Did women volunteers serve in World War II?

Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES)

Women who joined the U.S. Navy were able to free more men for service overseas.
Women who joined the U.S. Navy were able to free more men for service overseas.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Even if some members of the military and Congress were reluctant to give women a bigger role in the armed forces, they couldn't deny the advantages of recruiting women during wartime. With women filling clerical roles and other positions, men could be tapped for service overseas.

Before Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) was established, the U.S. Army had already started incorporating women through the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). However, as the name indicates, this was merely an auxiliary corps at first. WAVES, on the other hand, was at its inception a part of the Navy -- an important distinction [source: Yellin]. And the WAVES, as its members were called, enjoyed many more opportunities than their predecessors, the World War I-era yeomanettes.

After WAVES was created in 1942, Mildred McAfee, the president of Wellesley College, became its first commander. Recruits were initiated into the Navy in training camps set up at various college campuses. There, they learned Navy traditions and were introduced to naval operations and weapons [source: Yellin].

After many skilled and educated women proved their mettle fulfilling clerical duties, WAVES were able to assume other roles. WAVES became naval air navigators, aviation machinists' mates and technicians. Some even trained Navy airmen how to use anti-aircraft guns. Notably, WAVES received the same compensation as their male counterparts of the same rank (though positions available to women were more limited than those men could hold) [source: Cook].

One of WAVES' most significant contributions during the war had to do with code breaking. About 550 WAVES stationed in Dayton, Ohio, operated bombes -- electromechanical machines used to decipher German codes. These WAVES needed to work in shifts to manage the bombes 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Such tireless efforts arguably shaved years off the length of the war [source: Dalton].

By the end of the war, approximately 86,000 women served as WAVES, comprising about 2 percent of the Navy. And at several naval stations in the United States, WAVES made up the majority of positions.

After the war was over, the Navy didn't disband WAVES. Officials finally began to realize the benefits of including women in the military. Thus, in 1948, Congress passed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, which made women a permanent fixture in the military. As a result, the WAVES unit was finally dissolved.