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Women in yesterday's Signal Corps

by Carol Stokes

Today's Signal Corps soldier may very well be a woman trained exactly as her male counterparts, serving in assignments throughout the world. Her roots can be traced to the women of the World Wars I and II Signal Corps who had very different experiences.

During World War I, women — more than 100 of them — worked for the Signal Corps. They were contractual civilian telephone operators who served in France without the benefits enjoyed by their male military comrades-in-arms.

A survivor of the "Great War" described the hazards she and the other women endured. Duty assignments at the switchboards, she said, were sometimes for 72 hours straight. The women, she said, carried on in spite of enduring the "constant noise from shelling and bombs, (under a) sky black with planes."

As World War II approached, women again volunteered for the Signal Corps and other sectors of the war effort. A few of them alarmed the War Department by drilling in bloomers and demanding to be sent overseas. Men became frightened as traditional gender roles were challenged. One Congressman was quoted as wondering if they "take the women into the armed service, who then will do the cooking, the washing, the mending — the humble home tasks to which every woman has devoted herself?"

Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall was unmoved by this rationale for excluding women from the military. He told the War Department, "I want a women's corps right away, and I don't want any excuses!"

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (later the Women's Army Corps) was fully activated, with plans for an elite corps of 10,600 auxiliaries and 340 officers in its first year.

Women first served at aircraft-warning-service posts, then in service companies. WACs first served overseas in North Africa, later in the European theater, and in smaller numbers in the Southwest Pacific.

In fact, before World War II ended, women served all over the free world. The Army Air Forces employed some 40,000 women and was the first to integrate them fully.

While not the most progressive, the Signal Corps was the first branch to request Women's Army Corps personnel. More women were used as replacement communicators than any other Army branch except the Chemical Corps. When the Signal Corps reached its peak strength in 1944, the corps' women members numbered some 5,000, or 5 percent of the total WAC strength.

WACs of the U.S. 5th Army were the first female soldiers to set foot in Europe in November 1943. Among them were some of the most skilled telephone operators on the continent. While they were not on the front lines like their World War I predecessors, these women were frequently in sound range of artillery. Although they were faced with danger, not one telephone operator would agree to leave 5th Army.

LTG Mark Clark was among those who valued World War II WACs' services. He included them in ceremonies and recognized them with medals and awards. Unfortunately, this was not usually the case. WACs with equal qualifications did not enjoy the same eligibility for direct commission as their male counterparts.

Although they frequently replaced men in top enlisted grades or even officers and warrant officers, women received few promotions. It was not uncommon for a WAC to become an expert telephone operator and work at her job for two years before becoming a private first class.

After the war, WACs were discharged to return to their traditional civilian roles. However, a Signal Corps board, convened at Fort Monmouth, N.J., in 1948 concluded that women were "more adaptable and dexterous than men in the performance of certain specialties." A survey of signal officers that same year concluded women could fill about 50 percent of all signal jobs within a communications zone, with the exception of those requiring heavy physical labor.

At war's end, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower testified about women in the Army to Congress' armed services committee. He said, "When this project was proposed ... like most old soldiers, I was violently against it. ... Every phase of the record they compiled during the war convinced me of the error of my first reaction."

World War II resolved few ambiguities or removed few prejudices about women's roles in the Signal Corps. Although the Women's Army Corps continued to flourish after the war, its numbers were hardly affected by either the Korean or the Vietnam conflicts.

Other changes, including the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, would have to occur to bring significant cultural changes to the Army and society as a whole. It was only after the end of Vietnam and its conscription of males that both men and women became equals as Signal Corps soldiers.

Dr. Stokes is U.S. Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon's command historian.


Last modified on:
April 04, 2012

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