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The Women’s Air Raid Defense: Protecting the Hawaiian Islands

6/12/2006 • Aviation History

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NATIONAL ARCHIVES
Women’s Air Raid Defense (WARD) staffers on the job in Oahu’s information and control center in 1943. On the right is the radar plotting board, which displays data received from radar stations around the island. Workers positioned markers on the large’shuffleboard’ at the center of the room to keep track of contacts.

A torrential tropical rain was falling on the evening of January 12, 1942, as a small convoy of cars drove through the main gate of Fort Shafter, headquarters of the U.S. Army’s Hawaiian Department. The buildings there were bullet-pocked and fire-blackened from the December 7 air raid by the Japanese. At the end of the road to the Signal Corps yards on the mud flats, an Army Air Forces officer and a dozen young women, saddle shoes and bobby socks visible beneath their raincoats, emerged from the cars. After checking in at a sentry box, they gingerly filed over 50 yards of slotted duckboards to a tall wooden ‘penthouse’ perched atop a low concrete warehouse — Building 307. Another guard checked their identity badges before allowing them to climb the exterior wooden staircase to enter a blackout vestibule shrouded in rain-damp Army blankets. Then, after hanging up their rain gear, steel helmets and gas masks, they stepped into a cavernous, well-lit room.

The room was nearly filled by a huge table — a plotting board — with the familiar outline of the Hawaiian Islands superimposed by a grid pattern. Around it, Signal Corps plotters sat or stood, talking intermittently with distant radar operators, code-named ‘Oscars,’ over telephone headsets. Using implements like shuffleboard sticks, the plotters — known as ‘Rascals’ — were placing and moving small plastic markers on the board to indicate the locations and status of their Oscars’ radar contacts. Overseeing the action from a balcony running around two sides of the room sat the senior controller, the officer in charge. With him were military and civil aviation liaison officers, who correlated the markers with their service’s flights. If they could not identify a given track, the senior controller would have the pursuit officer, a fighter pilot, scramble interceptors to visually identify the ‘bogy,’ and, if it was an enemy plane, shoot it down.

One by one, during lulls in activity, the young women stepped up to the plotters, adjusted their headsets and waited until they heard, ‘Rascal, this is Oscar, can you read me?’ All around Oahu that night, radar operators were astonished when a self-assured female voice replied, ‘Oscar, this is Rascal. I read you loud and clear.’ Women’s Air Raid Defense plotters had just taken over the night shift at ‘Little Robert,’ the Air Defense Command’s information and control center (ICC). For the first time, American women had officially replaced male soldiers in a war zone and were directly participating in the defense of American territory.

Little Robert had been built by Signal Corps troops in the autumn of 1941 as the hub of the Aircraft Warning Service. Radar contacts, ground observers’ sightings and Wheeler Field’s interceptor status came into the ICC via a buried telephone cable running around the island. The system was tested on September 27, with Army pursuit planes satisfactorily intercepting ‘attacking’ carrier-based Navy aircraft. The radars had detected and tracked both Japanese attack waves on December 7, and even two cruiser-launched scout planes that had reconnoitered Pearl Harbor and the Lahaina Roads alternate fleet anchorage just before the raid, but an effective air defense operations system was lacking. Once the shock resulting from the attack had subsided, the Army created the Air Defense Command to control the 14th Pursuit Wing and the Anti-Aircraft Artillery Brigade, plus available Navy and Marine fighters and anti-aircraft weapons. Brigadier General Howard C. Davidson, the commander of the 14th Pursuit Wing, was appointed Air Defense commander, and the ICC became his operations center.

Davidson also had to give up ICC staff from Oahu — where air raids were expected at any time — to create aircraft warning units for Samoa, Fiji and New Caledonia. The role of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in Britain’s air defense centers was well known, but conservative congressional opposition in 1941 had blocked establishment of an American equivalent. (Created in mid-1942, the Women’s Army Corps eventually staffed 27 aircraft warning units.) Davidson appealed to the War Department for an emergency executive order creating a WAAF-like organization for Hawaii. Executive Order 9063 was approved on Christmas Day.

General Davidson telephoned a Honolulu couple he knew, asking for their help in finding some bright, trustworthy and reliable young women. Alexander and Una Walker were kamaainas (lifetime Hawaii residents), and Una knew many local women through her Red Cross work. When Davidson called back an hour later, they had a list of 20 names for him.

The day after Christmas, Davidson met with Mrs. Walker and the 20 young women at the huge pink Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Being kamaainas like the Walkers, the women shared the trauma of December 7 and had personal as well as patriotic reasons for volunteering. To Nancy Hedemann and others, ‘It was the defense of our home which came clear, then service to your country.’ Pat Morgan, from a New England medical missionary family that had arrived in Hawaii in 1828, had found the raid ‘at once exciting and terrifying’ and felt they ‘were all consumed with an urge to do something violent.’

General Davidson addressed them in an upstairs meeting room, overlooking white beaches strung with barbed wire. Due to tight security, there was little specific he could tell them, only that they would be doing critical secret work for the Army, replacing men for duty in forward areas. They should be between 20 and 34 years of age and childless, be able to pass a physical examination and an Army Intelligence background investigation, be willing to work any shift and abide by special regulations. They would be appointed to the civil service, with pay of $120 per month, and would be furnished uniforms and quarters at Fort Shafter, with officers’ mess privileges. ‘[We] would be considered officers,’ Hedemann recalled,’so that in the event of capture by the enemy, [we] would be treated according to the…international law regarding prisoners of war.’

For an organizational name, Davidson suggested Women’s Air Defense. The women inserted the word Raid to make a more euphonious acronym, and thus the WARD was born. Administratively, it was known as the WARD Detachment, Company A, 515th Signal Aircraft Warning Regiment (Special), reporting to the commanding general, 7th Fighter Command (formerly 14th Pursuit Wing). The WARD was transferred to the Army Air Forces in 1943. The WARDs-to-be were to report to the Army-requisitioned Iolani Palace on January 1 for formal induction and training, and were asked to bring any interested friends who met the standards.

Davidson soon realized that the population of eligible kamaainas was too small. He also learned, however, that some military wives wanted to stay in Hawaii, in spite of air raid alarms and invasion rumors, and he obtained authority to take anyone going into the WARD off the evacuation lists. About half of those who gathered at Iolani Palace on New Year’s Day were military wives. Many had witnessed the horrors of the December 7 raid close up. Joy Shaw, wife of a captain at the Marine barracks, remembered driving behind ‘a truckload of bodies stacked to the top like logs, naked, blackened by oil, smoke and blood, boys from the various ships.’ To Kathy Cooper, 19-year-old Navy daughter and wife, Hickam Field had looked from her parents’ home ‘like a great sea of flame about a mile long.’ She felt at that moment that ‘If a Japanese pilot had walked into the house, I would have tried to kill him.’

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SIGNAL CORPS
Many of the young women who volunteered to serve as WARDs were barely out of high school. Here, a group of bobby-soxers enjoys a coffee break in December 1942 after coping with the tensions of the plotting room.

A large simulated plotting board dominated the room where they met with General Davidson, who told the women he needed them to work in the Air Defense Command Center, replacing men for forward area duty. They would be taking part in the defense of the Hawaiian Islands, and it would be the most important work done by any women in the country. Training would begin immediately after they filled out civil service applications and were photographed for identification badges. He then introduced supervisors Gwendolyn Williams and Mary Erdman, who had trained the previous week in Little Robert, and the new WARDs were fitted for pale-blue, Red Cross–style dress and fatigue uniforms, the same kind the two supervisors were wearing. They were also issued World War I–era helmets and gas masks, as well as armbands signifying they were noncombatants.

Lieutenant Ardie Konkle led them through their first training session. Nancy Hedemann recalled that, once they had plugged their telephone headsets into stations around the board, they ‘practiced receiving radar readings from `Oscars’ who were conveying messages to us, the `Rascals.’ To place a reading on the plotting board, we took a colored arrow and with a pokerlike, rubber-tipped implement placed the arrow at the reading transmitted by Oscar. The arrows were red, blue and green; the color designated the five-minute interval of a quarter-hour in which a reading had been received.’

The sense of urgency was palpable. ‘During that first two-week period in January 1942,’ Hedemann remembered, ‘frequent air raid alarms were heard and, on each occasion, the possibility of a repetition of December 7 became fresh.’ After 10 days of two-hour training sessions, Lieutenant Konkle felt they were ready for Little Robert.

On the first day of February, 104 WARDs moved into quarters at Fort Shafter and took over plotting duties on all four 6-hour shifts. A few Honolulu women were also trained as substitutes; called ‘town reserves,’ they lived at home and reported on call. During February, the SCR-271 fixed-site radars at Mount Haleakala on Maui, at Kokee on Kauai, and at Pahoa on Hawaii came on line, adding more plotting positions. The WARDs quickly became familiar with the characteristics of each radar and its environment. They learned to substitute the intersection of range arcs from multiple radars for the inaccurate azimuth readings. They took over filtering — ‘cleaning up’ the plot by consolidating apparently separate tracks. As they became familiar with aircraft speeds and turn rates, they took on interceptor vectoring. Senior WARDs began conducting in-house training.

By early March, though the WARDs had gained confidence in their new skills, 12 weeks had passed without an air raid, and the women were wondering how they would perform if one came. In the early morning of March 5, 1942, they found out. At 12:15 a.m., the Kokee site on Kauai called on VHF radio. Two aircraft were approaching from the southwest, headed for Oahu. The ICC handed over the track to the Opana site, which picked up the aircraft 20 miles east of Kauai. Jean Fraser was plotting for Opana, and the liaison officers on the balcony bombarded her with questions. More WARDs joined the action as their Oscars picked up the bogies. Colonels and generals suddenly appeared en masse. To shift captain Joy Shaw, it seemed that ‘everybody [was] following the Mongolian General Prudential Rule: `When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout!”

The mysterious aircraft could not be identified as friendly, and the senior controller scrambled interceptors from Wheeler. On a moonless, rainy night they had little chance of visual contact, but the ICC managed to cue searchlights. ‘When the searchlights cut on,’ Captain Sam Shaw wrote, ‘they had in their beams a large flying boat. Later, there were garbled accounts that it had set off photo-flash bombs for night photography. No anti-aircraft guns opened fire. All hands were determined to have no more trigger-happy misfortunes such as there had been immediately after the [December 7] attack.’

The flying boats were four-engine Japanese Kawanishi H8K ‘Emilys.’ With a range of 4,460 miles, they had flown from the Marshall Islands without refueling. Their crews had no more success locating blacked-out Pearl Harbor that rainy night than the interceptors had finding them. Each plane apparently carried two 550-pound bombs, which were supposed to be dropped on an American aircraft carrier. The Japanese airmen dropped their bombs blindly. One pair exploded off the entrance to Pearl Harbor, the other on the outskirts of Honolulu.

About 1:30 a.m., awakened by supervisors or the undulating wail of the Fort Shafter siren, WARDs struggled out into the rain with helmets and gas masks to the air raid shelters. Nancy Hedemann recalled ‘two very loud explosions in quick succession…over by Makiki Heights and lower [Mount] Tantalus. It was shortly after 2 a.m. Good Heavens! What was that? Was there more to come? Soon the `all clear’ was heard, and we trudged back to our quarters to talk and then sleep.’ Kathy Cooper ‘heard from…Little Robert how they had put on their helmets and plotted-in the enemy planes with their gas masks beside their chairs.’

Before the raid there had been speculation about whether the air defense system could go beyond detection and tracking into successful interception. The interceptors’ failure to find the raiders left the question unanswered. The WARDs, however, felt they had vectored in the fighters as close as the technology permitted, and they could have intercepted the intruders with better illumination or with airborne-intercept radar, then unknown in U.S. service.

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By May 1942, the WARDs could see signs of preparations for the Battle of Midway in the intense air traffic, which frequently required extra shifts or no relief, and in the false air raid alarms caused by new pilots missing approach corridors. On May 15, the military governor of Hawaii, Lt. Gen. Delos C. Emmons, warned the public in the Honolulu Advertiser of possible attacks on Hawaii. Civilian evacuation plans were developed and publicized. Later that month, Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker, Hawaiian Air Force commander, and General Davidson briefed the assembled WARDs. ‘General Tinker…provided general outlines of a major encounter that might bring the action to Hawaii,’ Hedemann later recalled. ‘General Davidson said that, since there would be no assistance available to us during an attack, the WARDs would be required to stay on post and prepare with fire fighting equipment (ladders, buckets of sand and water), practice litter-bearing and generally get ready for independent self-care.’ Davidson’s flight surgeon provided WARD supervisor Mary Erdman with some of the new sulfanilamide wound powder.

By June 4 the women knew the battle was on. ‘They asked us to stay put,’ shift captain Joy Shaw wrote, ‘and I gave no relief to the girls on the [plotting] board. As a matter of fact, they did not want to be relieved. The usual procedure was to relieve each plotter at least four times each shift.’ Katie Huber recalled that they vectored ‘Air Force bombers — many with injured men aboard — into blacked-out airfields with voice direction through UHF radio. We received a citation for a job well done.’

Nell Larsen remembered that she was plotting ‘records from a desk above the board, so I was aware of military movements shaping up from actions on the board….When the news came in that we had won a great victory at Midway…the Air Force threw their hats in the air….Not too long after…WARDs were told that the handsome and very personable General Tinker had been lost…on a bomber attempting to attack Wake Island.’

Right after Midway the Army decided to establish air defense operations centers on Maui, Kauai and Hawaii (the ‘Big Island’), where it had already located radars and where there also were fighter airfields. Although smaller than the Oahu ICC, which had moved into a location known as ‘Lizard,’ an underground facility a short walk from the WARD quarters, the new centers were no less labor intensive. Maui, for instance, required six plotters, a record plotter, a filterer and a supervisor, plus a switchboard operator and a teletype operator on a direct line to the Puunene Naval Air Station for each of three shifts. The WARD organization was asked to staff these centers, and two senior WARDs accompanied each team of Signal Corps training officers and sergeants, led by an Army Air Forces lieutenant colonel, to set up each one.

Recruiting had to be by word of mouth, as it had been on Oahu, but was more problematic on the neighbor islands. The Oahu WARDs had been drawn from Hawaii’s 105,000 haoles (Caucasians), plus military wives. The Army had put the island’s 160,000 Japanese — more than half the population — off-limits for sensitive jobs, even the 60 percent who were Hawaiian-born. The neighboring island populations were heavily Japanese, with few haoles and no military dependents. Recruiting from the close-knit Hawaiian, Filipino, Chinese, Korean and Portuguese communities, with unnumbered houses on unnamed streets, would have to follow personal recommendations from local teachers, physicians and clergymen. The key was to quickly identify a respected local woman willing to serve as head supervisor.

Kauai, with the smallest population, presented the greatest challenge. Judge and Mrs. Philip Rice, second-generation kamaainas who were active in Hawaiian folklore, the church and a benevolence society, were esteemed by all the island folk. Florence Rice was appointed head supervisor, while Judge Rice donated their estate for an operations center and WARD quarters, moving into an apartment in Lihue. Mrs. Rice and her three new supervisors quickly discovered that to fill a quota of about 50 girls without lowering standards, younger girls would have to be accepted. The Army had to hire a scholastic tutor and provide guards for the dormitory, which Mrs. Rice personally supervised.

The neighbor island operations centers were located in main towns, so most WARDs could live at home. They could not reveal what they did or even where they worked, however, and had to be dropped off for work away from the centers. On Maui the recreation building and rectory of Wailuku’s Good Shepherd Church, sandbagged and camouflaged, served as the ICC. Before moving to the Rice estate, the Kauai WARDs spent two months at the Lihue Grammar School learning plotting, filtering and how to vector Barking Sands airfield’s Curtiss P-40 fighters.

After Midway, the threat of another attack on Hawaii receded. Everyone breathed easier. Social life picked up, and the WARDs found themselves in great demand for armed forces’ parties and dances. However, Lizard was busier than ever coordinating the increasing air traffic headed for the western Pacific, air-sea rescue operations and interceptor pilot training. ‘Pilots drill night and day with the operations unit until they are sent to the forward bases,’ wrote Tanya Widren. ‘As WARDs we get a tremendous satisfaction out of the role we play in rescue work. There isn’t a WARD who hasn’t been, at one time or another, partly responsible for saving the life of a young airman in distress.’

But by late 1942 many of the original WARDs were leaving. For Hedemann, ‘the war [had] moved on and we felt safer in Hawaii’ following Midway. Married, she became a town reserve early in 1943. When she became pregnant, she recalled, ‘They moved me out of the WARD with a rapidity that suggested I might have the plague.’ Lornahope DeClue felt that ‘the urgency of serving was over’ and resigned to continue her education. Chief supervisor Mary Erdman resigned to accompany her evacuated daughter to the mainland; she came home to Hawaii but rejoined the Red Cross. Dottie Beach resigned to pursue her flying and join the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots. Joy Shaw left when her husband was transferred to the mainland. ‘Perhaps I should have stayed with the WARD,’ she later mused, ‘as during his three years’ absence he was in and out of Pearl a number of times. [But] I had to sign a release with the stipulation that I not try to return for the duration of the war.’

At the same time, new radar stations were coming on line. ‘Every new station or job meant one more girl for each of the four shifts,’ wrote Bertha Bloomfield-Brown, and ‘it was not long before all recruiting efforts struck rock bottom in the islands, where the employment situation was critical anyhow.’ The age limit was officially lowered to 17 to qualify girls just graduating from high school, special shifts were arranged for some University of Hawaii students, and the list of town reserves stretched to 25. But by January 1943, WARD still counted about 110 employees, while the number of positions had increased to 33, for each of four shifts. The 7th Fighter Command reluctantly decided to recruit for the WARD on the mainland.

Mainland recruiting started in San Francisco, where Colonel Lorry Tindal of the 7th Fighter Command had gone to see the Air Defense Wing’s recruiting officer. Tanya Widrin, who had previously served in the Los Angeles air defense filter center, met Tindal through a friend while on her way to join the Women’s Army Corps. She later said, ‘When Colonel Tindal told me that the WARDs operate a filter center and do the same type of work as the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in England…I was on my way [to Hawaii] within ten days.’ The Army still classified air defense top-secret, however, and later recruits experienced cloak-and-dagger meetings, loyalty tests and FBI background investigations. But one Army personnel specialist in the Presidio was able to process her own application. ‘As I shivered in the fog,’ wrote recent Stanford graduate Jean McKellar, ‘I thought about what I told young women in my recruiting work for the WARD; `Hawaii is so beautiful, so warm; the work is vital to our security.’…Hawaii seemed to offer several solutions in one!’

The first 34 mainland recruits arrived in Honolulu in February 1943 aboard a crowded U.S. Navy transport after a stormy passage in a zigzagging convoy. They had signed a one-year contract, renewable for another year. With 143 women, plus four to eight replacements arriving each month, Hawaii’s WARD had adequate strength for the first time. By early 1944, with the war distant from Hawaii, and Oahu’s operations center able to cover the whole territory, the Army closed down the neighbor island centers — first the Kauai unit on January 15 and then Maui’s and the Big Island’s on April 1.

V-J Day seemed to arrive suddenly. Four days before, on August 11, 1945, the Air Defense commander, Brig. Gen. John Weikert, notified the WARD, ‘It is expected that military personnel will take over all WARD duties within fifteen (15) days after V-J Day and that the WARD as an organization will be completely disbanded within twenty days after V-J Day.’ The War Department offered the WARDs equivalent civil service positions in the islands. Of approximately 165 on duty, 87 elected to return to the mainland.

Responding to a May 1945 editorial in the Honolulu Advertiser praising the WARDs, General Howard Davidson, their first commander, wrote chief supervisor Kitty Coonley, ‘I have seen many fighter control [centers], have several under me now, but the one in Honolulu manned by the WARDs is the best I have seen. I understand that the war has moved on and left Honolulu behind … but you can take great pride in the fact that while it did threaten Hawaii you maintained the best Air Raid Defense system in the world.’

Nell Larsen’s appraisal of her WARD experience was more personal, yet offers a telling insight into the prevailing attitude toward women in the American workplace in the 1940s. ‘The most memorable aspect of my service was the respect and admiration for American women I came to have as a result of my total war experience in Hawaii,’ said Larsen. ‘We were so often pictured as spoiled, hysterical and shallow. The women I came in contact with disproved all of that in spades.’

The WARDs stood their last shift in Lizard on September 27. More than 650 women had served in Hawaii’s control centers, representing all the islands’ races except the Japanese and nearly all the states in the Union.

For the most part young, hastily trained and not widely appreciated, the’shuffleboard pilots’ who volunteered to help protect the Hawaiian Islands by staffing its plotting boards had filled a vital need at a critical time.

This article was written by Ronald R. Gilliam and originally published in Aviation History Magazine in May 2002.

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