When World War II began, the United States was grossly unprepared to engage in a major conflict thousands of miles from home. This shortage of soldiers and equipment caused a need for U. S. women to step into the shoes of men in order to perform the non-combat functions required in the daily operations of the military. These women helped support the combat soldiers who were vital in both the European and Asian theatres. With over 100,000 volunteers during the war, the women of the WAVES contributed their fair share to bringing the eventual Allied victory and end of Axis tyranny.
Nurses had been part of the U.S. Navy since the beginning of the 19th century, but other positions in the service were always filled by men. This pattern was temporarily broken during World War I with the introduction of the “Yeomanettes”, women who had volunteered for Navy support service. However, soon after the hostilities ended, the Yeomanettes were disbanded and the Navy returned to a male-dominated group.
This changed on July 30, 1942 when Congress created the “Women accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service” (WAVES) naval program. Unmarried, physically fit women between 20 and 36 years of age with two years of secondary school could volunteer for training. (They could later marry after training if not to a Navy man). Officer candidates could be up to 50 years old and needed at least two years of college training before being accepted into the program.
Once the basic military training — consisting of technical training, exercising and military discipline — was finished, WAVES were assigned to various jobs such as secretaries, cooks, printers, photographers, personnel supervisors, control tower operators, hospital and pharmacist assistants, telephone operators, radio operators, parachute riggers and gunnery instructors. Though participating in many important support positions, WAVES were never allowed to go into combat, and were assigned primarily to stateside bases. WAVES enlisted women and officers were equivalent to men’s ranks in the Navy and treated as such by their male counterparts.
Newly volunteered WAVES were given an allowance to purchase items of clothing designated for wear by the navy. The practical, yet attractive WAVE uniforms were the creation of designer, Main Rousseau Bocher in 1942. The standard dress uniform consisted of a fitted dark blue light wool jacket with a four-button closed front and rounded upper lapels. The shoulders were slightly padded and the breast pockets covered with overlapping flaps. Enlisted personnel had blue plastic buttons while officers had gild metal eagle buttons. In addition, officer jackets had two light blue tress bands on each sleeve cuff. Both enlisted and officer jackets had the WAVE anchor over a ship’s screw lapel devises sewn to each lapel.
Skirts worn under the jacket were of the same dark blue material with a side button, zipper and slit pocket. Rank and specialty patches for enlisted women were worn on the left sleeve below the shoulder. A white blouse, black tie and black shoes finished the ensemble, along with a dark blue leather purse and carrying strap. Headwear consisted of either a dark blue arched (to accommodate high hair styles) overseas cap, or a distinctive brimmed piece made for the WAVE servicewomen. These were short rimmed fitted caps in white or blue. The enlisted cap was fronted with a “U. S. Navy” tally across the center, while the officer’s caps had a gold and silver officer’s naval device of crossed anchors, shield and eagle. Sewn to the inside of WAVE jackets, caps and purses were labels containing light blue and dark anchors, with either “WAVES” or “U S Women’s’ Naval Reserve” printed underneath. A white WAVES uniform with the same design as the blue model was also authorized for wear during the summer months.
A six-button overcoat of heavy blue wool was produced for wear in the colder climates. Again, these featured blue plastic buttons for enlisted women and gold metal buttons for officers. In 1943 a white and gray seersucker dress, jacket and skirt were introduced for wear in warmer weather. These could be topped with a curved overseas cap made of the same material. When on duty, WAVES could wear coveralls, slacks or work smocks, depending on the working conditions.
Oval shaped WAVE identification “dog tags” were to be carried while the women were in service. These came with a variety of information such as name, number, blood type, religion and date. Many were worn on chains around the neck according to regulation, while others were made into bracelets and worn in that fashion.
Many WAVES purchased jewelry and other mementoes during or after their time in service. Rings, bracelets, earrings, pillow cases, pendants and other souvenirs were used by the WAVES or sent home to their loved ones.
When the war finally ended in 1945, women volunteers in the WAVES then played a crucial role in speeding the flow of documentation and providing logistical support for the thousands of the sailors and airmen returning home. When WAVES’ services were finally completed, the women were discharged to resume their lives with their careers and families back home.
*As an Amazon Associate, Military Trader / Military Vehicles earns from qualifying purchases.