Women in Uniform

After a twenty-three-year absence, women returned to general Navy service in early August 1942, when Mildred McAfee was sworn in as a Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander, the first female commissioned officer in U.S. Navy history, and the first Director of the WAVES, or "Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service." In the decades since the last of the Yeomen (F) left active duty, only a relatively small corps of Navy Nurses represented their gender in the Naval service, and they had never had formal officer status. Now, the Navy was preparing to accept not just a large number of enlisted women, as it had done during World War I, but female Commissioned Officers to supervise them. It was a development of lasting significance, notwithstanding the WAVES' name, which indicated that they would only be around during the wartime "Emergency."

Establishing the WAVES was a lengthy effort. Inter-war changes in the Naval Reserve legislation specifically limited service to men, so new legislation was essential. Though far-sighted individuals in the Navy Department, and especially in the Bureau of Aeronautics, had long known that uniformed women would be a wartime necessity, general service opinion was decidedly negative until the crisis at hand. Even then, creative intrigue had to be used to get an authorization through the Congress. President Roosevelt signed it into law on 30 July 1942. The next few months saw the commissioning of Mildred McAfee, and several other prominent female educators and professionals, to guide the new organization.

Recruiting had to be undertaken (or at least managed, as the number of interested women was vast), training establishments set up, an administrative structure put in place and uniforms designed. The latter effort produced a classic design that still has many elements in use nearly six decades later. Difficulties were overcome with energy and indispensable good humor, and within a year 27,000 women wore the WAVES uniform.

The wartime Navy's demand for WAVES was intense as it struggled to defeat Hitler and Mussolini in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific. At the end of the conflict, there were well over 8,000 female officers and some ten times that many enlisted WAVES, about 2 ½ percent of the Navy's total strength. In some places WAVES constituted a majority of the uniformed Naval personnel. And many remained in uniform to help get the Navy into, and through, the post-war era.

Click the image for a larger view.

Naval Pharmacists
Carlos Andreson
Watercolor, 1943

Although a large portion of jobs offered to WAVES consisted of secretarial and clerical duties, WAVES served in a far wider range of occupations than had the Yeomen (F). They performed duties in the aviation community, Judge Advocate General Corps, medical professions, as well as in the areas of communications, intelligence, science and technology.

Thousands of women who joined the WAVES were encouraged to join the Hospital Corps. Members of the Hospital Corps served as nurses; as technicians in the clinical, x-ray, physical therapy, dental, pharmacy and other laboratories; in the commissary department; in the medical storeroom; as assistants to medical, dental, and Hospital Corps officers; on routine ward duty; as assistants in the operating room; as ambulance drivers; as bookkeepers; as telephone operators; as clerks or in any other position where their services may be utilized in the fulfillment of the charge of caring for the sick and injured personnel of the Navy and Marine Corps.


Drill Press
Dwight Clark Shepler
Oil on canvas, 1945

Don't let the blush, lipstick and nail polish on the recruiting posters fool you. Many WAVES had labor-intensive, manicure-marring occupations, such as machine assembly, repair work and kitchen patrol.


Medical Art in the Navy
Carlos Andreson
Oil on canvas, 1943

Here, in the art department of a naval hospital, is a group at work on many projects, including cartoon animation, cartography, and technical drawings of bacteria and diseased tissues. Not only is there a woman in uniform in the foreground, but there is a WAVES recruiting poster in the right background.


WAVE on a Wing of a Plane
John Falter
Oil on canvas, c. 1943

One of the most prolific and well-recognized artists to contribute to the Navy's recruitment campaign, especially the recruitment of WAVES, John Philip Falter created over 300 designs for Naval recruitment posters during WWII.

The Navy's Office of Facts and Figures (later called the Office of War Information) did not accept unsolicited designs for posters. Rather, the agency sent letters inviting widely respected artists to participate. Sketches were critiqued by the Recruiting Division, Officer Procurement Division and the Women's Reserve Office. Once a design was agreed upon, the artist painted it, as in these examples here.

The Navy was looking for educated, capable, virtuous, and feminine women. Accordingly, Falter's WAVES are simultaneously glamorous and serious. Obviously, many WAVES did not resemble the beautiful, perfectly-proportioned poster gals. The tactics employed by the Navy's recruiting bureau in the posters mirrored those of national advertisements and mass media at the time.


Navy Wave and Coast Guard Spar
John Falter
Oil on canvas, c. 1943


WAVE Officer with Hospital Ship
John Falter
Oil on canvas, c. 1944

The single stripe on this WAVE's shoulder signifies that she is an Ensign. To meet wartime needs, some members of the Hospital Corps in the enlisted ratings were appointed to the commissioned ranks of Ensign, Lieutenant (Junior grade), and Lieutenant for temporary service.

Women who were recruited as officers had to be between twenty and forty-nine years of age and hold a college degree or have two years each of college and professional or business experience. The first female Navy officers of 1942 were indoctrinated in programs set up on women's college campuses, like Smith and Mt. Holyoke College. Specialized officer training for courses such as aviation ordnance training and air navigation took place alongside the men in their schools. It was not until 1972 that the Navy merged its men's and women's Officer Candidate schools. Women began attending the U.S. Naval Academy and the other service academies in 1976.


WAVE Radio Operator
John Falter
Oil on canvas, 1943

This woman operates a telegraph key. The Navy ran a school for radio personnel beginning in 1942. Research suggests that John Falter used a Naval photograph taken during March 1943 of Virginia L. Scott as the basis for this image. She is sending a message from the code room of the Radio School at Madison, Wisconsin. The Navy used this painting to print 40,000 posters, 71,000 window cards and 57,000 car cards in June of 1943.

Falter infused the subjects of his recruiting posters with striking expression. In the 1940s, a poster such as this one with its dramatic lighting, serious tone and portrayal of a woman performing a job formerly reserved for men would have caught and held a passerby's attention.


Patched to Fly Another Day
Howard Baer
Watercolor, 1943

Here, it's the WAVE and sailor together to patch bullet holes in the wing tip pontoon of a naval flying boat in from patrol duty.


Victory Sparks
Howard Baer #11
Watercolor, 1943

A WAVE machinist bends busily over a grinding wheel, sparks flying from the tool which she is sharpening. WAVES have won a respected place for themselves as mechanics in Navy machine and repair shops.


Bomber Glamour
Howard Baer #9
Pen & Ink, 1943

Female machinists repaired planes with male enlisted machinist's mates, as this one working here on a bomber in for overhaul.


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