One of the many reasons I enjoy writing about the World War II era is because it’s a fascinating time for women’s stories. The needs of a nation at war led women to take on new roles, stretching themselves.
In my latest novel, When Tides Turn, Tess Beaumont needs stretching and she knows it. Pretty and peppy, she’s used to good things falling into her lap. But she’s tired of being seen as merely decorative. All around her, women are contributing to the war effort, and she’s busy selling blouses at Filene’s in Boston. When the US establishes the WAVES program, Tess enlists, determined to make a difference in the world. To be useful.
On July 30, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation creating the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), the women’s branch of the US Naval Reserve. A few days later Lt. Cdr. Mildred McAfee, president of Wellesley College, was sworn in as the first director. At the end of August, the first women began officer training, and training for enlisted women soon followed.
Researching the WAVES for When Tides Turn was fascinating. Although few official histories are available, personal stories abound, full of color. The women were baffled and amused by naval traditions and terminology—as the mother of a sailor in the US Navy, I relate—but the ladies learned and adapted. And of course, they formed deep and lasting friendships.
Looking back through time, we see how valuable these women were and how much they aided the war effort. So I was surprised to read about how much opposition the WAVES faced. The US Navy showed no interest in enlisting women, although women had served with distinction in World War I. At the start of World War II, only the Bureau of Aeronautics and the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Ernest King, wanted women in the Navy.
The objections sound shocking to us nowadays. Officers believed women didn’t have the capacity for the technical work required in the Navy. They believed women would be distracted by the handsome sailors—and more importantly from their standpoint, that pretty women would distract the sailors from their duties. Also, some civilians bristled at the thought of women in uniform, believing military service would destroy femininity or that servicewomen would be nothing but “camp followers.” Many others worried about placing their daughters in harm’s way.
Congress intervened and passed the legislation, and the president signed it. Women flooded the recruiting offices, eager to serve their country. Admittedly, the smart uniforms by top designer Mainbocher were an excellent recruiting tool.
To ease the concerns of the nation and of the Navy brass, the WAVES were restricted to serving stateside and not on ships or in aircraft. Initial regulations forbade the WAVES from marrying men in the Navy, to discourage flirting on duty. Tess Beaumont embraces that restriction—she wants to kill her crush on no-nonsense officer Lt. Dan Avery, who’s already married—to the Navy.
On November 6, 1942, the first WAVES reported for duty and immediately showed their worth. They proved the naysayers wrong with their professionalism, competence, and focus. By taking on noncombat positions, the women fulfilled the promise to “free a man to fight,” and soon every branch of the Navy begged for WAVES.
By the end of World War II, 86,000 women served at 900 various stations in dozens of jobs. In September 1944 WAVES were permitted to serve in Hawaii, Alaska, and the Caribbean, and in October 1944 black women were finally accepted into the WAVES. Ultimately, thirty-eight of the sixty-two ratings (jobs) for enlisted sailors were open to women.
As for that restriction against marrying Navy men? Lifted in March 1943.
The WAVES made a vital contribution to the war effort and also to how women were perceived. They showed they could handle highly technical work. They were diligent and competent and professional, while remaining ladies. It was a privilege to write about their struggles, their duties, and their joys. I am thankful for their service.
More about When Tides Turn:
When fun-loving glamour girl Quintessa Beaumont learns the Navy has established the WAVES program for women, she enlists, determined to throw off her frivolous ways and contribute to the war effort. No-nonsense and hoping to make admiral, Lt. Dan Avery has been using his skills to fight German U-boats. The last thing he wants to see on his radar is a girl like Tess. For her part, Tess works hard to prove her worth in the Anti-Submarine Warfare Unit in Boston–both to her commanding officers and to the man with whom she is smitten. When Dan is assigned to a new escort carrier at the peak of the Battle of the Atlantic, he’s torn between his lifelong career goals and his desire to help Tess root out a possible spy on shore. The Germans put up quite a fight, but he wages a deeper battle within his heart. Could Tess be the one for him?
Sarah Sundin is the author of Through Waters Deep and Anchor in the Storm, as well as the Wings of the Nightingale and the Wings of Glory series. A graduate of UC San Francisco School of Pharmacy, she works on-call as a hospital pharmacist. During WWII, her grandfather served as a pharmacist’s mate (medic) in the Navy, and her great-uncle flew with the US Eighth Air Force. Sarah lives in California. Visit www.sarahsundin.com for more information.