Living in the shadow of the Bunker Hill Monument, it is pretty hard to avoid an interest in the American Revolution. At one point in a program I recently watched, the narrator read a letter from Abigail Adams in which she admonished her husband to “remember the ladies.” No doubt contrary to the intentions of the producers, this did not set me to thinking about the Constitutional Convention, the Founding Fathers or anything else having to do with the Revolution. Rather, it reminded me of a chance encounter at an airshow I attended years ago.
During a break in the action overhead I started poking around a group of living historians portraying U.S. Marines. I struck up a conversation with one and asked him a question about some now-forgotten piece of USMC minutia. Unable to answer, the reenactor nodded over his shoulder and said, “Go ask the ‘Gunny.’” I could see a Marine veteran in a red and yellow satin jacket with the obligatory ball cap, so I naturally assumed that this was who the reenactor had been referring to.
I stepped up to the vet and said, “Excuse me, Gunny, but I was wondering if you could answer a question for me?” Nonplussed he just said, “Don’t look at me, you want to talk with her,” and motioned to his wife, who I had seen quietly standing behind him for some time. Stepping in front of her husband, she thrust out her hand and with a sly grin on her face said, “I’m the sergeant, and you’d better not call me a ‘broad-assed Marine.’” The former gunnery sergeant exuded pride, and what followed was one of the most informative interviews with a veteran I have ever had.
She explained that the “title” I had been warned against using was one she heard frequently during her service in the Corps. It was a reference to the BAM acronym that some reporter invented for the all-female branch of the Marine Corps not long after it began accepting its first volunteers in early 1943. Hoping to match the catchy abbreviations being used for women in the other services, a reporter had referred to the Corps’ newest “boots” as “Beautiful American Marines.” Tradition-bound leathernecks shocked at the prospect of a woman in dress blues naturally came up with their own definition of BAM. Women in all branches of the armed forces, the Gunny told me, frequently encountered such slights during their service.
It all got started 65 years ago when U.S. Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts introduced H.R. 4906, a bill to enlist women in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). A Red Cross volunteer during World War I, Rogers was incensed that women who had served in a variety of volunteer organizations during the Great War had received none of the benefits afforded other veterans.
With the country gearing up for another war, Rogers saw an opportunity to reverse that injustice. Working closely with General George Marshall, she proposed legislation that would create a quasi-military force of women who would perform clerical functions—freeing up men to serve elsewhere. Even though there was a desperate need for manpower, and women in the much smaller nursing corps had already proved the enormous potential of women in uniform, opposition to Rogers’ legislation was intense. One Southern congressman voiced a common concern when he asked, “Who will then do the cooking, the washing, the mending, the humble homey tasks to which every woman has devoted herself; who will nurture the children?”
It looked as if the legislation was doomed, but Pearl Harbor changed all that. On May 15, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law. The president’s goal of 25,000 recruits in the first year was met within six months, and in November the WAAC was expanded to more than 100,000.
On July 30, 1942, Roosevelt signed Public Law 689, authorizing the creation of the Navy Women’s Reserve, better remembered as Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES); Coast Guard Reserve, dubbed SPARs after the Coast Guard’s motto Semper Paratus (Always Ready); and the Women Marines (WMs, or the unofficial BAMs). After further lobbying by Rogers and others, in 1943 the much maligned WAAC was renamed the Women’s Army Corps and made a part of the Army.
In the years that followed, women took on missions that even Rogers or Marshall could scarcely have envisioned. What some had considered little more than a uniformed secretarial pool when it was created had, by war’s end, expanded to cover a dizzying variety of occupations. Women worked as aviation mechanics, packed parachutes and drove trucks and other vehicles at bases in the United States and overseas. Some even worked in top-secret offices, helping with the interception and decryption of enemy communiqués that was a major factor in the eventual Allied victory (see story, P. 16). By the time the guns fell silent, nearly 400,000 women had served voluntarily in one of the corps, as nurses or in organizations such as the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). It is largely because of their performance that when the Truman administration reorganized the military in 1948, one of the provisions made the various female branches of the service permanent.
To readers who are veterans, much of this is old news. For those of us who are not, the presence of women in uniform is often something we take for granted. The next time you have a chance to mingle with veterans, I would encourage you to keep Abigail Adams in mind and “remember the ladies”—you may be pleasantly surprised by what you learn.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.