Issue 9

Women at war

By Cyndee Shaffer

Today, it is not uncommon for female soldiers to be assigned alongside male soldiers in the combat arenas. They can be assigned in support roles or as carrier, fighter or bomber pilots. But it was not always this way. During World War I, women, other than nurses, were not officially part of the military. Any roles that they served were as volunteers, such as communications specialists and dietitians. But, because they were volunteers, they had no official status and no access to military benefits.

WACs marching in Paris on May 14, 1945, the third anniversary of the formation of the WACs

The concept of a woman in uniform was difficult for the American public of the 1940s to accept. However, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1941 and the United States’ entrance into World War II, women’s roles began to change. The US Congress passed a bill on May 14, 1942 to form the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs). However, again they were an auxiliary corps and did not have the same access to legal benefits and protection. Because so many men were going to war, it became apparent that women’s participation in the war effort was a necessity to win. Many women learned new skills in industrial jobs: in steel plants, shipyards, and lumber mills. Other women joined the military effort because good clerical and secretarial skills were extremely desirable. Once General Eisenhower brought WAACs (still an auxiliary corps) to North Africa in January 1943 and their efficiency became known, requests for them increased in Europe prior to D-Day. However it soon became apparent that if the WAACS were being sent overseas, then they needed the protection of being part of the Army. So in July 1943, after much debate, a bill was finally passed in Congress giving women in the army full military benefits and they became the WACs (Women’s Army Corps).

Women joined the various branches of the armed forces as WACs (Women’s Army Corp), WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), MCWR (Marine Corps Women’s Reserve), SPARS (Coast Guard Women’s Reserve derived from the motto, Semper Paratus—Always Ready), and finally WASPS (Women’s Air Force Service Pilots). More than 140,000 women served as WACS and another 60,000 in the Army Nurses Corps. There were about 100,000 Navy WAVES and 14,000 Navy Nurses. Approximately 23,000 women served in the Marines and about 13,000 women were in the Coast Guard. There were about 1,000 Women Air Service Pilots who flew more than 60 million miles but were classified as civilians: they could not fly with men in the cockpit and made less money than their male counterparts. It was not until 1977 that Congress granted the WASPS veteran status.

WACs were the only women in the military, besides nurses, who could be assigned overseas. Regulations did not permit the women of the Navy, Marines or Coast Guard to serve overseas until the war was almost over. WACs were an integral part of the fighting forces in World War II even though they were not in combat. In Normandy, they followed closely behind the fighting forces, slept in the field in tents, on Army cots, ate field rations, and took baths in their helmets with cold water. They moved to Paris after it was liberated, and later went to Germany. WACs handled highly classified material, worked long hours with few days off, and were exposed to a significant amount of danger.

As President Franklin Roosevelt said about the women who volunteered for military service, "Those of us who have seen and know the work they are doing throughout the military establishment of our country and in our foreign stations have only admiration and respect for the spirit, the dignity, and the courage they have shown." General Douglas MacArthur called the WACs "my best soldiers," adding that they worked harder, complained less, and were better disciplined than men.

It was in this time that my mother, Mollie Weinstein Schaffer, joined the WAC in October 1943 because she thought it was her patriotic duty. My mother had been a transcriber at Veterans Administration Hospital in Dearborn, Michigan in civilian life and she transitioned into her role with the Medical Intelligence section in the Army. Medical Intelligence was established by the Army’s Surgeon General to provide medical and health-related information about the areas the Army was preparing to move into so that the medical services would be prepared for the conditions they would find when the troops arrived. My mother’s responsibilities included determining the availability of hospital beds for the next military operation and acting as a stenographer for a senior medical officer. Wartime military censorship prevented any detailed discussion of her job in letters to family and friends. There was an article about Medical Intelligence in Colliers magazine in 1942 and reprinted in the Reader’s Digest in 1943. I was able to locate a copy of the article. In summary, Medical Intelligence was the difference between an army ready for action and an army ready for the hospital. And this was all accomplished solely through the use of old information from World War I, maps and local civilian accounts.

My mother was assigned and completed basic training in Daytona Beach, Florida, which was the second training camp for WACs after the army discovered the harsh winters in Iowa: in Florida they didn’t need winter clothes. Then her first assignment was in Wilmington, California, where on the day she arrived, Warner Bros. studio was just finishing up a recruiting movie and she became an extra. The movie called “It’s Your War, Too” can be seen here. After her assignment in Wilmington, she went home to Detroit on leave and then onto Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, which was the staging area for WACs going overseas.

Once my mother was assigned overseas, all of her letters were censored, which meant that she could not write about what was actually happening around her.

She was stationed in England before the D-Day invasion (June 6, 1944) began. Because of the advances that the Allies made into occupied France, England was under attack. Within a week of D-Day, Hitler’s forces unleashed unmanned fantastic flying machines called buzz bombs or doodlebugs that were launched by the Germans from somewhere in France with just enough fuel to reach London and then randomly crash land somewhere in the city. When these attacks first began, WACs were frightened and would seek protection in the air raid shelters. But soon they learned they could wait out the air raids in their apartments. The bombings became a part of their daily routine and they just went on with their tasks. As my mother noted in a letter written home on July 26, 1944:

Another sight always gives me a peculiar feeling and really penetrates—when I see the bus loads of children being evacuated from London to safer places, having separated from their family and friends. However, during the early days of the buzz bombing, I happened to see and hear many bus loads of these children being evacuated. They were singing and hooting and waved to us as they passed us on the streets...

She was among the first WACs to enter Normandy after the D-Day invasion. She crossed the English Channel by boat and arrived on Normandy. She described her first night on Normandy in a letter sent six months later:

The night we first landed in Normandy—do you think they had hotels for us—h*** NO. Can I ever forget the look on Smitty’s face or the comforting squeeze of her fingers when someone calmly announced: GALS—MAKE YOURSELVES AT HOME ON THIS FIELD—IT’S ALL YOURS FOR THE NIGHT. We didn’t know if it was a battlefield or what. But we spread out our pup tents on the ground to keep out the dampness, piled our blankets on top of it, snuggled up and slept.

She used her four years of high school French to converse with civilians and learned about the terrible conditions that they had lived under the German occupation. It was also while stationed in Normandy that she experienced “taking a bath in your helmet.” There were no facilities for taking a bath, so you would fill the helmet with water and go to the bathing area, an enclosed area with a hook for the helmet. A bath comprised of sitting under the hook and tipping the helmet’s contents over yourself.

She was transferred to Paris one month after it was liberated by the Allies and frequently served as an informal interpreter in both work and social situations. Here is an excerpt from a letter written in September 1944:

…I know that you wonder how I am getting along with the French language. Am doing wonderfully well. In fact, yesterday I acted as an interpreter. Last night a number of us went to the Arc de Triomphe. We wanted to go up into it and see the view of Paris but the gendarme there said that we could not at that time as it was closed for the public—perhaps later he said. All that in French and he could not speak one word of English. Then we walked away. We didn’t get very far when I heard a shuffling of feet and turned around—there was the gendarme making a “bee-line” for me with an Air Corps Captain in his tow. The Captain asked me if I could speak French and I said a little. He asked me to ask the gendarme several questions and I translated the answers. It was great fun and I understood everything. They were trying to determine whether our pilots had flown any planes under the Arc, which was against regulations. Anyway, the answer was no.

My mother enjoyed experiencing French culture because, unlike many of the Americans stationed in Paris during the war, she was able to understand enough French to go to French films and theatre and to follow the dialogue. She also read the French newspapers and said it added to her vocabulary.

My mother spent a large portion of her time overseas in France, especially Paris, and took part in the reveille of VE Day (May 8, 1945) in Paris. She commented in a letter written after VE that:

It’s so wonderful to feel that every plane flying over is friendly.

She was still with Medical Intelligence and they were the department who reviewed the extensive records that the Nazis left behind, claiming that their experiments were done to enhance medical research. They soon discovered that this was not true.

In August 1945, she was transferred to Germany with the Army of Occupation and witnessed first-hand the devastation of country. One of my mother’s most moving experiences was being in Frankfurt, Germany on Rosh Hashanah 1945, and witnessing firsthand the rededication of the Great Synagogue, the only standing synagogue in Frankfurt. The only reason the synagogue had not been destroyed during Kristallnacht was because Nazi party members used neighbouring buildings and did not want to risk damaging them. Here is the letter that she wrote about this experience:

Last night two of the Jewish boys and a Jewish Captain from some of the other offices in our building went to services for Rosh Hashanah with me. … The services were conducted in a synagogue that was spared in the fires set by the Nazis Nov. 9, 1938, in nearly every synagogue in Germany. The New Year’s services were combined with a rededication of the synagogue. Chaplain Vida (Army) and Dr. Neuhaus (Frankfurt civilian rabbi) conducted services. The services were certainly well attended by our Army and Navy personnel. There were a lot of high ranking officers there, too. As for the civilian Jews, there were very few left to attend from this once large community of 34,000 Jews. Beck, these Jews were not dramatic, nor did they carry-on, but one could discern readily the untold suffering they had experienced these many years. They held their heads high—and we were all proud to be a part of them. Yes, the Germans watched us walking in the synagogue and out—they were hanging out of their windows eyeing us carefully. Not one remark was passed; nor did they even speak amongst themselves, that is, while we stared back at them. This was a great day and one I shall never forget. Although I really didn’t want to come to Germany, it was worth it just to see all this.

After VE Day, a new theme appeared in my mother’s letters - probably a theme in every soldier’s letters - the point system. Right after VE Day, my mother wrote home in a letter:

Frankly, I don’t know what the Army will do with us, but please don’t think just because VE Day has been declared – all I have to do is run out to the docks and grab a boat home. The Army doesn’t operate like that!

Soon they learned of the point system that the army devised for soldiers: points were to be awarded for months of service, medals received, combat stars earned by the unit and the number of children they had. The higher the score, the better the chance to be discharged. The magic number of points to be obtained was 85 for soldiers and 44 for WACs. Although there was a point system for discharge, there could be other extenuating factors Starting in June 1945, my mother wrote that:

Stenos and typists have been declared essential in this theatre whether you have enough points or not.

She continued with this theme for several letters into July and August:

Seems that everyone will be home before me—I mean Sid (Cohen), Sammy (Mollie’s cousin), Ted (Kaminsky), etc. Did you know that I am essential? Woe is me—Yep—stenos at this point in the game are that!

And it continued:

Well, I definitely have 42 points now. Anyway, I am still considered essential as a steno.

In September, Mollie writes about the points and being discharged:

So—what I want to bring out is this: --I don’t have one d*** thing to say about it and I am not kidding. I didn’t want to go to Germany and just lacked two points. I saw Colonels and Captains galore—but I went anyway when the time came…

As far as being essential, the Stenos are no longer in that category—

Finally in early October, Mollie gets the word that she will be leaving Frankfurt to go home:

I shall be leaving Frankfurt 21 Oct. for Le Havre, France where we will “stage” (that’s Army lingo for waiting for your ship to pull in and processing of clothing and so forth to get ready to go home) until goodness knows when and then we will cross the Atlantic on our way home. I really expect to be home around the 15th of November.

After serving with the Army of Occupation in Frankfurt, my mother began her trek back to the USA in October 1945. She and other WACs took a train from Germany, through France. They crossed the channel and arrived in London. Then they boarded the Queen Mary on November 3rd in Southampton. After six days at sea, my mother awoke at 2:30 in the morning on November 9, and went on deck to hear a band welcoming them home and to see an illuminated Statue of Liberty in the midst of darkness. She knew she was home.

Sometimes we forget about the role that women played in the military in World War II. They shared in the hardships of the soldiers and rejoiced in their advances against stubborn, persistent foes. Women stepped up and were able to make a significant contribution to the war effort both at home and in the military. Theirs was a stirring story of American women who worked to help fighting men achieve a complete victory. They accepted the challenges and accomplished their mission. They also served. With fewer and fewer of these female veterans still alive, this is a story that has its place in the history of women in the military.


Cyndee Schaffer and her 91 year old mother, Mollie Weinstein Schaffer, began their collaboration in January 2008 on a book based on the letters that Mollie sent home to her family during World War II. Mollie’s War, published by McFarland Publishers in 2010 is the result of this endeavour. Mollie passed away in 2012 at the age of 95, but Cyndee continues to tell her mother’s story. Please visit www.mollieswar.com for more information.

More from Issue 9

You may also enjoy