Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service: The WAVES Program in World War II

Posted on Mon, September 14, 2020
  • by: Christine Heidenrich
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Imagine a photo taken before the 1970s. You’re probably thinking of a black and white image, because color was not in common use before then.

Specialist (X) second class Marcelle Whiteman gently holds one of the 200 carrier pigeons

Specialist (X) second class Marcelle Whiteman gently holds one of the 200 carrier pigeons “based” at Santa Ana Naval Air Station, California. The birds are used to transmit communications from the air to the station when radio silence is being kept. National Archives and Records Administration, 80-G-K-5489.

Yet, unbelievably, I recently had the chance to review and scan hundreds of color transparencies of military aviation-related images from World War II as an intern with the Aeronautics Department. The photos are part of the Air Force and Navy collections at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland, which I reviewed as part of the Museum's research for upcoming exhibitions. Though the war started in Europe over 80 years ago, color makes the photos seem so contemporary that they could have been shot yesterday. The people seem like anyone you would see today (aside from some of the fashion and hairstyles), and the color accents on the planes make them pop.

Elizabeth Holbrook and many other WAVES worked in a huge assembly and repair building at a Naval Air Station in Hawaii

Checking a finished metal bracket against a blueprint is Elizabeth Holbrook, aviation metalsmith second class. She and many other WAVES work in a huge assembly and repair building at a Naval Air Station in Hawaii. National Archives and Records Administration, 80-G-K-5670.

What particularly drew my attention were the images of women, since at the time they were not allowed to serve their country through military enlistment to the same extent as men. When reviewing the Navy collection, I saw images of women who served in the Navy’s reserve force for women, the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). Approved by Congress and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942, the WAVES program recruited women between 18 and 36 years old (and officers between 20 and 50) to serve onshore in the continental United States. Many of these women, starting in 1944, also served in Alaska and Hawaii.

WAVES operate Hawaiian Naval Air Station control tower

WAVES operate Hawaiian Naval Air Station control tower – speaking to incoming planes through a microphone is specialist second class Mary E. Johnson. Lois Stoneburg, specialist second class, operates the signal light. National Archives and Records Administration, 80-G-K-5675.

A WAVES Link Trainer instructor gives pointers to an officer

A WAVES Link Trainer instructor gives pointers to an officer checking out the Navy’s training device at NAS Norfolk, Virginia. National Archives and Records Administration, 80-G-K-3205.

In addition to clerical and hospital jobs, Navy women worked in aviation units – in fact, according to the National WWII Museum, the majority of WAVES were assigned to aviation units. Women maintained aircraft, tested parachutes, were domestic air traffic controllers and weather specialists, and trained men in navigation and gunnery. The WAVES trained male celestial navigators using one of the most sophisticated training devices of the time, the Link Celestial Navigation Trainer (one of our previous posts explored WAVES as celestial navigation trainers). The photos of WAVES in aviation jobs showed them fixing aircraft, guiding planes for the Naval Air Transport Service, making metal parts as machinists and metalsmiths, and doing other work. In all, about 90,000 women served in the WAVES at enlisted and officer ranks (most were white; only two officers and 70 enlisted women were African American because the Navy only recruited them late in the war). Susan Godson’s book Serving Proudly: A History of Women in the U.S. Navy, written for the Naval Historical Center, also explores the history of the WAVES.

Speaking to incoming planes through a microphone is specialist second class Mary E. Johnson. Lois Stoneburg

WAVES operate Hawaiian Naval Air Station control tower – speaking to incoming planes through a microphone is specialist second class Mary E. Johnson. Lois Stoneburg, specialist second class, operates the signal light. National Archives and Records Administration, 80-G-K-5675.

WAVES specialist first class Lorraine Taylor and specialist first class Martha Harrison

WAVES specialist first class Lorraine Taylor perches atop the nacelle of the number one engine of a Naval Air Transport Service four-engine Skymaster. Inspecting the accessory action on the engine is specialist first class Martha Harrison. These WAVES aviation mechanics are working on the ramp at Naval Air Transport Squadron Four, NAS, Oakland, California.

During World War I, the Navy recruited women in to provide clerical support and work various other jobs from switchboard operator to painter to translator, but after the war ended, they were demobilized, and the Naval Reserve Act of 1916, which had not specified gender, was rewritten to authorize only men to enlist, though female nurses could serve.

The WAVES program offered women who weren’t nurses the first chance to serve in the Navy. Women got a permanent place in the Navy and in other U.S. military branches with passage of the Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act of 1948. It’s good to know that the history of the WAVES in World War II, an important part of women’s military history, is represented in records of enduring value that will be preserved for current and future generations to learn from and appreciate.

A WAVES artist in the photographic lab at NAS Norfolk

A WAVES artist in the photographic lab at NAS Norfolk prepares backgrounds and lettering for shooting by the cameraman, left, for motion picture titles. National Archives and Records Administration, 80-G-K-3204.


Christine Heidenrich completed an internship with the Aeronautics Department in 2019.

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