When World War II broke out, women across the U.S. proudly went to work to serve their country. An estimated 350,000 American women joined the military during this time, transporting parts and supplies from the factories to the military bases, while others went to work in aircraft and munition factories. Their daily lives dramatically changed, yet at the end of World War II, 75% of women said they wanted to continue working. Here’s what life was like for women during that historic period in time.
The US Army Women’s Auxiliary Uniforms Weren’t Popular
The Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps was created on May 15, 1942, with the goal of recruiting 25,000 women to join in the first year. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was amazed when more than 150,000 women volunteered to join.
It was the first time that women would join the U.S. Army in a position other than nursing. The first contingent of the WAAC went to Fort Des Moines Provisions Army Officer Training School in Iowa. There they were interviewed, fitted for uniforms, underwent a medical exam, and assigned to their companies. Many of the women were reportedly not too happy with their uniforms but “added attractiveness” with proper skincare and hairstyles that were recommended by the Army.
“Your Job: To Replace Men. Be Ready To Take Over”
Women who enlisted in the military were told that they needed to be prepared to take on any job, at any time. As the men left overseas to fight in the war, worker shortages became a big problem.
Pictured is Irma Lee McElroy, a former office worker, performing her new job of painting the insignia on airplanes wings at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas in August 1942.
Women Built Aircraft As Business Was Booming
When the U.S. joined World War II, aircraft companies around the country began building fleets for the U.S. military. Between 1942 to 1945, Douglas Aircraft Company produced 30,000 aircraft for multiple branches of the military, growing their factories to 160,000 workers. Women made up 40% of the production positions.
Here a woman is constructing the nose of a B-17F Navy Bomber at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant in Long Beach, California.
Many Of Their Jobs Were Dangerous
Along with aircraft, women took factory jobs assembling weaponry during World War II. They were tasked with the dangerous job of filling the bullet casings with powder and a detonator, and gently tamping them down.
Many of the jobs that women were taking on in the factories were more dangerous than positions that men were taking overseas as cooks and maintenance personnel. They had to be incredibly careful handling the gunpowder and making sure their clothing and hair didn’t get caught in the machinery.
Working In The Goodyear Factory In Akron, Ohio In 1942
Pictured here is a woman manufacturing a self-sealing fuel tank for aircraft. This design prevents the fuel tanks from leaking or igniting if they become damaged on the aircraft including being hit by gunfire.
The Goodyear Tire Company in Akron, Ohio employed workers to manufacture the fuel tanks. Chemist James Merrill patented the design which proved to be stronger than the lightly armored Japanese designs in their aircraft. Goodyear’s patented design included several layers of treated and untreated rubber and fabric.
Taking A Lunch Break At Douglas Aircraft Company In 1942
On the west coast, women went to work at aerospace companies around Long Beach, California where Boeing, Vega, and Douglas aircraft corporations went full speed ahead, contracted by the military. Douglas won one of the biggest contracts of WWII, designing advanced ejection seats, air-to-air missiles, launch rockets, bomb racks, and more.
Pictured here are two women taking their lunch break outside of the Douglas Aircraft Company in October 1942. Working for an aircraft company was a safer job option than the dangerous working conditions other women were placed in, handling ammunition.
Assembling Electronics At Vega Aircraft
A subsidiary of Lockheed, Vega Aircraft was responsible for the majority of the corporation’s military production during WWII. Vega quickly switched gears from light aircraft to military aircraft as WWII hit Europe.
Vega’s first major export was the Hudson, a patrol bomber designed for the Royal Air Force. The corporation also partnered with Boeing and Douglas, taking Boeing’s B-17 design and building over 2,750 models by the end of the war.
A Flight Nurse Evacuating Wounded Troops In Okinawa
Nicknamed “Candy”, Navy Flight Nurse Jane Kendeigh arrived in Okinawa to evacuate wounded soldiers and make sure they were cared for en route to the hospital. At 22-years-old, she became one of the most recognizable Navy nurses of the war and was the first nurse to touch down on an active battlefield in the Pacific.
Candy and other nurses helped air evacuate 2,393 Marines and sailors from Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Working At Remington Arms Company While Her Husband Is Overseas
While millions of men were sent overseas to fight in the war, women like Fee Perez stepped up to take jobs on the home front to support the war effort. Here, she’s pictured working at Remington Arms Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
One of her jobs was to inspect .30 caliber rifle and machine-gun bullets for quality control. She has a photograph of her husband, Melburn, displayed at her workstation. Like many others, he was sent overseas to serve.
Women Officially And Proudly Served In The Armed Forces For The First Time
Before WWII, officially joining the military wasn’t an option for American women. Although they served in wars and conflicts as early as the American Revolution, it wasn’t until the United States joined WWII that the country called on women to sign up and serve their country.
As it turned out, hundreds of thousands of women were proud to serve, and they volunteered without hesitation. The war could have had a far worse impact on Americans without the help of the 350,000 women who served in the Armed Forces during WWII.
Sunbathing Suits Made From Their Boyfriends’ Escape Maps
Although many women spent a great deal of time working during World War II, it wasn’t all work and no play. Pictured in Steeplechase Park on Coney Island, three women are seen sunbathing.
They’re each wearing a bathing suit they fabricated using Air Force escape maps from the war that was given to them by their boyfriends. MI9 intelligence officer Christopher Hutton designed the escape maps of Europe and the Pacific during WWII to help Allied forces if they were captured. The maps are made of silk instead of paper, which explains how these women were able to make sunbathing suits from the material.
The Munitions Factories Were A Dangerous Place To Work
With millions of men overseas and American factories needing a strong workforce more than ever, women took on the jobs, no matter how dangerous they were. Although many women were assigned to clerical positions and switchboard operators, others were hired at munitions factories, as they had been in the first World War as well.
Pictured here are women aiding in the war effort, working at a munitions factory in Connecticut. They were praised for their attention to detail and consistently had greater output than the previous men who held the job, making their country proud.
Working At An Aircraft Motor Plant
Very few, if any, of these women could have imagined the field they’d end up working in before the US became involved in WWII. Eunice Hancock was 21 years old when she was hired at an aircraft motor plant in the midwest.
Here she’s operating a compressed air grinder on the job in August 1942. Although the plant had to replace almost half of its workforce with women who had never done the job before, the plants were able to meet and even exceed their goals during wartime.
General George C. Marshall Demanded A Women’s Corps
Nicknamed “skirted soldiers,” the Women’s Army Corps proved to be a successful and important contribution to the Armed Forces during WWII. The WAC was finally formed after the US had run dry of qualified men to join the fight.
Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall reportedly declared to the War Department in November 1941, “I want a women’s corps right away, and I don’t want any excuses!” Pictured here are Corporal Beth Haddow and Pfc. Dorothy Hamilton in from of the Transportation Corps flag in Newport News, Virginia.
Transportation Jobs Weren’t A Popular Choice For Several Reasons
Pictured here is a woman working as a bus conductor in the early ’40s. The US Transport Board hired thousands of women to take the jobs previously held by men, many of them relocating to Washington to do so. For the first time, women were commonly seen driving trucks, streetcars, and buses, as operators were desperately needed to keep the city’s transportation moving.
However, the jobs weren’t the most popular option for women, as they required working split shifts to cover the morning and evening rush hours. To qualify, women must be at least 5 feet, 5 inches tall without wearing shoes, and weigh at least 130 pounds.
Women Joined WATS in Britain
Across the pond, women in Britain joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, established in September of 1938. Women between the ages of 17 and 43 were qualified to join, taking jobs as drivers, postal workers, and ammunition inspectors.
Pictured is a new WATS recruit at Cowshot Manor Camp Brookwood in the UK. She’s shining her tunic before being called for inspection in August 1939. As the war continued, Parliament passed the National Service Act, recruiting women between 20 and 30 years old to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
A WAC Inspects A Camoflage Parachute
Photographed in 1945, this image shows a woman working in the Women’s Army Corps as a parachute rigger. She’s inspecting a camouflage parachute before it’s transported to the troops.
Her job is to inspect, mend, and pack air parachutes for paratroopers. Previously, paratroopers were responsible for their own packs, which increased the risk for malfunction and damaged parachutes. Rigger recruits went through extensive training and many were required to regularly test the parachutes themselves, to get a better understanding of the equipment.
Working In The Stock Room At North American Aviation
During WWII, many women took on clerical jobs that helped in the war effort. Many of the positions were quite different than previous positions they may have held in a typical office environment.
Here, a clerk is taking inventory in the stock room of North American Aviation in Inglewood in October 1942. Compared to factory jobs and the military, clerical jobs allowed more flexibility when it came to work attire.
Recruits Were Trained In Three Major Specialities
The ladies of the US Army Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps were instructed to exercise and create a personal fitness routine that included strength training. The manual given to recruits by the War Department stated that “You Must Be Fit” to take on any job that could be assigned to them.
Women of the WAAC were trained for three major specialties: switchboard operators, mechanics, and clerical work. The clerical workers had a reputation for being the least skilled, while the smartest and brightest were recruited for switchboard operators and mechanics.
Working At An Iron and Steel Company With No Experience
Before WWII, it would be extremely rare to find a woman working as a welder. But, when called upon, American women went to work for iron and steel companies. Their welding jobs required more durable and safe attire, including this collared jumpsuit, with hair tied up and secured.
The men who previously held the jobs were trained and experienced. However, many of the women who stepped in to take their places had no previous experience and very limited welding training. That didn’t stop them from getting the job done right!