?
  • Does she describe her childhood? How is it similar or different from yours?
  • What were some of the reasons she joined the armed forces? If you were in her shoes, would you make the same choice?
  • Where did this woman train for the military, and how does she describe her training?
  • What are some moments or events in her description that you find particularly interesting? Why?
  • What more do you want to know? How might you find out through further research?
  • Why is it important today to talk about women in the military during World War II?

Although often overlooked when discussing the history of World War II, the 350,000 women who served in the armed forces were essential to the success of the United States military and its allies. We invite you to engage with your children to seek out stories of these women whose courageous steps impacted history.

Comments (6)

  1. Awesome! Thank you so much for deepening children’s — and adults’—lives!

    • Thank you for reading and commenting!

  2. This was great info! Thank you for sharing this blog and please consider more veterans-related materials!

    • Thank you so much for reading Michael! Our goal is to highlight Library collections for families- and since there are so many materials related to veterans at the Library of Congress, we will be sure to do just that!

  3. My nother was a nurse during wwII and I cannot find any record of her. I truly wish to be able to add this to our family tree. Is there any help for this? Her name was Angela (JUNE) Young. ty

    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting! We cannot conduct original research for you, but we suggest you start with the Library’s LibGuides. There is a specific section of our website with LibGuides about genealogy: https://guides.loc.gov/genealogy You can also visit https://ask.loc.gov/ to communicate directly with reference staff and librarians.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.


Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.