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The WACs of Scott: Women’s Army Corps in World War II

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

As stated in previous parts of this series, the women of the World War II-era were not free to serve in the same capacity as men but had the same desire to do so.  In earlier installments, we discussed civilian women supporting the Scott Field mission and the members of the Army Nurse Corps.  Another group of women also found a way to serve America here: the Women’s Army Corps, or WACs.

The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was proposed in 1941 before the U.S. entered the war by Representative Edith Rogers of Massachusetts.  Representative Rogers had been a volunteer in London and France during World War I, and saw firsthand the treatment of women who directly supported the military during that conflict.  Because they had no official status with the Army, they had to procure their own food and lodging; they also received no legal protections or medical care during the war.  After the end of World War I, they were denied veteran status, which barred them from benefits. 

These experiences shaped Rogers’ passion for veteran affairs when she was elected to fill her husband’s congressional seat in 1925.  As the new war in Europe and the Pacific grew in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Rogers proposed the creation of an official auxiliary service as part of the U.S. Army, inspired by British Army women that she had met from 1917 to 1922.  Public opinion was behind the concept of a women’s auxiliary but there was still significant resistance in Congress from men.  The resulting compromise was signed into law by President Roosevelt in May 1942, a full year after Rogers first proposed it; the concept did not get serious attention until after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

The law authorized the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, providing up to 150,000 women to “(make) available to the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of the women of the nation”.  Although not an official part of the regular Army, they were provided with food, uniforms, housing, medical care, training, and pay (although that pay was significantly lower than men of similar rank).  The WAAC was immediately popular and had more than 60,000 women by June 1943, more than doubling their first year recruiting goal.

Scott Field welcomed their first group of WAACs in March of 1943, 80 years prior to Women’s History Month in 2023.  The Broadcaster, Scott’s newspaper, reported on the event, making frequent mention of the military precision and professionalism the WAACs displayed as they arrived on post.  Efforts to welcome them included a dance inside the Warmer Gym.

The 58th WAAC Post Headquarters Company was activated and its women were classified into several specialties depending on their ability, such as switchboard operators, mechanics, bakers, postal clerk-typists, stenographers, drivers, and more.  The WAACs of the 58th quickly made themselves a part of the fabric of Scott Field, undergoing chemical warfare training within a month of their arrival while also beginning their new duty positions.

With high demand for WAACs by Army leaders and too much burden to operate the organization separately from the Army, the decision was made to make them a full part of the U.S. Army Reserve as the Women’s Army Corps; this also ensured equal pay and benefits.  The majority served in the Army Service Forces, but 2,000 served in the Army Ground Force, with WAC units serving near the front lines in both the European and Pacific theaters of operations. Some even worked on the Manhattan Project as part of the Corps of Engineers.  Large numbers also served the Army Air Forces as “Air WACs”, including those here at Scott.

Less than six months after their arrival, the WACs of Scott Field dove headlong into a national recruiting drive in late 1943.  With Allied offensives in Europe and the Pacific looming on the horizon, the need for WACs at home and abroad intensified.  With a national goal of 70,000 recruits, Scott’s WACs blanketed southern Illinois to scout for prospects and wrote letters to those back home who were eligible.  These efforts culminated in December 1943 with a base open house that brought in 2,500 visitors. 

Themed as “The Army Air Forces Salutes the WAC”, the open house featured drill demonstrations, parades featuring both male and female troops, WACs introducing visitors to Army Life, and an interesting event where WACs charged through clouds of smoke wearing gas masks in a simulated gas attack for spectators.  Local female reporters participated in a “WAC for a Day” activity, learning about how the ladies of the WACs at Scott worked and played.  The nationwide WAC recruiting campaign was successful, with courses opening up to train women in navigation, control tower operations, bombsight maintenance and other expanded duty positions.

Throughout the remainder of World War II, troops of the Women’s Army Corps continued to serve at Scott Field.  The success of the WAC concept led to them becoming a permanent part of the Army until the mid-1970s.  The Air Force transitioned to a service-specific organization, with bases having Women in the Air Force (WAF) squadrons until 1976 when the service was fully gender-integrated.  Edith Rogers would be regarded as a powerhouse in her eventual 35 years in Congress due to her crucial role in creating the original GI Bill, which still exists in an altered form today, and service as the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.