Early in 1941 Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts met with General George C. Marshall, the Army's Chief of Staff, and informed him that she intended to introduce a bill to establish an Army women's corps, separate and distinct from the existing Army Nurse Corps. Rogers remembered the female civilians who had worked overseas with the Army under contract and as volunteers during World War I as communications specialists and dietitians. Because these women had served the Army without benefit of official status, they had to obtain their own food and quarters, and they received no legal protection or medical care. Upon their return home they were not entitled to the disability benefits or pensions available to U.S. military veterans. Rogers was determined that if women were to serve again with the Army in a wartime theater they would receive the same legal protection and benefits as their male counterparts.
As public sentiment increasingly favored the creation of some form of a women's corps, Army leaders decided to work with Rogers to devise and sponsor an organization that would constitute the least threat to the Army's existing culture. Although Rogers believed the women's corps should be a part of the Army so that women would receive equal pay, pension, and disability benefits, the Army did not want to accept women directly into its ranks. The final bill represented a compromise between the two sides. The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was established to work with the Army, "for the purpose of making available to the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of the women of the nation." The Army would provide up to 150,000 "auxiliaries" with food, uniforms, living quarters, pay, and medical care. Women officers would not be allowed to command men. The Director of the WAAC was assigned the rank of major. WAAC first, second, and third officers served as the equivalents of captains and lieutenants in the Regular Army, but received less pay than their male counterparts of similar rank.
Rogers introduced her bill in Congress in May 1941, but it failed to receive serious consideration until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December. General Marshall's active support and congressional testimony helped the Rogers bill through Congress. Marshall believed that the two-front war in which the United States was engaged would cause an eventual manpower shortage. The Army could ill afford to spend the time and money necessary to train men in essential service skills such as typing and switchboard operations when highly skilled women were already available.
After a long and acrimonious debate, the bill finally passed the House 249 to 86. The Senate approved the bill 38 to 27 on May 14, 1942. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law, he set a recruitment goal of 25,000 for the first year. WAAC recruiting topped that goal by November, at which point Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson authorized WAAC enrollment at 150,000, the original ceiling set by Congress.
The day the bill became law, Stimson appointed Oveta Culp Hobby as Director of the WAAC. As chief of the Women's Interest Section in the Public Relations Bureau at the War Department, Hobby had helped shepherd the WAAC bill through Congress. She had impressed both the media and the public when she testified in favor of the WAAC bill in January. In the words of the Washington Times Herald, "Mrs. Hobby has proved that a competent, efficient woman who works longer days than the sun does not need to look like the popular idea of a competent, efficient woman."
Prior to her arrival in Washington, Hobby had had ten years' experience as editor of the Houston Post (see full biographical sketch of Hobby ). Married to former Texas Governor William P. Hobby, Oveta Culp Hobby was well versed in national and local politics. Before her marriage she had spent five years as a parliamentarian of the Texas legislature and had written a book on parliamentary procedure.
Oveta Culp Hobby was thus the perfect choice for Director of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. The position needed a woman with a proven record of achievement. The individual selected had to be politically astute, with an understanding of how things got done in Washington and in the War Department. Most important, the Director of the WAAC had to show a skeptical American public that a woman could be "a lady" and serve as a member of the armed forces at the same time. This was crucial to the success of the WAAC. A volunteer force, the WAAC had to appeal to small town and middle-class America to recruit the skilled clerical workers, teachers, stenographers, and telephone operators needed by the Army.
Major Hobby immediately began organizing the WAAC recruiting drive and training centers. Fort Des Moines, Iowa, was selected as the site of the first WAAC training center. Applications for the WAAC officer training program were made available at Army recruiting stations on May 27, with a return deadline of June 4. Applicants had to be U.S. citizens between the ages of 21 and 45 with no dependents, be at least five feet tall, and weigh 100 pounds or more. Over 35,000 women from all over the country applied for less than 1,000 anticipated positions.
On July 20, the first officer candidate training class of 440 women started a six-week course at Fort Des Moines. Interviews conducted by an eager press revealed that the average officer candidate was 25 years old, had attended college, and was working as an office administrator, executive secretary, or teacher. The first enlisted class started its four-week basic training at Fort Des Moines on August 17, 1942. All of the women enlisting in the WAAC's, be it officer or enlisted, professed a desire to aid their country in time of need by "releasing a man for combat duty."
The first WAAC officers finished their training on August 29.
The Women 's Army Corps
While press and public discussed the merits of the WAAC, Congress opened hearings in March 1943 on the conversion of the WAAC into the Regular Army. Army leaders asked for the authority to convert the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps into the Women's Army Corps (WAC), which would be part of the Army itself rather than merely serving with it. The WAAC had been an unqualified success, and the Army received more requests for WAACs than it could provide. Although WAACs were desperately needed overseas, the Army could not offer them the protection if captured or benefits if injured which Regular Army soldiers received. The plans for an eventual Allied front in Europe required a substantially larger Army, with many more jobs that women could fill. Establishment of a Women's Army Corps with pay, privileges, and protection equal to that accorded to men was seen as a partial solution to the Army's problem.
On July 3, 1943 the WAC bill (Public law 110) was signed into law. All WAACs were given a choice of joining the Army as a member of the WAC or returning to civilian life. Although the majority decided to enlist, 25 percent decided to leave the service at the time of conversion.
Women returned home for a variety of reasons. Some were needed at home because of family problems; others had taken a dislike to group living and Army discipline. Women electing to leave also complained that they had not been kept busy or that they had not felt needed in their jobs. Not surprisingly, the majority of those who left had been assigned to the Army Ground Forces, which had been reluctant to accept women in the first place and where the women were often underutilized and ignored. Some 34 percent of the WAACs allocated to the Army Ground Forces decided to leave the service at the time of conversion, compared to 20 percent of those in the Army Air Forces and 25 percent of those in the Army Service Forces.
With the conversion of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps to the Women's Army Corps, former WAAC first, second, and third officers became captains and first and second lieutenants, respectively. Director Hobby was officially promoted to the rank of colonel. With the establishment of the WAC, Women's Army Corps members traveled to North Africa, the Mediterranean, Europe, the Southwest Pacific, China, India, Burma, and the Middle East and took on assignments that consisted mainly of the clerical and communications jobs.
One month after V-E Day, May 8, 1945, WAC Director Oveta Culp Hobby resigned from the corps for personal reasons. Colonel Hobby's dedicated and skillful administration was the primary force behind the wartime success of the organization from its formation and overall philosophy through its rapid growth, the conversion from the WAAC to the WAC, and its accomplishments overseas. Hobby recommended as her successor Lt. Col. Westray Battle Boyce, Deputy Director of the WAC and former Staff Director of the North African Theater. Colonel Boyce was appointed WAC Director in July 1945 and oversaw the demobilization of the WAC after V-J Day in August 1945.
The Army acknowledged the contributions of the Women's Army Corps during World War II by granting numerous individual corps members various awards. WAC Director Oveta Culp Hobby received the Distinguished Service Medal. Sixty-two WACs, both officers and enlisted women, received the Legion of Merit, awarded for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of duty.
Early in 1946, the Army asked Congress for the authority to establish the Women's Army Corps as a permanent part of the Regular Army. This is the greatest single indication of the success of the wartime WAC. The Army acknowledged a need for the skills society believed women could provide. Although the bill was delayed in Congress for two years by political conservatives, it finally became law on June 12, 1948. With the passage of this bill, the Women's Army Corps became a separate corps of the Regular Army. It remained part of the U.S. Army organization until 1978, when its existence as a separate corps was abolished and women were fully assimilated into all but the combat branches of the Army.