The Women Who Helped Win World War II

In a new book, Lena Andrews, A09, tells the story of the 350,000 U.S. women who served, changing the military while paving the way for women’s liberation

As a graduate student, Lena Andrews, A09, thought she had read everything about World War II. She had majored in political science as an undergrad at Tufts and was studying under Barry Posen, an expert on the war at MIT, where she was writing her dissertation on the use of tactical air power. So she was surprised when she happened upon a museum exhibit dedicated to a part of the war she had not heard much about: the women in uniform.

a headshot of Lena Andrews

Lena Andrews, A09. Photo: Kirth Bobb

During the war, hundreds of thousands of American women served as secretaries and nurses, but also as codebreakers, truck drivers, parachute riggers, metalsmiths—just about any job that did not require firing a weapon on the front lines.  

After getting her doctorate, Andrews worked for the RAND Corporation before joining the Central Intelligence Agency as a military analyst, but in her spare time she began researching those servicewomen.

Having developed a deep understanding of the importance of defense logistics in her line of work, she could fully appreciate the behind-the-scenes roles that women played during the war. Because World War II ushered in advanced technologies like radar and aircraft carriers, as well as modern combat strategies, it called for millions of military personnel to help with training, transportation, communication, and countless other unsung tasks.

a recruitment poster

In 1942, the U.S. Navy began the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) program. Unlike women in the Army, Navy women received the same pay as the men. Photo: Courtesy National Archives

“Victory required an unprecedented supply and support infrastructure to sustain forces on the front lines,” Andrews explains in her new book, Valiant Women: The Extraordinary American Servicewomen Who Helped Win World War II. “For the first time in American history, these demands could not be met by the male population alone.” Ultimately, she writes, it was women who helped win the war for the Allies.

The book, based on archival research and Andrews’ interviews with World War II veterans and their families, shares several personal stories from the war, many of them never written about before simply because no one ever asked. Here, Andrews, who will join the University of Maryland as an associate research professor in the spring, talks with Tufts Now about the roles these women played, the discrimination they faced, and their legacy in the military and society.

Tufts Now: What surprised you once you started researching the servicewomen of World War II?

The first thing was just the number of women who served—350,000 people. Relative to the 16 million personnel in World War II, it is small, but it’s the size of today’s active-duty navy. What also struck me was how much they were doing, how important the work was, and how little was out there about it. I saw that I could learn something new about the war by looking through the lens of women.

Why do you say they were essential in winning the war?

Aside from the number who served was the content of their contribution. They were in support roles, which I think people generally underestimate. You don’t necessarily think of sorting mail or fixing planes or providing uniforms as critical tasks, but they are.

Two servicewomen perform maintenance on an airplane

Two WAVES perform maintenance on the engine of a plane at Naval Air Station Jacksonville. Photo: Courtesy of National Archives

One of my favorite examples is aviation. Women weren’t flying combat planes over Europe and dropping bombs. But women like Susan Ahn were training pilots to fly. Women like Anne Baumgartner were flying planes around the country so they were in the right place at the right time to be deployed. Jessie Kontrabecki was fixing planes when they came back. So they were touching every part of the supply and support infrastructure, but they were cut out of the story, in part because they were women but also because these are undervalued roles in the military. Most folks on the front lines will tell you that they can’t do their job without the 15 people standing behind them, making sure they have the equipment and the training that they need.

People think of it as a sepia-toned war, but there was a ton of new tactics. You had amphibious assault, you had strategic bombing joint operations. There were 300,000 aircraft, 1,200 combatant ships, and millions of trucks and tanks being deployed. All these things are swirling together on the battlefield, and the connective tissue, making sure they’re working and doing the right thing, is people. And you find women filling that gap.

You share some dramatic stories about nurses wading to shore under gunfire on the North African coast, servicewomen who spent nearly four years as prisoners of war in the Philippines, and 38 female pilots who died testing and transporting planes. But you also find heroism in the seemingly mundane, like the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, an all-Black battalion tasked with sorting through an enormous backlog of mail.

The Six Triple Eight, as they were known, is one of my favorite stories in the book. On the face of it, it’s mail—who cares? But mail was the lifeline for men on the front lines. They had no connection to home and the reason that they’re fighting. And a piece of mail, it’s like a heartbeat that brings them back to life. These women gave the men the morale boost they needed to do their jobs.

To me, that is incredibly important, especially when they’re doing it in the face of extraordinary discrimination not only as women in uniform, but Black women in uniform. It epitomizes the complications of the time, but it’s also one of the more inspiring stories because of the way that they served despite such harassment.

What kind of harassment?

A lot of the mistreatment—of women of color, of white women, of women who would identify today as queer or LGBTQ—was appalling. That said, the 1940s was a very different time, especially in the military, when it came to discrimination on the basis of sex. That was just sort of your day. Many of the women that I talked to explicitly said they did not have a term for it. They were just expected to put up with things that today would be totally inappropriate, like going on dates with senior officers, or being ordered to go to dances after work, up to and including much more egregious acts of sexual violence.

How did the women respond to that harassment?

They most often responded in two ways. One, they addressed it, but with a great respect for the institution. For instance, Charity Adams, the Black officer who led the Six Triple Eight, was embarrassed in front of her troops by a general who threatened to send a white officer to show her how to run the unit. She responded, “Over my dead body, Sir.”

Second, they did their jobs very well. For example, the Six Triple Eight broke all records for redirecting mail—moving twice as many pieces as the men they replaced. It breaks my heart that they didn’t have more recourse than that, but ultimately the biggest thing that changed a lot of minds was men seeing women doing their jobs really well in the face of this discrimination and harassment. That was one of the most powerful rejoinders they had.

How did their service affect the military going forward?

Most of the senior commanders—Marshall MacArthur, Henry “Hap” Arnold, Dwight Eisenhower—were huge skeptics of women serving in the military at the start of the war. By the end, they had become some of the loudest, most vocal proponents of women serving on a permanent basis.

What were the impacts on society at large?

These women went back to their homes and communities with a whole new set of skills and a new view of the world—if you’ve been in New Guinea for three years, that’s very different from Topeka. And even if they went back home and didn't necessarily use those skills, I think it gave them a new perspective on the world that they then passed on to their daughters who became, in some cases, the foundation of women’s liberation. I do think they are the silent bridge of the 20th century women’s movement.

a woman poses in front of a sign that reads "U.S. Marine Corps Women Reserve Area."
Merle [Selma] Caples on a military base in the war. Her job was distributing supplies and equipment to men on their way to the front.
a older woman wearing a birthday tiara
Caples celebrating her one hundredth birthday. Photos: Courtesy of the Caples Family

What would you recommend people do to celebrate women on Veterans Day?

I read a comment that was left on the V.A. website from a woman veteran. Every Memorial Day, she and her husband go to the local military cemetery, and they have their service caps on, and someone inevitably says, “Thank you for your service” to her husband and ignores her. She says it makes her feel invisible.

To me, that is heartbreaking, and the greatest call to action. Whether it’s Veterans Day or just Tuesday, if you have the privilege of knowing a woman veteran, ask for her story. Take a moment to understand what she’s contributed. Because not only is it important, it’s usually extremely interesting.

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