Women increasingly fill roles in the United States military and receive the benefits earned by all veterans, but it was not always so. Although women have served in all of our country's conflicts, they were once relegated to unofficial or limited positions. It was only in the Second World War that corps of women were formed and women could join the war effort in varied roles. The first recognized women's military service corps were the WACS, the WAVES and the WAFS.
The WAFS and the WASPS
The Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, or the WAFS, was created in 1942. Women pilots were recruited and sent on missions ferrying planes between factories and Army Air Force installations. The Air Force was then part of the Army.
Although these were non-combat missions, they still could be dangerous. Women sometimes flew airplanes they did not know, and often towed aircraft. Over a thousand women were trained as pilots, and some were killed on duty.
Cornelia Fort's father made her brothers promise never to fly, but he overlooked his daughter. She was giving a flying lesson above Honolulu on Pearl Harbor Day, and witnessed the attack. The second woman to join the WAFS, she was the first to die in the line of duty. The plane she was ferrying collided with another over Texas.
As army leadership began to recognize the contributions of these skilled pilots, it moved towards making their status more equal to that of other soldiers. As a first step, the name of the women's corps was changed to the WASPS, the Women Airforce Service Pilots. However, the active duty status of the WASPS was not recognized by Congress until 1977.
The WAVES were Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service during World War II. They served in the Navy beginning in 1942, with status equal to the men in similar roles. They received the same pay and were subject to the same rules. However, they mostly served in the United States, while men were sent overseas.
WAVES did not serve aboard combat ships, aircraft or submarines. They were kept out of combat, as military women generally still are. Many WAVES were clerks and typists, but some were medical, communications or intelligence officers.
The WAACS and the WACS
The WAACS were members of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. It was associated with the army, but its women weren't considered full members of the army. They served in support positions-hence the 'Auxiliary' modifier-though they performed similar tasks to ones performed by men. In 1943, their service was recognized and the WAACS became the WACS. The women were finally accorded the same military status as the men.
The Women's Armed Service Integration Act
In 1948, this act of Congress allowed women to serve as regular members of the military. Previously, their service had been provisional; an emergency measure. The act merged the WAVES, WACS and WAFS into their respective branches of the military, and women continued to serve, each becoming a full member of her chosen service.