In September 1939,
Americans were in the tenth year of the Great Depression when war broke out in
Europe with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. As the warfront expanded throughout
Europe and Asia, the U.S. needed to increase the strength of its’ military to
prepare for the possibility of war. These preparations included discussions on
the prospect of a women’s corps.
Along with men, women wanted to do their part to fight the threat of fascism and many lobbied for a role in the U.S. military mobilization. At the forefront was U.S. representative Edith Nourse Rogers (1881-1960) of Massachusetts, who introduced a bill in Congress in early 1941 to establish an auxiliary corps to fill non-combatant positions in the army.
The bill stalled until the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 propelled the United States’ into war. Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, foresaw a manpower shortage and understood the necessity of women in uniform to the nation’s defense. Not only were women needed in factories, but also in the military.
With the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and General Marshall, on May 15, 1942, Rogers’s bill (H.R. 4906) passed into law creating the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). As an auxiliary unit, the women were limited to serving with the Army rather than in the Army.
The purpose of the WAAC was to make “available to the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of the women of the nation."
Women taking the oath as officer candidates in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps at army headquarters, Chicago. Four of the women pictured were African American, including Mildred L. Osby (top left), who would command an African American Women's Army Corps unit at Fort Sheridan. Chicago Tribune, July 12, 1942.
Of the four hundred and forty women selected for officer candidate training only 40 places were allotted for African American women, reportedly based on “the percentage of the population.” Mildred L. Osby (1913-1953) of Chicago was one of the African American women selected for officer training. Her fellow candidate, Charity Adams Earley, described them as “the ambitious, the patriotic, the adventurous.”
Lt. Mildred L. Osby recruiting women for the WAACs in Washington D.C., November 1942. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
First WAAC detachment arriving at Fort Sheridan on December 30, 1942. Mary Jane (Lett) Lucas aka "Jane" is right of center holding large duffel. Chicago Sun Staff Photo / Fort Sheridan Collection, Dunn Museum 95.32.23.
Among the first detachment of WAACs at Fort Sheridan was Mary Jane (Lett) Lucas (1921-2014), who recalled that the women auxiliaries were given a warm reception. She noted that the army “didn’t know what to do with us,” and was given a job as an usher at the post’s theater. The army quickly figured out how best to utilize the extra "manpower." Duties for the women’s corps included: clerks, stenographers, commissary, photo analysts, surgical assistants, lab assistants, mechanics, and chauffeurs.
On July 3, 1943, the auxiliaries were officially given “active duty status”
with the passing of the bill to create the Women’s Army Corps. All auxiliaries
(WAACs) were offered the choice of an honorable discharge and return to
civilian life or joining the U.S. Army as a member of the Women’s Army Corps
(WAC). Seventy-five percent of the women enlisted.
This new designation was important as it gave women full military rank and benefits for service injuries and allowed them to serve overseas. It also gave them protection as soldiers and if captured were eligible for rights given to prisoners of war.
WAC Mary Jane (Lett) Lucas, bottom right, with Sixth Service Command Laboratory soldiers and WACs, circa 1944. Lucas met her husband, Colonel Charles J. Lucas (1923-2011), at Fort Sheridan’s Non-Commissioned Officers’ club. They married in 1947 and settled in Grayslake. Mary Jane Lucas Collection, Dunn Museum, 2012.20.39.
Lucas was assigned to the Army’s Sixth Service Command Medical Laboratory at Fort Sheridan, driving officers from the lab, and checking in thousands of samples. This laboratory received more than 66,000 food and water samples from 1941 to 1945. The laboratory’s principal activity was the chemical and bacteriological examination of foods, including large quantities of canned evaporated milk, dried powdered milk, and cheese procured for the Armed Forces. At the lab, Lucas also worked with German prisoners of war, but was not allowed to speak to them.
In November 1943, an African American WAC unit was posted to Fort Sheridan under the command of 1st Lt. Mildred L. Osby (promoted to Captain in January 1944). At the time of her enlistment in July 1942, Osby was married, living in Chicago, and employed at the social security board. She had graduated from Officer Candidate Training at Fort Des Moines, served as a WAAC recruiter in Washington, D.C., posted to Fort Custer, Michigan, and WAC Company B commander at Fort Sheridan.
Capt. Mildred L. Osby, date unknown. Photo from FindAGrave.com, Arlington National Cemetery.
The seventy-five African American WACs under the command of Capt. Mildred Osby were assigned to duties in the Recruit Reception Center. Soldiers on furlough also passed through the Fort where their service records were checked and instructions given for the length of furlough time they had at home.
Soldiers and WACs worked in the Rotation Section, which had a "graveyard shift" to accommodate the great numbers of soldiers passing through and to "speed overseas veterans through." (The Tower, August 11, 1944).
Twenty-six of the original company of WACs at Fort Sheridan on their two-year roll of honor, December 1944. Mary Jane (Lett) Lucas (top row, red star). Thirty of their WAC comrades had been transferred overseas where they were serving in New Guinea, Egypt, England and France. The Tower, December 29, 1944.
Details of the celebration at Fort Sheridan marking the 2nd anniversary of the creation of the Women's Army Corps. Chicago Tribune, May 15, 1944.
During World War II, nearly 150,000 American women served as soldiers in the Women’s Army Corps. In 1948, for their superb service during the war, President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act allowing a permanent place for women to serve within the military in regular, peacetime forces.
The Women's Army Corps disbanded in 1978 and all members were fully integrated into the U.S. Army.
The Dunn Museum is celebrating those who served with a new temporary exhibition Breaking Barriers: Women in the Military through June 13, 2021. To experience this past exhibition, you may view it as a virtual exhibit online.
- Diana Dretske firstname.lastname@example.org