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