Navy Commissions First African American Woman Officers

By Dr. Regina T. Akers, Naval History and Heritage Command Historian

Thoughts about World War II conjure specific reference points for most, Dec. 7, 1941, D-Day, or “Loose lips sink ships.” Key battles like Midway, North Africa, and Iwo Jima are almost synonymous with the war. There is another significant date that is not mentioned—Oct. 19, 1944, the day the Navy announced blacks would be admitted into the female reserves. Their struggle to serve without discrimination is part of the war’s civil rights movement and part of the Pittsburgh Courier’s “Double V” Campaign for victory over fascism abroad and racism at home.

World War II required “all hands on deck.” Americans enlisted, built military platforms in factories, and conserved nylon, rubber and other critical materials for the war effort. They planted Victory Gardens, purchased liberty bonds and sponsored ships. Once again, men were drafted and women volunteered for military service in congressionally established reserve programs designed to free more men from non-combat billets. Over 300,000 women contributed to Allies’ success as members of the Women’s Army Corps (WASP), the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), Semper Paratus Always Ready (SPARS), Women Marines, Women Air Service Pilots (WASP), and the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. They served around the globe in and out of harm’s way as air traffic controllers, couriers, cryptologists, hospital corpsmen, mechanics, linguists, pharmacists, translators, weather specialists, and translators. Flight nurses picked up the wounded on the battlefield transferred them to a plane and treated them in route to the hospital. The Japanese interned Army and Navy nurses in the Philippines. There were points during the war when the recruiters could not meet the demand. The women joining were motivated by patriotism, the desire to end the war sooner, and supporting deployed relatives fighting in the air, on land and at sea. The first classes of women officer candidates were well educated or seasoned members of their profession. A few left lucrative jobs to serve their nation. Women from every corner of the nation including members of Congress’ daughters joined the fight to defeat the Japan and Germany.

Despite the military’s tremendous need for personnel, the casualty rates and the length of the war, the military did not make maximum use of all qualified personnel. Blacks comprised less than one percent of the total force. The WAC and the Army Nurse Corps admitted blacks in 1942 but segregated them. The Navy’s WAVES did not enlist African Americans until 1944 and the Coast Guard SPARS followed suit. The Navy Nurse Corps did not integrate until March 5, 1945. The Women Marines remained all-white and the WASP had 2 Asian pilots but rejected Janet Bragg, an African American licensed pilot. Familiarity with the War Department’s racial discriminatory policies and practices for their race did not deter these patriotic black women from volunteering to do their part.

Captain Mildred H. McAfee, USNR. Photographed circa 1945. She was the wartime Director of the Women's Reserve (WAVES).

Director of the Women’s Reserve (WAVES) Capt. Mildred H. McAfee, photographed circa 1945.

Mildred H. McAfee, Director of the WAVES welcomed all qualified candidates but Secretary of the Navy William Franklin Knox opposed her plan believing that blacks could not meet the high standards set forth the WAVES. In fact she later recalled in a letter to historian Morris J. MacGregor that she overheard him Knox say that Negroes would be in the WAVES over his dead body. Ironically that is how it happened.  James Forrestal succeeded Knox after his fatal heart attack in April 1944. Forrestal concluded that having a segregated Navy was not cost effective and his experiences with Lester Granger, a fellow student at Dartmouth University and other blacks persuaded him to work towards integration. The Navy announced its decision to welcome blacks into the WAVES on Oct. 19, 1944.  African Americans had varied responses to the opportunity. Some had reservations about joining a historically discriminatory organization. Others chose not to leave their wartime jobs.

Lt. j.g. Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Ensign Frances Wills close a suitcase after graduating from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School (WR) at Northampton, Mass., circa December 1944.

Lt. j.g. Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Ensign Frances Wills close a suitcase after graduating from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (WR) at Northampton, Mass., circa December 1944.

“When fellow reservists complained about the blacks, they were given a choice –  accept them or leave.”

But Harriet Ida Pickens and Frances Elizabeth Wills accepted the Navy’s invitation. Pickens, born in Talladega, Ala., and a public health specialist graduated cum laude from Smith College in 1930 and from Columbia University with a Master’s degree in Political Science. Her father William Pickens, a founder of the National Association for Colored People urged her to join. Frances Elizabeth Wills a Philadelphia, Penn., native held a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Pittsburgh where she worked with Langston Hughes. When she read the newspaper advertisement, she decided to volunteer because she had no brothers to serve. Lt. Dessell swore them into the Navy on Nov. 13th. Despite entering the last class for naval reserve midshipman at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., three weeks late, Pickens graduated with honors. Originally, the Navy intended to have a separate unit like the WAC but decided otherwise when two few blacks enlisted. When fellow reservists complained about the blacks, they were given a choice –  accept them or leave. The Navy did not tolerate discrimination. The Navy assigned Pickens and Wills, New York residents to Hunter College, the main training station for enlisted WAVES.

African-American WAVES meeting with a group of visiting civilians June 21, 1945.

African-American WAVES meeting with a group of visiting civilians June 21, 1945.

 

By the war’s end on Sept. 2, 1945, 70 enlisted black WAVES joined Pickens and Wills. One of them, Chief Yeoman Edna Young became one of the first enlisted women sworn into the regular Navy on June 6, 1948.

 

FOR FURTHER RESEARCH:

Naval History and Heritage Command

Navy Department Library:

World War II Administrative History Series volume on Negro in the Navy#84 and Women Reserves #88 (unpublished and unindexed),

United States Naval Institute’s oral history with WAVES, 2-volumes

Morris J. MacGregor and Bernard C. Nalty, Eds., Blacks in the Military Essential Documents (Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, 1981), multi-volume, arranged chronologically

Dennis Nelson, The Integration of the Negro into the Navy, 1775-1948 (New York:  Farrar and Strauss, 1951)

Frances Wills Thorpe, Navy Blue and Other Colors, (Xlibris Corporation, 2007), published posthumously

Archives Branch:

Regina T. Akers’ interview with LT Edith DeVoe, one of the 4 black nurses commissioned during WWII

Officer Biography Collection

Blog:

“They Would Be Amazed”

Library of Congress

Papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Manuscript Division, Madison Building

National Archives II at College Park, MD

RG 80 Records of the Department of the Navy

RG 208 Records of the Office of War Information

New York Public Library

Harriet Pickens Papers, 1922-2005 (bulk 1930-1968), 6 linear feet, Collection Sc MG 759, Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, New York 10037, https://www.nypl.org/locations/schomburg

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