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History and Heritage

75 Years of Navy Women:

17 Things You Should Know About the WAVES

Early in World War II, confronting enemies on two fronts, the U.S. military faced a serious manpower shortage. It turned, somewhat reluctantly, to women. As yeoman (F) in the Navy during World War I, women had already proved themselves capable of taking over support and administrative jobs, thereby freeing men for combat.

That need multiplied during World War II, and women found themselves taking on new roles and more responsibilities than ever before. They continually proved themselves and ultimately earned women a permanent place in the armed forces.

1. On July 30, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Public Law 689, establishing a women's branch of the Naval Reserve, also called the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service program - universally known as the WAVES.

2. Future Lt. Elizabeth Reynard, a professor at Barnard College in New York who served as an advisor for the development of the Women's Reserve, coined the WAVES acronym on a train trip from Washington to New York. She knew it needed to include 'W' for women and 'V' for voluntary to emphasize that women would be choosing to serve.

3. More than 80,000 women joined the WAVES during World War II, freeing thousands of male Sailors for combat. They filled hundreds of ratings and billets in fields such as intelligence, supply, clerical work, stenography, air traffic control, truck driving, mechanics, parachute rigging, meteorology and physiotherapy. They served as laboratory technicians, X-ray technicians, decoders, interpreters and cooks. Many WAVES also became instructors, in navigation and aviation gunnery, for example, teaching male Sailors how to do their jobs.

4. Lieutenant Cmdr. Mildred H. McAfee, the president of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, became the first woman to be commissioned into the U.S. Navy in 1942. Soon promoted to captain, she served as the first director of the WAVES.

5. Robert Main Boucher of the Mainbocher fashion house in New York designed the WAVES' uniforms at no cost to the U.S. government. Women found the dress uniforms rather glamorous, with some recruits saying they chose the Navy instead of the Army specifically because of the uniform. The current women's naval uniform is still based on the Mainbocher designs.
Photo collage of WAVES working in the Navy.


6. The Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) made more use of WAVES than any other division of the Navy; in fact, almost a third of all WAVES would serve in BuAer during World War II. This was thanks to Joy Bright Hancock. Hancock enlisted in the Navy during World War I as a yeoman (F), then worked as a civilian for BuAer in the 1920s and 1930s. After she was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1942, she leveraged longtime relationships with BuAer admirals to open up more ratings for women.

7. During World War II, the Bureau of Aeronautics also integrated specialized training for male and female Sailors. This ensured WAVES, pilots and air crews knew how to talk to each other.

8. Frances Wills and Harriet Ida Pickens became the first African-American officers to be commissioned into the WAVES in December 1944. The Navy assigned Pickens as a physical training instructor and Wills as a classification test administrator at the main enlisted WAVES training facility at Hunter College in New York City, also known as USS Hunter.

9. Approximately 70 African-American women served as enlisted WAVES during World War II. One of them, Edna Young Nash, became one of the first WAVES to be sworn into the regular Navy, and later became the first African-American female chief.

10.
Unlike members of the Women's Army Corps, WAVES were prohibited by statute from serving overseas until late in the war. They started arriving in Hawaii in March 1945.

11. Their number included Aviation Machinist Mate Second Class Kathleen Amick, who rebuilt and repaired gyro-operated aircraft. After the war, she mastered the repair and calibration of electrically operated aircraft instruments. She went on to work on the flight line and served as the chief company commander at Bainbridge Naval Training Station in Maryland. Amick also became the first woman to graduate from the Navy's Maintenance Analysis School. In addition, she was among the first women promoted to the newly established rank of senior chief, and eventually retired as a master chief in 1974.

12. By some reports, the arrival of WAVES at new stations had unintended consequences: Male Sailors began combing their hair, wearing clean dungarees and watching their language and generally behaving better, even attending chapel services. In fact, the number of Sailors who went to captain's masts also dropped.
Photo collage of WAVES in different roles of the Navy.


13. When male officers and chiefs visited WAVES' barracks for inspection, the women would call out, "Man aboard!"

14. Women became a permanent part of the military in 1948 with the passage of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, which Hancock, now a captain and director of the WAVES, helped write. In October 1948, Hancock became one of the first women commissioned into the regular Navy. Non-nurse Navy women continued to be referred to as WAVES until February 1972.

15. In the early 1950s, Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class JoAnne Sylvester sailed five transatlantic round trips on transport ships, making her one of the first WAVES to serve at sea, decades before women could officially do so.

16. Lieutenant Elizabeth G. Wylie arrived in Vietnam in June 1967, becoming the first non-nurse female officer assigned to the country. She worked in the Command Information Center at Commander Naval Forces Vietnam in Saigon. Eight female officers would serve in country over the course of the war, but the Navy never assigned enlisted women to Vietnam.

17. Congress passed Public Law 90-130 in 1967, ending restrictions on the number of women who could serve in the military, which had previously been capped at 2 percent. This law also ended rank limitations and allowed women to be promoted to flag officer rank. In 1972, CNO Adm. Elmo Zumwalt further expanded opportunities for officer and enlisted women and announced an ultimate goal of assigning women to ships at sea. (Women were first assigned to sea duty billets on support and noncombatant ships in 1978; they began serving aboard combat ships in 1994.)


Sources: Dr. Regina Akers, Navy History and Heritage Command; "Lady in the Navy" by Joy Bright Hancock; "Our Mother's War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II" by Emily Yellin.

Editor's note: To read more about the establishment of the WAVES and the evolution of women's service, read "Navy Women in World War I: A Legacy of Service" on All Hands. To read more about Navy women, visit the Navy History and Heritage command website.