Today’s blog was written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland
Most of the records that are held at the National Archives related to women in the US Navy, primarily focused on their involvement as WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). The few selected series contains photographs, moving images, and a few textual documents showcasing the experience of American women in the military during World War II. The records concentrate on WAVES activities in recruiting new members, in caring for wounded soldiers, and in participating in physical training. Sprinkled within the majority of the series related to WAVES activity, are a few photographs displaying black women who also served in the Navy.
“Pin-up girls at NAS Seattle, Spring Formal Dance. Left to right: Jeanne McIver, Harriet Berry, Muriel Alberti, Nancy Grant, Maleina Bagley, and Matti Ethridge.” (NAID 520646)
The selected photographs on the activities of black women in the US Navy came from Record Group 80 General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1798-1947 and Record Group 428 General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1947 to the present. These record groups contain textual documents, motion pictures, aerial photographs, and still pictures that relates to the administration of the United States Navy and the Marine Corps. The General Photographic File of the Department of Navy (NAID 558506), compiled between the years 1943 and 1958, documents the highlights of WAVES activity. This series contains photographs showcasing the achievements and contributions of women, including black women in the US Navy. In general during the heighten World War II and Vietnam War years, over 85,000 women; black, white, and others from different ethnic backgrounds served as air traffic controllers, artists, bakers, couriers, cryptologists, draftsmen, hospital corpsmen, lawyers, meteorologists, and translators.
Women were needed in all branches of the military to assist with the war effort. On July 30, 1942, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) became a division of the US Navy. This organization allowed thousands of women to enlist and it even commissioned several hundred others to supervise. WAVES served in several atypical fields including those in the aviation community, in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps, in the medical professions, communications, intelligence, and in science and technology. Although, WAVES were able to serve in many fields that were once considered only for men, they still had to endure geographical restrictions. Their military activity was restricted only to duty in the continental US. WAVES during World War II were not allowed to serve aboard combat ships or in aircraft.
All women interested in serving in the WAVES had to adhere to several strict regulations. They had to be native-born American and at least 18 years old with a good character. They were required to have three references in support of their background. Women had to be at least 5 feet tall and at least 95 pounds with 20/20 vision (wearing corrective glasses was okay). Enlisted women needed two years of high school or business school and women interested in becoming an officer had to have a college degree or two years of college plus two years of acceptable business or professional experience.
Black women were not permitted to join the WAVES until late 1944. WAVES Director Mildred McAfee and Activist Mary McLeod Bethune encouraged Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal to push for the acceptance of black women into this program. As a result, the Navy trained roughly 1 black woman for every 36 white women enlisted in the WAVES, which was nearly 3%.
In November 1944, Harriet Ida Pickens and Frances Wills graduated from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (Women’s Reserve) at Northampton, Massachusetts, and became the first African American WAVES officers. Pickens had worked as a public health administrator, who was encouraged by her father, William Pickens, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to join the WAVES. Wills, a social worker, joined the WAVES because she did not have any brothers to serve in the war effort and decided it was her duty to enlist. As commissioned officers, Wills taught naval history and administered classification tests and Pickens led physical training sessions at the Hunter Naval Training Station in Bronx, N.Y., the main training facility for enlisted WAVES recruits.
The above photograph shows Seaman Francis Bates inspecting a Grumman Wildcat engine at the US Naval Training School in Bronx, New York during World War II. The Apprentice Seaman is the second lowest enlisted rank in the US Navy. Their duties usually consist of general deck maintenance, line-handing, and navigation.
Hospital Apprentices Second Class Ruth C. Isaacs, Katherine Horton, and Inez Patterson were the first black WAVES to enter the Hospital Corps School at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Hospital Apprentices were enlisted medical specialists. They served as the primary medical caregivers for sailors. They also served as assistants in the prevention and treatment of disease and injuries.
In March 1945, Phyllis Mae Daley became the first black commissioned nurse to serve in the US Navy. Navy nurses played a very important role during World War II. Their numbers grew to nearly 2,000 after the attack on Pearl Harbor. With the great demand for qualified nurses, the Navy was successful at recruiting the best and most capable nurses available. Overall, Nurses during World War II were viewed as extremely important to the war effort. Their primary responsibility was to care for ill and wounded sailors. Several outstanding nurses were trained in surgery, orthopedics, anesthesia, and helped men to understand and to manage Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome or shell-shock as it was called then. Unlike the WAVES, Navy nurses service outside the continental US. They were sent to New Caledonia, the Solomons Islands, New Zealand, Australia, and New Guinea in the Pacific Theatre, and naval nurses served in England, Italy, and Northern Africa in the European Theatre.
Following World War II, racial and gender discrimination, as well as segregation continued in the US military. On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which eliminated segregation, quotas and discrimination in the armed forces. The new affirmative action policies and changing attitudes towards race and gender allowed black women to pursue careers in the US Navy. During the Korean and Vietnam Conflicts, black women, along with women from other racial backgrounds played a crucial role in the medical fields, in technology, in intelligence, and in combat.
This photograph, taken in 1981, shows Radioman Third Class Denita G. Harvey checking a student’s typing performance following a timed drill. Harvey was an instructor at the Navy Radioman “A” school. Radioman operates and performs upkeep of all types of radio transmitting and receiving equipment and teletypewriter equipment.