by NICOLE COWDELL
In September 1939, German armies invaded Poland and the world was forever changed. The resulting war involved a dozen countries, took upwards of 60 million lives and altered the worldly perceptions for generations to come. However, this story is not strictly about the war. Instead, this story focuses on a unique group of individuals who answered the call when their country needed them. This story is about strength, courage and independence. This story is about breaking barriers and smashing stereotypes. This story is about the formation of the United States Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. The WAAC was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942. The first units started training in July and by 1943 units were sent out across the nation. In May 1943, one of those units arrived in Utah.
On May 18, 1943, the Transcript Bulletin reported that a WAAC unit comprised of 92 women arrived at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Tooele, Utah. One of the first units to be sent out, their arrival marks an important point in history. The article goes on to say that “although situated almost in the middle of the desert, the morale of the detachment is said to be unusually high.” The women there were replacing soldiers in positions such as “chemical work, laboratory aides, chauffeurs, truck drivers and other work connected with the operation of the post.”
Of particular note, was the fact that the unit was entirely self-sufficient. On that same day, the Transcript Bulletin also reported the unit was doing “their own cooking, laundry and the many details to maintain the camp.”
The Dugway Proving Grounds was a unique assignment for the women, as it was tasked with a very specific goal by the U.S. War Department. The grounds were set up in order to test and experiment with chemical warfare methods due to the growing usage of such weapons in the World War II battlefields. Needing a spacious, unpopulated area, the War Department looked to Western Utah as the ideal location. There, “tests with toxic agents, flame throwers and chemical spray systems were performed.” (Ison, 1)
The WAACs’ arrival was seemingly perfectly timed, for earlier that same week the Governor of Utah, Herbert B. Maw, declared the week of May 10 to 15 as WAAC Week. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the week was to be recognized statewide for “the first anniversary of the women’s auxiliary army corps…for the purpose of taking over many of the army’s noncombat jobs.” (May 10, 1943, p.16) In his address to the public, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Governor Maw said the WAAC “has rendered important services to the army by performing more than 100 different types of work formerly done by soldiers needed on the fighting fronts.”
On May 12, 1943, the Salt Lake Tribune reported recruiting would “be the principal feature of the week.” Though the WAAC had already recruited over 60,000 members, the goal was set to quickly add another 110,000 recruits and send them off to training.
Since the primary focus would be recruitment, that week the Salt Lake Tribune featured a variety of ads for the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. One featured on page 10 on May 15, 1943, declared largely that the women in the WAAC were “the luckiest girls alive – and we know it! The need is great – the need is NOW!,” it said, sparking patriotism and desperately trying to appeal to the American women who could help fill the wartime void. It seemed great pride was placed upon the women as they bravely entered into unknown territory to dutifully help their country during wartime.
The women who enlisted also received much praise from their communities. In fact, updates of women who signed up were frequently printed in the papers. Since Tooele was home to one of the units serving at Dugway, it should come as no shock that they were particularly proud of their women. On March 23, 1943, the Transcript Bulletin announced that “Miss Eva C. Brough … left Tooele Saturday for Salt Lake headquarters prior to her departure for Fort Des Moines, Iowa.” The announcement made the front page and was printed above the announcement of two marines leaving for training soon. This is just one of many examples of communities rallying behind men and women supporting the nation’s war efforts.
The community, both local and farther away in Salt Lake City, welcomed the Dugway Proving Grounds unit and continued to encourage more enlistments. The WAAC even received praise from the nation’s president. Printed on page 12 of the Salt Lake Tribune on May 16, 1943, President Roosevelt said, “I congratulate the WAACs and express the gratitude of our nation for a task well commenced.”
The Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps became simply the Women’s Army Corps in July 1943 but the units’ story doesn’t end there. Women continued to dutifully, though separately, serve in the military until 1978 when the WAC was finally fully absorbed into the United States Army. Even then though, the battle for equality and recognition still continued. Though the creation, implementation and ultimate success of the Women’s Army Corps worked to break down gender stereotypes, women were still not seen as fully fit for combative military positions. Even once absorbed in the army, they were withheld from holding combat positons for years to come. Not until December 2015, close to 74 years after the creation of the WAAC, would women finally be allowed to occupy combat roles in all areas of the United States military.
On December 3, 2015, the New York Times published an article which stated “the Pentagon would open all combat jobs to women.” The newspaper also called this decision a “historic transformation,” a “groundbreaking decision” and “the latest in a long march of inclusive steps by the military.” As the fight continues around the nation, and the globe, for women’s equality the WAC and its legacy are a heart-filled reminder of all those who came before us and the accomplishments they strived to achieve.
Nicole Cowdell is a senior at the University of Utah. She is majoring in communication with an emphasis in journalism.
“Maw Signals Start of WAAC Week: Governor Cites Opportunities Waiting Recruits,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 10, 1943, 16.
“Conference Opens Drive to Hike WAAC Total,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 12, 1943, 14.
Advertisement for WAAC Enlistment, The Salt Lake Tribune, May 16, 1943, 10.
“The WAAC…Its First Birthday Just Passed…On They March,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 16, 1943, 11.
“WAACS Gain Praise of U.S. President,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 16, 1943, 12.
“92 WAACS Arrive at Dugway: Morale High as Ladies Adjust to Desert Life,” The Transcript Bulletin, May 18, 1943, 1.
“All Combat Roles Now Open to Women, Defense Secretary Says,” The New York Times, December 3, 2015, 1.
Ison, Yvette. “Chemical Weapons Testing Created Controversy at Dugway.” The History Blazer (July 1995): 41-42.
Williams, Vera. WACs: Women’s Army Corps. Osceola, Wisconsin: Motorbooks International, 1997.