Guest Column: The achievements and challenges of military women

Bill Thomas

Military women

At the end of my most recent published article, “Women’s History Month” I stated, “It will help us to learn more about their great achievements.”

Several male and female readers have asked me “to elaborate about MILITARY women’s history.” My first thoughts were to write about WACS, WAVES, SPARS, WASPS, etc.

Being in the month of November, I decided to describe the women’s participation in our country’s female military organizations ever since the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War.

(My source for much of the following information comes from the U. S. Department of Defense, the U. S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard.)

In my original article, I mentioned how some women fought in our country’s wars, but I did not mention that so many women disguised their gender by cutting their hair short, wore men’s uniforms, and used alias names; some used their deceased family male member’s names.

Many women fought in war battles. One woman, during the Civil War, when wounded, dug a musket ball out of her own thigh so the doctor wouldn’t find out “he” was a woman. Most women were discharged out of the Army when their gender was discovered.

In the previous article, I also wrote about the women who sailed the rough seas to get to our country even before we became the USA. I wrote about the pioneer women; about the women who labored long and hard on the farms and ranches, and about the millions of women who filled the factory jobs and a huge variety of other work activities that men had to leave when they left to go serve in the armed forces in World War II.

During World War I, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps allowed women to enlist. Of the more than 12,000 who enlisted, more than 400 died. Women also worked in an assortment of jobs with the American Red Cross. Most memorable for men in service were the ladies who gave us free doughnuts and coffee. (I accidently dropped two doughnuts into the ocean while I was struggled with all my gear, climbing up the gangplank to the ship that took us overseas.)

Thousands of women and men served in the USO (United Service Organization) by entertaining the troops with their Big Band music, singing and dancing, and their humor. (My brother, Jim, danced with movie actress, Donna Reed, at the Hollywood Bowl when he served in the Navy.)

All sorts of factories, retail stores, business and professional offices needed to hire women of all ages to fill the numerous jobs the men had to leave to serve in the armed forces. Women drove buses, taxis, and all sorts of transportation and nearly all had to attend to their family and household chores. By the end of World War I, 24 percent of the aviation plant workers were women.

In World War II, 350,000 women served in the military. 60,000 were Army Nurses; 14,000 served as Navy nurses.

In 1942, 67 Army and 12 Navy nurses were captured by the Japanese Army in the Philippines.

They were held as Prisoners-of-War (POWs) for nearly three years.

Also, in 1942, the Army created the “WAACs (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps) and in 1943 eliminated the word, “Auxiliary” and changed the name to WAC for the 150,000 women who served in the USA, England, France, Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines.

During World War II, the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard also established reserves for women.

The Navy created the “WAVES” (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.) More than 84,000 worked in administrative, medical, and communicative jobs.

The Coast Guard, in 1942, started the “SPARS” meaning (“Semper Paratus /Always Ready.)

A year later, the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve began. Eighty-five percent of the personnel at the U. S. Marine Corps Headquarters were women. Most Marine women served stateside.

In 1943, the Air Force created the ‘WASPS” (Women Air Force Service Pilots.) These civilian women pilots flew new airplanes overseas so the men pilots could fly the fighter and bomber planes into the war zones.

In addition to all these military women reserves, 3,000,000 women worked at various jobs to support the war effort, “ROSIE the RIVETER became a cultural icon representing these women.

The types of warfare changed through the centuries as newer kinds of weapons were developed from the early cavemen who used rocks, stones, and spears. Bows and arrows were next introduced, followed by pistols, rifles, shotguns, and dynamite.

Then came all types of artillery and tanks. Single-wing and biplanes were replaced by faster, long-range fighter planes and bombers, and atomic bombs.

With the advent of the computer, along came all the remote devices and drones, etc. yet many other, unknown, secret weapons. From the time each enemy could actually see each other and fight hand-to-hand, new battles and wars are waged from distant, unseen enemies.

As the use of “relic” weapons were replaced periodically, so too, methods, techniques and strategies had to change. One of the big changes for our U.S. military after WW II, is the implementation and training of more women in each branch of service … (NOT that women alone will fight all wars.) Many changes have come about. It’s all a matter of necessity.

The ways wars were fought drastically changed during the 20th century, namely the scud missiles and roadside bombs which left anyone at risk.

In previous wars, each enemy had some idea where the “front lines” were even though they often changed quickly. Uniforms and battle flags helped to identify the opponents.

Over 40,000 women served in the 1991 Gulf War. In 1990, of the 1,260 passengers on board, 360 were women. It was the first time American men and women shipped out together in wartime conditions. This was also the first war where women served with men in integrated units in a war zone.

In 1994, the Defense Secretary implemented a rule that prohibited women from serving in units “whose primary mission is to engage in direct ground combat.” Despite that rule, women continued very actively in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In 2005, for the first time, a female soldier, Leigh Ann Hester, was awarded a Silver Star for her exceptional valor in combat, in Iraq. She led her team in a 25 minute firefight, using hand grenades and a grenade launcher to cut off the enemy.

In 2008, Monica Lin Brown also received a Silver Star. After a roadside bomb went off, she protected wounded soldiers with her own body, and ran through enemy gunfire to save their lives.

In 2012, the Pentagon announced, “Women will be permanently assigned to battalions. These ground troops will be assigned to critical jobs as radio operators, medics, and tank mechanics.”

The Pentagon still upheld their ban on women serving in combat tank units, commando units and the infantry.

The Service Women’s Action Network director urged “It’s time military leadership establish the same level playing field to qualified women to enter the infantry, special forces, and other all-male units.”

In 2013, Defense Secretary Panetta announced that the ban on women serving in combat roles would be lifted. The ban was rescinded and lifted in 2014.

The first female soldiers completed the grueling Army Ranger School but were NOT allowed to serve with the 75th Ranger Regiment because they hadn’t lifted the ban on female soldiers.

In 2015, the Pentagon announced that all combat jobs would be open to women warriors.

As of 2015, women make up 15 percent of the U. S. military. More than 165,000 women are enlisted and active in the armed forces. 35,000 more women are officers.

Just as the Coast Guard ladies, the SPARS motto means “Semper Paratus /Always Ready.

Well, women have fought in military battles, and against the military “brass.”

I’m glad I’m not their enemy.

Bill Thomas of Rowntree Gardens in Stanton, CA is a Veteran of World War II, and Past Commander of VFW Post 4048, and American Legion Post 857.

To contact Bill, email him at