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WAVES recruiting poster during World War II

WAVES was the bacronym for the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, the World War II women's branch of the United States Naval Reserve. It was established on 21 July 1942 by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by the president on 30 July 1942, as the Title V amendment to the Naval Reserve Act of 1938. This authorized the U.S. Navy to accept women into the naval reserve as commissioned officers and at the enlisted level, effective for the duration of the war plus six months. The purpose of the law was to release officers and men for sea duty and replace them with women in shore stations.

The notion of women serving in the Navy was not widely supported in the congress or by the Navy, although some members did support the need for uniformed women during wartime. Nonetheless, the persistence of several women laid the groundwork for success. The congressional act allowing women to serve in the Navy became a reality, in large measure, through the efforts of the Navy’s Women’s Advisory Council, Dr. Margaret Chung, and Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the president.

Mildred H. McAfee became the first director of the WAVES. She was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy on 3 August 1942, and was the first woman commissioned in the US Naval Reserve. McAfee, on leave as president of Wellesley College, was an experienced educator and highly respected in her field.

The age for officer candidates was between 20 and 49, with a college degree, or two years of college and two years of equivalent professional or business experience. The enlisted age requirements were between 20 and 35, with a high school or business diploma, or equivalent experience. United States citizenship was required in each case. WAVES were primarily white and middle class. Little attempt had been made to recruit African-American or other women minorities until October 1944. However, 72 African-American women did eventually serve in it he WAVES and on a fully integrated basis. The WAVES peak strength was 86,291, which included 8,475 officers, 73,816 enlisted, and about 4,000 in training.

Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, was the site chosen for training of the officers; it was officially known as the United States Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School. The college setting provided the proper training ground for transforming civilian women into naval officers. There was two-months of intense training, with the subject matter ranging from naval organization and communications to ships and aircraft. Following completion of training, the midshipmen were commissioned as ensigns or lieutenants (junior grade) in the U.S. Naval Reserve. The school closed in December 1944, after graduating 9,477 women officers. Many of the newly commissioned officers attended specialized training courses, held on several college campuses and at various naval facilities.



Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts presides over the House Chamber in this image from 1926 of the Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives

In May 1941, Representative Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress to establish a Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). The word auxiliary meant women would serve not in the Army, but with it; deprived of full military status and denied the benefits of their male counterparts. Opposition delayed the passage of the bill until May 1942.[1] At the same time, the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics believed the Navy would eventually need women in uniform, and had asked the Bureau of Personnel, headed by Admiral Chester W.Nimitz, to propose legislation, authorizing women to serve in the Navy. Nimitz was not considered an advocate for bringing women into the Navy, nor was he about to change course. Soon, the Navy Department began receiving inquires whether WAAC legislation for the Navy might be imminent. In response, the head of the Naval Reserve expressed the view that the Civil Service would be able to supply any extra personnel that might be needed.[2]

The response did not put the questions to rest. On 9 December 1941, Representative Rogers telephoned Nimitz and asked him whether the Navy was interested in a bill that would allow the Navy to use women similar to that of the WAAC legislation. In her book, Lady in the Navy, Joy Bright Hancock quotes his reply: “I advised Mrs. Rogers that at the present time I saw no great need for such a bill … ”[3] Nevertheless, within days Nimitz was in touch with all Navy Department bureaus asking them to assess their needs for an equivalent to the WAAC. With few exceptions, the responses were negative. Yet, Congressional inquiries continued to increase about the Navy’s plan for women.[4]

Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy in 1940

Then on 2 January 1942, the Bureau of Personnel, in an about face, recommended to the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, that Congress be asked to authorize a women’s organization.[5] The following month, Knox recommended a women’s branch as part of the Naval Reserve. The director of the Bureau of the budget said no, but would agree to the Navy adapting legislation similar to the WACC – where women were with, but not in the Navy. This was unacceptable to Knox and the standoff began. Still, the Bureau of Aeronautics continued to believe there was a place for women in the Navy, and appealed to an influential friend of naval aviation, Margaret Chung.[6] In Crossed Currents, the authors describe Chung and her involvement. “ … Dr. Margaret Chung of San Francisco, a physician and surgeon, had a long time interest in aviation, particularly naval aviation … She had many naval aviation friends who referred to themselves as “sons of Mom Chung.” Having learned of the stalemate, she asked Representative Melvin Maas of Minnesota, who had served in the aviation branch of the US Marine Corps in World War I, and was one of her “sons”, to introduce legislation independently of the Navy. On 18 March 1942 he did just that, … ”[7]

Maas’s House bill was essentially the same as the Knox proposal, which would make a women’s branch part of the Naval Reserve. At the same time, Senator Raymond E. Willis of Indiana introduced a similar bill in the Senate. On 16 April 1942, the House Naval Affairs Committee reported favorably on the bill. It was passed by the House the same day and sent to the Senate.[8] The Senate Naval Affairs Committee was opposed to the bill; especially chairman Senator David I. Walsh of Massachusetts. He did not want women in the Navy because it “would tend to break-up American homes and would be a step backwards in the progress of civilization.” The Senate committee eventually proposed a naval version of the WAAC, and the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, approved it. But Knox asked the president to reconsider.[9]

Creation of program[edit]

Dr. Ada Comstock, President of Radcliffe College (1925-1943) and a member of the Women’s Advisory Council

It was apparent that women would eventually be allowed to serve in the Navy: the question was, in what form? The quandary for the Navy was how to administer a woman’s program, yet fashion it to its own liking. Then they did what they had often done before, turn to academia for help.[10] This time the Navy asked women educators for assistance, first contacting Dr. Virginia C. Gildersleeve, dean of Barnard College. She suggested that Professor Elisabeth Reynard, also of Barnard, become a special assistant to Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, Chief of Naval Personnel. Reynard was well known for the academic work she had done on women in the work place. But her first-rate performance as Jacob’s assistant silenced any fears the Navy may have had about women educators. Reynard quickly formed the Women’s Advisory Council to meet with Navy officials. Gildersleeve became the chairperson. Because of her efforts eight prominent women agreed to serve on the council, they included: Dr. Meta Glass of Sweet Briar College; Dr. Lillian Gilbreth, a national authority on efficiency in the workplace; Dr. Ada Comstock, President of Radcliffe College; Harriet Elliott, dean of women at the University of North Carolina; Dean Alice Crocker Lloyd of the University of Michigan; Mrs. Malbone Graham, a noted lecturer from the West Coast; and Mrs. Thomas Gates, wife of the president of the University of Pennsylvania. Dean Elliot later resigned and was replaced by Dr. Alice Baldwin, dean of women at Duke University.[11]

The council knew the success of a fledging program would depend on the woman chosen to lead it. A prospective candidate would need to possess proven managerial skills, command respect, and have an ability to get along well with others. Their recommendation was Mildred H. McAfee, president of Wellesley College, as the future director.[12] The Navy agreed. Yet, the task of convincing MacAfee to accept and to persuade the Wellesley Board of Trustees to release her was difficult but successful.[13] Mildred McAfee was an experienced and respected academician, whose background would provide a measure of creditability to the idea of women serving in the Navy.[14]

They also recognized the importance of a name: agreeing it should be one suitable for the organization envisioned. To Reynard fell the task of finding such a name.[15] In explaining how she came up with the nautical name, Reynard said: “I realized that there were two letters which had to be in it: W for women and V for volunteer, because the Navy wants to make it clear that this is a voluntary service and not a drafted service. So I played with those two letters and the idea of the sea and finally came up with Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service – WAVES. I figured the word Emergency would comfort the older admirals because it implies that we’re only a temporary crisis and won’t be around for keeps.”[16] Raynard was later commissioned a lieutenant in the WAVES.[17]

Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 - wife of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Then on 25 May 1942, the Senate Naval Affairs Committee recommended to the president that the legislation to create a women’s reserve correspond with the WAAC legislation. He called on Knox to reconsider his position, but Knox, who did not favor the WACC concept, stood his ground. Another deadlock, but council members Gildersleeve and Elliot took it on themselves to write the president’s wife, Eleanor. They explained their objections to the WAAC legislation and reasons for it. Eleanor showed Elliot’s letter to her husband, the president, and she sent Gildersleves’s letter on to the Undersecretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal, a former naval aviator. Within days Forrestal replied, saying that Secretary Knox had asked the president to reconsider. Then, on 16 June 1942 Knox informed Jacobs that the president had given him authority to proceed with a women’s reserve. Days later, Knox informed Senator Walsh of the president’s decision, and on 24 June the Senate Naval Affairs Committee reported favorably on the bill. By 21 July, the bill had passed both houses of congress and sent to the president, who signed it on 30 July 1942 as Public Law 689. This created the Women’s branch of the Navy reserve, as amended under Title V of the U.S. Naval Reserve Act of 1938.[18] (Less than a year later, 1 July 1043, congress refashioned the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) into the Women's Army Corps (WAC), providing its members with similar military status as the WAVES.)[19]

The idea behind the law was to free-up officers and men for duty at sea, with women standing in for them at shore stations on the home front. Women could now serve in the Navy as an officer or at an enlisted level, with a rank or rating consistent with that of the regular Navy. Volunteers could only serve for the duration of the war, plus six months, but just in the continental United States. They were prohibited from boarding naval ships or combat aircraft, and were without command authority, except within the women’s branch.[20]

LCDR McAfee while director of the WAVES

Mildred H. McAfee became the first director of the WAVES. She was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander on 3 August 1942, and was the first woman officer commissioned in the US Naval Reserve.[21] McAfee was later promoted to the rank of captain.[22] In More Than A Uniform, Winifred Quick Collins (former WAVE officer) described Director McAfee as a born diplomat, handling difficult matters with finesse.[23] She also said McAfee played an important decision making role on how women of the WAVES should be treated compared to men, what kind of assignments women would take, housing conditions, and supervision and discipline standards.[24]

In establishing the office of director, the Bureau of Personnel did not define the responsibilities of the office, nor establish clear lines of authority. "...Lieutenant Commander McAfee was simply told that she was to "run" the women’s reserve and she was to go directly to the Chief of Naval Personnel for answers to her questions. Unfortunately, the decision was not made known to the operating divisions of he bureau."[25] No plans existed to help guide her: in fact, no planning had been done, by anyone, in anticipation of the Women’s Reserve act. For insights, McAfee turned to Joy Bright Hancock, a Navy Yeoman (F) during World War I, and a career writer and editor for the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronauts. She was asked to examine the procedures employed by the Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force, which had a complement of 6,000 members. Many of her findings were later used by the WVES.[26]

August and September 1942 saw 108 more women commissioned as officers in the Women’s Reserve; selected because of their educational and business backgrounds. They were drawn to the program by the good standing of McAfee and the Advisory Council. Four of these women would later become directors of the WAVES and another the director of the SPARS (U.S. Coast Guard Women's Reserve). The new officers began their work routine with no grasp of Navy traditions, or training in the operating methods in use, resulting in some difficult times. However, on 16 September 1942 the Bureau of Personnel issued a memorandum for the organization of the Women’s Reserve. It said the director would administer the program, set policies, and coordinate work within the bureaus operating divisions. Soon, McAfee was able to bring together a capable staff, building a sound internal organization.[27]


WAVES recruiting poster during World War II

WAVE officers were first assigned to recruiting stations in the different U. S. naval districts, later they were joined by enlisted personnel with recruiter training. The primary sources of publicity used were radio, newspapers, posters, brochures, and personal contacts. The focus of their advertising campaign was patriotism and the need for women. McAfee demanded good taste in all advertising. At the end of 1942, there were 770 officers and 3,109 enlisted women in the WAVES. By 3 July 1945 their ranks had risen to 86,291, which included 8,475 officers, 73,816 enlisted, and about 4,000 in training.[28]

The age for officer candidates was between 20 and 49, with a college degree, or two years of college and two years of equivalent professional or business experience. The enlisted age requirements were between 20 and 35, with a high school or business diploma, or equivalent experience. United States citizenship was required in each case. WAVES were primarily white, middle class, and represented every state in the country. New York, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Massachusetts and Ohio led the way.[29]

Lt. Harriet Ida Pickens and Ens. Frances Wills, first African-American women to be commissioned in the WAVEs

Little or no attempt was made to recruit African-American or other women minorities until October 1944, when President Roosevelt approved of accepting African-American women into the women’s reserve. But, he was under pressure to do so by African-American organizations. Harriet Ida Pickens and Frances Wills were the first African-American women to become WAVE officers. By September 1945, there were 72 African-American women in the WAVES and all fully integrated.[30]

Wanting to serve their country in time of need was a strong incentive for young women during World War II. And thousands of them saw fit to join the WAVES. With some, it was for adventure, for others it was professional development, and still others joined for the chance to experience life on college campuses. Some followed family traditions and others yearned for a life other than as a civilian. Some thought the WAVE uniforms looked better than those of the other women services. In any event, they all served their country as patriotic Americans.[31]

Training of officers[edit]

A view of some of the campus at Smith College

The Navy chose Smith College at Northampton, Massachusetts, as the site for the training of WAVE officers. The facility offered much of what the Navy needed, and the college setting provided the proper training ground.[32] The nickname for Smith was the U.S.S. Northampton.[33] Captain H. W. Underwood, USN (Retired) was called back to active duty and ordered to serve as the commanding officer of the United States Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Smith College, 13 August 1942. Underwood had a distinguished naval career and received the Navy Cross during World War I.[34] In Lady in the Navy, Joy Bright Hancock described Underwood as intelligent, enthusiastic, and good humored, and serious of purpose.[35]

Underwood and his staff quickly developed the indoctrination curriculum that would hasten the transformation of civilian women into naval officers. The curriculum would include: organization; personnel; naval history and law; ships and aircraft; naval communications and correspondence. There would be two-months of intense training, yet too short a period to produce an overall naval officer. Still, the rationale was to teach the fundamentals of life and work in the naval service, focusing on administrative procedures. It was the type of work that most officers would eventually be doing. The curriculum did not change much over the life of the training program.[36]

Following their two-months of training, the midshipmen were commissioned as ensigns or lieutenants (junior grade) in the U.S. naval reserve. The school closed in December 1944, after accepting 10,181women and graduating 9,477 of them. It also trained 203 SPARS (United States Coast Guard Women’s Reserve) and 295 women of the United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Mamy of these commissioned officers were sent to specialized schools for training in communications, supply, the Japanese language, meteorology, and engineering. The courses of study were held on the college campuses of Mount Holyoke College; Harvard University; University of Colorado; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California; and the University of Chicago. The Bureau of ordinance also opened its schools to WAVE officers, where some of them studied aviation ordinance. Other officers attended the Naval Technical Training Command School, while others trained to become aviation instructors. The training offered at these facilities was coeducational, because women and men of the Navy would soon be working together.[37]

Training of enlisted[edit]

The campuses of Oklahoma A&M, Indiana University, and the University of Wisconsin were selected by the Navy for both recruit and specialized training of enlisted WVES. Once again, the Navy determined that the college setting was the better training ground for women. The training for the initial group of enlisted women began on 9 October 1942. However, it was soon clear that the arrangement was unsatisfactory, because of the disperse training facilities, inexperienced instructors, and the lack of esprit de corps. In the middle of December the Navy, unexpectedly, moved the recruit training to the campus of the Iowa State Teachers College on a temporary basis. The specialized training remained at the original locations.[38]

Roster of directors[edit]

Captain Joy Bright Hancock, a former director of the WAVES

The director held the position of Assistant Chief of Naval Personnel for Women during the years of 1942–1972. In 1972, the office was disestablished in favor of integration of women into the main force. There still remained, however, the office of Bureau of Personnel Special Assistant for Women's Policy (PERS-00W), which existed until 1991.[39]

WAVES song[edit]

The WAVES kept the homefront affairs of the US Navy going while the men were assigned to ships serving around the globe. While the official song of the US Navy men was "Anchors Aweigh," the WAVES official song was sung in counterpoint to the men:

WAVES of the Navy
WAVES of the Navy,
There's a ship sailing down the bay
And she won't slip into port again
Until that Victory Day.
Carry on for that gallant ship
And for every hero brave
Who will find ashore, his man-sized chore
Was done by a Navy WAVE.[40]

Music and words to this and other songs sung by the WAVES can be found in Marching to Victory,[41] a 1943 booklet published at the Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School (WR), Northampton, Massachusetts.

Permanent status[edit]

With the passage of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act (Public Law 625) on 12 June 1948, women gained permanent status in the armed services. On 7 July 1948, Kay Langdon, Wilma Marchal, Edna Young, Frances Devaney, Doris Robertson, and Ruth Flora became the first six enlisted women to be sworn into the regular U.S. Navy.On 15 October 1948, the first eight women were commissioned in the regular Navy: Joy Bright Hancock, Winifred Quick Collins, Ann King, Frances Willoughby, Ellen Ford, Doris Cranmore, Doris Defenderfer, and Betty Rae Tennant took their oaths as naval officers.[42]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Ebert and Hall P. 27
  2. ^ Ebert and Hall p. 28
  3. ^ Hancock p. 50
  4. ^ Hancock p. 50-52
  5. ^ Hancock p. 53
  6. ^ Goodson p. 110
  7. ^ Ebert and Hall p. 30-31
  8. ^ Ebert and Hall p. 31
  9. ^ Goodson p.110
  10. ^ Ebert and Hall p. 31
  11. ^ Ebert and Hall p. 32
  12. ^ Ebert and Hall p. 32
  13. ^ Ebert and Hall p. 34.
  14. ^ Goodson p. 111
  15. ^ Goodson p. 111
  16. ^ Hancock P. 61
  17. ^ Goodson p. 113
  18. ^ Ebert and Hall p. 35
  19. ^ Ebert and Hall p. 27
  20. ^ Ebert and Hall p, 36-37
  21. ^ Goodson p. 113
  22. ^ Hancock p.70
  23. ^ Collins P. 43
  24. ^ Collins p. 42
  25. ^ Hancock p, 65
  26. ^ Goodson p. 113
  27. ^ Goodson p. 113-114
  28. ^ Goodson p. 115
  29. ^ Goodson p. 116
  30. ^ Goodson p. 116
  31. ^ Goodson p. 116-117
  32. ^ Hancock p. 75-76
  33. ^ Ebert and Hall p. 48
  34. ^ Goodson p. 117
  35. ^ Hancock p. 77
  36. ^ Hancock p. 78
  37. ^ Goodson p. 118-119
  38. ^ Goodson p. 119
  39. ^ "Records of the Bureau of Personnel Special Assistant for Women's Policy (PERS-00W), 1947-1991". history.navy.mil. July 2, 2003. Retrieved October 3, 2011. [dead link]
  40. ^ Great Lakes Naval Museum; Marching To Victory. WAVES of the Navy. Lyric by Betty St. Clair
  41. ^ Marching To Victory
  42. ^ Ebert and Hall p. 117


Further reading[edit]

  • Campbell, D'Ann. Women at War With America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1984. OCLC 10605327.
  • Campbell, D'Ann. "Women in Uniform, the World War II Experiment." Military Affairs 51 (Jul. 1987): 137-39 in JSTOR
  • Disher, Sharon Hanley. First Class: Women Join the Ranks at the Naval Academy (Naval Institute Press, 1998)
  • Ebbert, Jean and Marie-Beth Hall. "Navy Women's Reserve: WAVES," In In Defense of a Nation: Servicewomen in World War II edited by Jeannee M. Holm and Judith Bellafaire. Washington: Military Women's Press, 1998. OCLC 38173523
  • Gildersleeve, Virginia C. Many a Good Crusade (New York: Macmillan, 1954)
  • Holm, Jeanne Maj Gen, USAF (Ret) (1972). Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution [Revised Edition]. Novato, CA: Presidio Press. ISBN 0891414509. 
  • Litoff, Judy Barrett, and David C. Smith. "The Wartime History of the Waves, SPARS, Women Marines, Army and Navy Nurses, and WASP's." in A Women's War Too: US Women in the Military in World War II ed. by Paula Nassen Poulos.(Washington: National Archives and Records Administration, 1996)

External links[edit]