The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was the women’s branch of the US Army. It was created as an auxiliary unit, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) on 15 May 1942 by Public Law 554, and converted to full status as the WAC in 1943. Its first director was Oveta Culp Hobby, a prominent society woman in Texas.
The WAAC organization was designed by numerous Army bureaus coordinated by Lt. Col. Gilman C. Mudgett, the first WAAC Pre-Planner. However, nearly all of his plans were discarded or greatly modified before going into operation because he expected a corps of only 11,000 women.
The WAAC was modeled after comparable British units, especially the ATS, which caught the attention of Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. In 1942, the first contingent of 800 members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps began basic training at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. The women were fitted for uniforms, interviewed, assigned to companies and barracks and inoculated against disease during the first day.
A physical training manual was published by the War Department in July 1943, aimed at bringing the women recruits to top physical standards. One section of the manual satirized a notional recruit named “Josephine Jerk” who does not participate wholeheartedly: “Josephine Jerk is a limp number in every outfit who dives into her daily dozen with the crisp vitality of a damp mop.” The manual begins by naming the responsibility of the women: “Your Job: To Replace Men. Be Ready To Take Over.”
About 150,000 American women served in the WAAC and WAC during World War II. They were the first women other than nurses to serve with the Army. While conservative opinion in the leadership of the Army and public opinion generally was initially opposed to women serving in uniform, the shortage of men necessitated a new policy. While most women served stateside, some went to various places around the World, including Europe, North Africa and New Guinea. For example, WACs landed on Normandy Beach just a few weeks after the initial invasion.
Many men ferociously opposed allowing women in uniform, warning their sisters and friends they would be seen as lesbians or prostitutes. They feared that if women became soldiers they would no longer serve in a masculine preserve and their masculinity would be devalued. Others feared being sent into combat units if women took over the safe jobs.
General Douglas MacArthur called the WACs “my best soldiers”, adding that they worked harder, complained less, and were better disciplined than men. Many generals wanted more of them and proposed to draft women but it was realized that this “would provoke considerable public outcry and Congressional opposition” and the War Department declined to take such a drastic step.Those 150,000 women that did serve released the equivalent of 7 divisions of men for combat. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said that “their contributions in efficiency, skill, spirit, and determination are immeasurable”.
During the same time period, other branches of the U.S. military had similar women’s units, including the Navy WAVES, the SPARS of the Coast Guard and the (civil) Women Airforce Service Pilots. The British Armed Forces also had similar units, including the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
The WAC as a branch was disbanded in 1978. Women serving as WACs at that time converted their branches to whatever Military Occupational Specialty they were working in. Since then, women in the U.S. Army have served in the same units as men, though they have only been allowed in or near combat situations since 1994 when Defense Secretary Les Aspin ordered the removal of “substantial risk of capture” from the list of grounds for excluding women from certain military units.