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WAVES recruiting poster during World War II

WAVES - Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service was a World War II division of the United States Naval Reserve. The division was established 30 July 1942, as the Title V amendment to the Naval Reserve Act of 1938. This authorized the 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 hasten the war effort, by releasing officers and men for sea duty and replacing them with women in shore stations.



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 1042.[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]

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]

Establishment of WAVES[edit]

Representative 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 approved it. But Knox asked the president to reconsider. [9]

It was now 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 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. Gilder sleeve 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 Elliot, dean of women at the University of North Carolina; Dean Alice 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 posses 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]

The council 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]

Director of WAVES[edit]

WAVES recruitment poster

Mildred McAfee, President of Wellesley College, was sworn in as a Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander in early August 1942. She was the first female commissioned officer in U.S. Navy history, and the first director of the WAVES. This occurred two months after the WAAC (Women's Auxiliary Army Corps) was established, and Eleanor Roosevelt had convinced the Congress to authorize the women's component of the Navy.

Women's Reserve[edit]

Women entering as enlisted personnel in the Navy or Coast Guard attended the V10 WAVE Enlisted Rating Volunteer Program. Women seeking to become officers in the WAVES or SPARS attended the V9 WAVE Officer Candidate Volunteer Program. Officer candidates went through basic training as seamen recruits, then became midshipmen during officer training, and graduated as ensigns. The WAVE graduates from the V9 and V10 programs were considered part of the U.S. Naval Reserve.

WAVES-WAAC distinction[edit]

The important distinction between the WAAC and the WAVES was that the WAAC was an "auxiliary" organization, serving with the Army, not in it. From the very beginning, the WAVES was an official part of the Navy, and its members held the same rank and ratings as male personnel. They also received the same pay and were subject to military discipline. The WAAC became the Women's Army Corps (WAC) on 1 July 1943, giving its members military status similar to that of the WAVES.

Job Assignments[edit]

The WAVES could not serve aboard combat ships or aircraft, and initially were restricted to duty in the continental United States. Late in World War II, they were authorized to serve in certain U.S. possessions, and a number were sent to Hawaii. The war ended before any WAVES could be sent to other locations. Within their first year, the WAVES were 27,000 strong. A large proportion of the WAVES did clerical work, but some took positions in the aviation community, medical professions, communications, intelligence, storekeeper, science and technology.


Lt. Harriet Ida Pickens and Ens. Frances Wills, first African-American Waves to be commissioned.

The WAVES did not initially accept African-American women into the division. In November 1944, Harriet Ida Pickens and Frances Wills graduated from the United States Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School (Women's Reserve) at Northampton, Massachusetts, and became the first female African-American WAVE officers. From the fall of 1944 onwards, the Navy trained roughly one black woman for every 36 white women enlisted in the WAVES; this was about 2.77%, below the 10% cap agreed upon by the armed services in 1940.


According to historian D'Ann Campbell, American society was not ready for women in military roles:

The WAC and WAVES had been given an impossible mission: they not only had to raise a force immediately and voluntarily from a group that had no military traditions, but also had overcome intense hostility from their male comrades. The situation was highly unfavorable: the women had no clear purpose except to send men to the battlefront; duties overlapped with civilian employees and enlisted male coworkers, causing confusion and tension; and the leadership cadre was unprestigious, inexperienced, and had little control over women, none over men. Although the military high command strongly endorsed their work, there were no centers of influence in the civilian world, either male or female, that were committed to the success of the women's services, and no civilian institutions that provided preliminary training for recruits or suitable positions for veterans. Wacs, Waves, Spars and women Marines were war orphans whom no one loved.[17]

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. The new unit became a small cadre that could be expanded in wartime. The V9 and V10 Volunteer Reserve programs were discontinued and renamed the W9 Women's Officer Training and W10 Women's Enlisted Training programs. Although the official name WAVES ceased to exist, the acronym was in common use well into the 1970s.

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.[18]

List of directors[edit]

Target practice on Treasure Island, using .22 caliber training pistols

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.[19][dead link]

WAVES song[edit]

"TO LOOK THEIR BEST" Original Caption LA Times, Fireman Apprentice Adolt, 19, sees something new on destroyer: Marion Koopman, left and Margaret Williams, prettying up on board USS Uhlmann, 1950

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.[20]

Music and words to this and other songs sung by the WAVES can be found in Marching to Victory,[21] a 1943 booklet published at the Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School (WR), Northampton, Massachusetts.

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. ^ D'Ann Campbell, Women at War with America: Private lives in a Patriotic Era (Harvard University Press, 1984) p 49
  18. ^ Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall, Crossed Currents: Navy Women from WWI to Tailhook (Brassey's, 1993).
  19. ^ "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. 
  20. ^ Great Lakes Naval Museum; Marching To Victory. WAVES of the Navy. Lyric by Betty St. Clair
  21. ^ Marching To Victory


  • Collins, Winifred Quick Captain, U.S. Navy (Retired) with Herbert M. Levine (1997). More Than A Uniform:. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press. ISBN 1-57441-022-9. 
  • Goodson, Susan, H. (2001). Serving Proudly. Anapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1- 55750- 317-6. 

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]

  • Bureau of Naval Personnel, "History of the Women's Reserve." (2 vol 1946, 322pp); summary
  • Campbell, D'Ann. "Servicewomen of World War II." Armed Forces and Society (Winter 1990): 16#2 pp 251-270(1990): online