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.
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.
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.
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).
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.