Navigating the WAVES in World War II

U.S. Naval Training Center, Women's Reserve (USS Hunter), The Bronx, New York Some of the schools trainees march in formation behind their color guard, during World War II. This Training Center, located in the facilities of Hunter College, provided basic training for Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard women recruits. The Center's flag features the fouled anchor and propeller device of the Women's Reserve. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives.

U.S. Naval Training Center, Women’s Reserve (USS Hunter), The Bronx, New York
Some of the schools trainees march in formation behind their color guard, during World War II.
This Training Center, located in the facilities of Hunter College, provided basic training for Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard women recruits. The Center’s flag features the fouled anchor and propeller device of the Women’s Reserve. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives.

From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

It was 72 years ago today when Navy installations were hit with a tsunami of WAVES. Not the watery kind, but Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.

Earlier that summer, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed Public Law 689 allowing women to enlist in the newly formed U.S. Naval Reserves (Women’s Reserves). To say it was a success is an understatement. Within the first year, there were more than 27,000 WAVES in the Navy’s ranks.

After the United States was dragged into World War II by the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the need for men to go to sea was a top priority. The Army had already established its WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps), but that was an auxiliary corps that worked with the Army. The WAVES were in the Navy. It wasn’t until July 1, 1943 that WAAC lost that second “A” to become Women’s Army Corps.

But with thousands of women willing to serve, how best to integrate them into the Navy? With boot camps, of course. Although that didn’t happen for the first WAVES class, according to Jacqueline Van Voris in her unpublished manuscript “Quiet Victory: The WAVES in World War II.”

Specialist (T) Katherine Dillon, USNR (W) monitors a radio range chart, while serving as a Link Trainer Instructor at Naval Air Station, St. Louis, Missouri, Nov. 3, 1943. She follows the Link trainer's "flight path", and, if the pilot becomes "lost", points out his error.  Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives collection.

Specialist (T) Katherine Dillon, USNR (W) monitors a radio range chart, while serving as a Link Trainer Instructor at Naval Air Station, St. Louis, Missouri, Nov. 3, 1943.
She follows the Link trainer’s “flight path”, and, if the pilot becomes “lost”, points out his error.
Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives collection.

Van Voris instructed pilots on instrument flying as a Link Trainer (the flight simulators in which Navy flight students learned instrument flying) from 1944-46.

“At one point it was thought Navy training and job training could be done at the same time,” Van Voris wrote. That was soon recognized as a mistake, but for the first two months, there was no boot camp for WAVES.

All recruits started as Seamen. Masses of material were covered in class, Van Voris wrote.

“New recruits were warned that one midshipman dropped her pencil during a history lecture and while she was picking it up missed all of the naval battles of the civil war,” quipped Van Voris.

Once it was established the recruits needed a boot camp to learn Navy traditions, customs, courtesy and discipline, New York became the training base for all WAVES by 1943 when USS Hunter opened at the Bronx campus of Hunter College. The Navy, at the cost of $1 million a year, rented the entire campus for WAVES training. And since the school had no residential dorms, New York City paid to move residents from 17 apartments adjacent to USS Hunter, Van Voris writes in “Quiet Victory.” Within two months, all was approved and USS Hunter U.S. Navy Training School (WR) was commissioned Feb. 8, 1943.

The first regiment of women totaled 1,993. Every two weeks, another 1,600 to 1,700 women would begin indoctrination.

Most of the key officers were men, many who had no idea what the (WR) meant on their new billet orders. “After recovering from the initial shock of being assigned to new duties involving Navy women, they used their experience in accomplishing the apparently impossible,” Van Voris wrote.

One in particular was Lt. Herbert S. Schwab, a supply officer, whose job was furnishing the first 13 apartment buildings to house 6,000 women, with 10 girls to each apartment with bunk beds, a chest of drawers, a table and a couple of chairs. After 16 months at sea, he was halfway home to Flatbush when he realized the WR meant Women’s Reserves. In an interview with the New Yorker, Schwab said the job was a revelation. “Don’t think it doesn’t make you feel peculiar to be ordering face powder instead of chewing tobacco,” he remarked.

When questioned by a mirror vendor whether to hang the mirrors vertically or horizontally so they could share, the married Schwab wisely pointed out two women would never use an 18×20-inch mirror at the same time, so hang them vertically.

Each recruit got four sheets, two pillowcases, four towels, a bed pad and two blankets. The first 6,000 bedspreads came from the converted passenger liners Manhattan and America.

Lt. j.g. Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Ensign Frances Wills are photographed after graduation from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School at Northampton, Massachusetts, in Dec. 1944. They were the Navy's first African-American "WAVES" officers. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives.

Lt. j.g. Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and
Ensign Frances Wills
are photographed after graduation from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Northampton, Massachusetts, in Dec. 1944. They were the Navy’s first African-American “WAVES” officers.
Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives.

It took two weeks for the women to get their tailored uniforms by fashion designer-label Mainbocher. Until then, they wore their uniform cover (hat) with blue crown and brim, civilian clothes, and GI-issued shoes. It cost only $5 more to outfit a WAVE than a Sailor, Van Voris noted. For $200, recruits received two blue suits, three long sleeved navy blue shirts, two white shirts, two navy ties, two light blue ones, one pair of navy gloves, two pairs white gloves and one navy topcoat, two hats and a rain cover. That also included four pairs of stockings, shoes, galoshes, a leather purse and summer work clothes.

There were a lot of adjustments for all involved. But as the first WAVE Director Lt. Cmdr. Mildred McAfee pointed out, WAVES had the ability to safely navigate troubled waters as they set up the administrative chain of command, and sailed to the end with “sturdy grace.”

Navy WAVE trainee leans on a swab while cleaning her barracks, soon after she arrives at a Naval Training Center during World War II prior to April 1944. Note her suitcases at right, and dungaree working uniform with button fly. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives.

Navy WAVE trainee leans on a swab while cleaning her barracks, soon after she arrives at a Naval Training Center during World War II prior to April 1944. Note her suitcases at right, and dungaree working uniform with button fly. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives.

The cafeteria at USS Hunter served 15,000 meals a day for the WAVES. Almost immediately, the male cooking staff discovered some differences between male and female recruits. The women required more than 23 minutes per meal than had been allotted to their male counterparts at their boot camp, and while men might eat and grumble about the food, the commissary officer immediately heard a “gabble of high-pitched voices informing him of women’s food preferences,” Van Voris recounted.

Those problems were resolved as an increasing number of WAVES were used in the commissary, and by August 1943, a school for cooks and bakers was established. After that, Hunter became known for its good food, strong coffee and fresh baked bread, Van Voris noted.

Everywhere they marched they sang. From maudlin to the irreverent. Popular songs, spirituals, even men’s service songs, plus their own WAVES songs they made up, including this one:

Three worthy gents we all admire,

Three who saved the day,

Three who made our lives worthwhile,

Dewey, Decatur and Mainbocher.

"WAVES' Anniversary", 1943 Cartoon by Sixta, USNR, depicting events and activities in the first year following the 30 July 1942 authorization of the WAVES. Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC. NHHC Photograph.

“WAVES’ Anniversary”, 1943
Cartoon by Sixta, USNR, depicting events and activities in the first year following the 30 July 1942 authorization of the WAVES.
Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC.
NHHC Photograph.

President Roosevelt, in a speech on the second anniversary of the Women’s Reserves, noted “history will record that the WAVES fulfilled a great purpose. In 500 shore establishments of the fleet, women in uniform took over the work of Navy men. They released enough of them from noncombatant duty to man all our landing craft in two important operations: the Normandy landing on June 6 and the Invasion of Saipan on June 15. The Women’s Reserve will continue to speed the victory day by efficient performance of vital duties ashore.”

WAVES study aircraft mechanics at Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, N.J., during World War II. Seaman 2nd Class Elaine Olsen (left) and Seaman 2nd Class Ted Snow are learning to take down a radial aircraft engine block. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives collection.

WAVES study aircraft mechanics at Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, N.J., during World War II.
Seaman 2nd Class Elaine Olsen (left) and Seaman 2nd Class Ted Snow are learning to take down a radial aircraft engine block. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives collection.

At their peak strength in 1945, there were 86,000 reservists on duty in nearly every type of shore activity, and more than 104,000 women joined the WAVES. Within three years of their formation, women made up 18 percent of total naval force ashore.

“The war experience has underscored the conviction that there is no satisfaction more profound than the commitment of oneself to a cause bigger than one’s own immediate self-interest.” Capt. Mildred McAffee wrote in 1944.

That commitment has continued to this day. In 1948, the Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act allowed women to enlist directly into the military rather than through women’s organizations like the WAVES or WACs. According to the Department of Defense, 14.6 percent of the active-duty force are women. That number swells to 19.5 for women in the reserves and 15.5 percent for those serving in the National Guard.

Information for this blog came from the unpublished manuscript “Quiet Victory: The WAVES in World War II” by author Jacqueline Van Voris. She instructed pilots on instrument flying as a Link Trainer with the WAVES for the U.S. Navy from 1944 to 1946. A copy of the manuscript is in the U.S. Navy Library at the Washington Navy Yard.

 

 DID YOU KNOW

With women now serving on submarines and a female four-star admiral as Vice Chief of Naval Operations, it’s hard to imagine a time when female recruits spent their time singing while drilling. But so it was back in 1943, as reflected by these bits of information published April 1, 1943 in the second edition of the weekly newsletter Great Lakes ALWAV, as well as some insight from those who attended USS Hunter.

Drills opened with a five-minute sing before reviewing and re-emphasizing fundamentals of indoctrination of WAVES in keeping up-to-date on current Navy news, activities of war fronts and Navy leadership.

WAVES training in communications rates (i.e. radioman) were warned to be cautious when people asked what they were being trained for by saying as “hostesses on battleships.”

The beloved designer Mainbocher gave the WAVES a bit of a foreign-legion feel to their uniforms with shoulder-length rain attachments to their covers, making people believe they were a strange order of nuns.

At one point, the rumored nickname for women Marines was “Feathernecks.”

The Arctic Class of 1943 (Jan. 1943) remembered they “slid to breakfast, slopped to lunch and skated back to dinner.” Forward mush was the command given by a platoon leader.

“We are learning the Navy way here,” the girls wrote home. “We hurry up and wait.”

Another girl wrote home from USS Hunter that “People got over fainting in a hurry after a Specialist (enlisted WAVE in charge of platoon) sardonically told the girls ‘that if one fainted while we were marching in formation just to step over her.’ That calmed down the fainting.”

Watches and endless drills. The watch consisted of going into each of 30 apartments once an hour and yelling “All Secure.” Also delivering messages and calling people to the phone.

Captain’s inspection on Saturday that required obsessive cleaning Friday nights to pass the white-glove test. As one girl wrote home: “If they can’t find dust, the beds aren’t smooth enough, the mirror’s streaked, something has to be wrong. It does give purpose to the cleaning and like banging your head on a brick wall, it’s lovely when it’s over.”

Enough WAVES served during World War II to man a major task force: A battleship, two large aircraft carriers, two heavy cruisers, four light cruisers and 15 destroyers.

 

–NHHC–

 

NOTE TO MEDIA:       For additional information about naval history, please contact the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Communication and Outreach division at 202-433-7880 or via email at NHHCPublicAffairs@navy.mil