Valiant Women: The Untold Story of the American Servicewomen Who Helped Win World War II
“All of these women . . . served their country with patriotism and a sense of duty no less than any man who went off to war.”
There is a large historiography on World War II, with many narratives mentioning the contribution of women to the American war effort, often focusing on the role of Rosie the Riveter to the war production effort. While this was certainly a factor in the enormous war production American achieved, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Other recent volumes have focused on the story of women spies behind enemy lines and how these women helped pioneer the involvement of women in America’s intelligence agencies. But there has not been a concerted study of women in uniform and their service to the war effort, or how these women began the long journey to the full integration of women into America’s armed forces.
Author Lena Andrews has written a compelling new volume to close this gap by focusing specifically on the successful, although challenging, integration of women into all the armed services and how their contribution made a decisive difference in America’s ability to win a truly global war.
The introduction of women into what are now termed combat service and service support roles was driven by two factors that Andrews meticulously covers to show the true mathematical contribution women made to the war effort.
First, the sheer manpower needs of both a global military and a massive industrial buildup truly squeezed the available resources. Although the U.S. eventually peaked at nearly 16 million personnel in uniform, a number that would seem staggering today, these 16 million were drawn from an increasingly shrinking pool of both acceptable and available draftees as the war went on. Combined with the decision by the army to cap the number of combat divisions to be raised to 90 put a tremendous pressure on personnel, particularly as casualties increased in combat units as the war reached in climax in 1944–1945.
Aggravating this manpower crunch was the need to provide an overwhelming amount of training, maintenance, and logistical support to a highly mechanized military. The American military was the most technical of any of the major combatants and this took an enormous “tail-to-tooth” ratio where the number of support personnel in a given operational theater often exceeded the number of troops serving in the traditional combat roles of infantry, artillery, and armored units. Combined with the complex administrative and communications requirements of fast-moving global forces and the U.S. military had some difficult decisions to make.
Enter the role of women in missions traditionally held by men that would “free a man to fight,” since women were, of course, strictly forbidden to engage in direct combat. But women in all the services, as Andrews details, served in a variety of roles, not only the traditional nursing and medical roles, which often took them to the front lines, but new roles that were traditionally considered the domain of men. Women not only were instructors to thousands of aviators, they also tested and flew planes from the factory to be delivered to the front lines, served in numerous theater headquarters, and operated multiple signal units right behind the front lines.
Andrews describes the good, bad, and ugly. These women veterans had to face discrimination, ridicule, and even sexual assault as they served alongside the men. Their status as veterans with the same pay and benefits as men was not assured until very late in the war. For African American women serving overseas, the inherent racism of the pre-integrated military was another significant obstacle to overcome. But all of these women—and the author has a number of long overdue oral histories included in this volume—served their country with patriotism and a sense of duty no less than any man who went off to war.
Of course, when the war ended, many of these women quickly returned to civilian life, but now with the experience of having served their country and, as the author notes, having both an adventure and learning skills that they probably would never have had the opportunity if not for the war.
The World War II generation is almost gone, and their stories will sadly be gone with them. Fortunately, Andrews has made sure that women veterans of the armed forces have their achievements and experiences told so that a new generation can remember their contribution to saving the world from fascism and militarism.