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Civilian Women’s Contributions to Scott in World War II

  • Published
  • By Kris Matthews
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing Historian

While today’s military has long acknowledged the impact of gender diversity in its ranks, there was a significant period where that was not the case. The Army Air Corps, the Army Air Forces, and the Air Force had various obstacles in place preventing women from truly serving alongside men. Throughout World War II and the first half of the Cold War, women stepped up to serve in the various capacities that enabled Scott to accomplish its multiple missions.

Civilians have a long history of excellent support to Scott Air Force Base, and the World War II era was no exception. With our nation on a total war footing, women filled the ranks of many industries, including Civil Service jobs at Scott Field. Women also served in administrative roles such as secretaries, like Maxine Grazian, who made the front page of the base’s Broadcaster newspaper in April 1942 by receiving a ticket for breaking the post’s bicycle speed limit of eight miles per hour.

Americans during World War II felt a distinct threat to the homeland, with many different efforts to harden Scott’s local defenses. Scott civilians enjoyed no exemptions from this readiness focus, with even office employees receiving chemical warfare training. A 1943 article in The Broadcaster shows civilians working in the finance office donning gas masks. The instructors then filled the office with smoke and tear gas, pushing the civilians to figure out how to continue working in these adverse conditions.

A much lesser-known group of civilians directly enabled Scott’s mission of training communicators for war. The AAF cross trained its radio operators and mechanics (ROMs) as aerial gunners; a radioman may find himself in the skies of Europe fending off German fighters seeking to shoot him down. Women seeking this kind of service were blocked due to War Department policy banning women in combat roles.

However, the radio school’s policy of keeping top graduates of the ROM course at Scott to serve as instructors proved untenable as the war heated up. In July of 1942, Scott’s director of training put out the call for women who met established criteria to serve as radio instructors. Although AAF policy prevented them from serving on the front line, women who had professional or amateur radio licenses were encouraged to apply, along with women who had six hours of college physics and 20 hours of college mathematics.

By August of that same year, women were beginning a three-month instructor training course, earning a starting salary of $1650 per year with a raise to $2000 after graduating the course. In October, they graduated and were tasked with teaching immediately, as the ROM course had also expanded to seven days a week to get the men trained and ready for war. By the end of 1942, they had become known as WIRES: Women in Radio Electronics School.

Among the WIRES were women who had notable achievements even before they came to Scott.  Elizabeth Hampel lived in Moscow while her husband served on the U.S. Embassy staff. Keeping a diary of the experience, she turned it into a book titled “Yankee Bride in Moscow”, which was published and became a bestseller while she served as a teacher in the St. Louis Public Schools system. Mrs. Hempel combined the radio knowledge she picked up from her husband with her teaching experience to join the WIRES. With her husband serving abroad as a naval officer, she viewed the WIRES as a way to support her country as well. “After all, I can’t have Al (her husband) carrying the whole load,” she declared to The Broadcaster.

The women in the civilian workforce served Scott with distinction during World War II; these determined efforts helped build an unbeatable military force that shattered the Axis in Europe and the Pacific. Their legacy of honor continues today in civilians who serve in either the 375th Air Mobility Wing or one of its many mission partners.