Monday, July 30, marks the 76th anniversary of the creation of the U.S. Navy’s WAVES, the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. During World War I women were accepted into the Navy’s reserve force due to an ambiguity of the law which did not specify that a reservist must be a “man.” The idea was supported by Navy Secretary Daniels who perceived that a woman performing a clerical job normally assigned to a male sailor would free that man for sea duty. In that war almost 12,000 women would serve, most as yeomen (f), radio operators (f) and in a few other ratings. The Navy, unlike many civilian employers, paid women and men the same salary for the same job.
After the Armistice women sailors were released from the service. Although a small number of women continued to serve in the Nurse Corps, a separate unit created in 1908; no other women would serve in the Navy until after the United States entered World War II. In 1941, Representative Edith Nourse Rogers introduced a bill creating a Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, the WAACs. This legislation became law in 1942. Members of the WAACs served in uniform but were not treated equally with men as members of the Army in matters of pay and benefits. In 1943 under a new law WAACs were incorporated into the Army and the name was changed to the Women’s Army Corps.
In late 1941 Representative Rogers approached Rear Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the future Chief of Naval Operations then serving as the chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, about possibly similar legislation being introduced for the Navy. Nimitz directed Rogers’ inquiry to Secretary of the Navy Knox who suggested the creation of a women’s organization within the Naval Reserve. In the early months of 1942 Congress took up bills in both the House and the Senate to create a women’s unit; although there was debate on whether the unit would be organized in a fashion similar to the WAAC or if it would be a full component of the Navy. Once the administration announced its preference for a unit within the Navy, Senator Walsh, who had sponsored the Senate bill, agreed to the necessary changes and the bill passed Congress on July 21.
Even before the legislation was passed prominent women educators were working with the Navy to organize the Women’s Reserve which would be christened the WAVES. In early August 1942 Mildred Helen McAfee, the president of Wellesley College, would be named as the first commander of the corps with the rank of lieutenant commander. Commander McAfee and the Navy quickly organized the recruitment and training procedures for the WAVES so that by the end of 1942 almost 4,000 officers and enlisted women were in uniform. Centers for basic and advanced training were set up at a number of colleges such as Smith, where many officers received their training, and Indiana University Bloomington where enlistees slated for storekeeper ratings received basic and advanced training. In all, by the end of 1946 over 104,000 women served in the WAVES, and by the end of World War II, women made up over 50% of Navy personnel in the Washington area.
Until late 1944 WAVES were barred by law from serving outside the contiguous United States. Most WAVES were rated either as yeomen, storekeepers, or radiomen, but some also served in the Bureau of Aeronautics, the Bureau of Ordinance, and the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.
Some of the members of Law Library’s staff had family members who served as WAVES during World War II. Law Librarian of Congress Jane Sánchez‘s mother served in the WAVES for almost 2 years until early 1946. Most of her service was in Jacksonville, Florida.
My mother-in-law, F. Jane Overman, enlisted in the WAVES in Kansas in early 1943. Jane’s training was at Oklahoma A&M University, (now Oklahoma State University), where she was rated as a yeoman. In mid-1943 she was ordered to Washington, DC and served at the Naval Communications Annex on Nebraska Avenue. This was a command dedicated to decoding the German Navy’s messages but Jane did nothing more dramatic than shifting messages between offices and checking basic references.
After the end of the war women were quickly released from the service. Jane was discharged as a yeoman second class in October, 1945, and returned to Kansas where she later used her G.I. Bill benefits to obtain a bachelor’s degree from what is now Wichita State University.