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COLUMN — In service to their country

The inspiration for this article came from a conversation I had numerous years ago with Helen Gibson who attended Thyne Presbyterian Church in Chase City. She was a resident of Red Oak. Unfortunately she died before I could find out more about her service in the U.S. Army. The little I discovered was very fascinating.

Coincidentally, PBS aired a documentary March 13 about Catherine Man who served as a photographer in the Woman’s Army Corp (WAC) during World War II.

In World War II about 400,000 U. S. women served with the armed forces with more than 543 dying in war-related incidents even though political and military leaders decided not to have women serve in combat because they feared public opinion.

The passage of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 finally gave them recognition as a permanent part of the U.S. armed forces. In 1943, the Women’s Army Corp (WAC) was changed from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp (WAAC) and more than 150,000 served in WAC during WWII with thousands being sent to Europe and the Pacific. In 1945 the all African-American female battalion the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion worked in England and France as the first all black female battalion to travel overseas. It was commanded by Major Charity Adams Early with 30 officers and 800 enlisted women. The basic training for the women was segregated yet the specialist school facilities were integrated. In 1942 Carmen Contreras-Bozak was the first Hispanic woman to join the WAAC serving under General Dwight D. Eisenhower and among the 200 Puerto Rican women who served in the WAC during WWII.

Moreover, approximately 50 Japanese-American and Chinese-American women were recruited by WAC and sent to Fort Snelling, Minnesota to train at the Military Intelligence Service Language School as translators. Twenty-one of those officers were assigned to the Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section at Camp Ritchie, Maryland to extract information about military plans from Japanese documents while others worked with the U.S.-Chinese allies. In 1943 the WAC recruited a Chinese-American unit of women to serve as the army “Air WAC’s.” Hazel Nakoshima and Jit Wong of California were the first to enlist in this unit.

Furthermore, civilians contributed to the war effort in defense of our country. The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) flew stateside mainly ferrying planes from one location to another when males were needed for combat roles. The WASP were formed from two groups in 1943-the Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS) led by Nancy Harkness Love and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) led by Jacqueline Cochran. More than 1,074 of these women became the first women to fly American military aircraft from 126 bases across the U.S. relocating 50% of the combat aircraft during the war.

The group was disbanded in 1944 when returning combat pilots took over aircraft transport. Sadly, 38 WASPs died in accidents. Subsequently, the WASPs were granted veteran status in 1977 and given the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.

Even though these valiant women served with honor, with many giving the ultimate sacrifice, racial discrimination reared its ugly head in that many were excluded from service. For instance, about 120,000 Japanese residents on the west coast were relocated to several interment camps while at least 10,905 German citizens were held at more than 50 sites across the United States and Hawaii. By 1942, 695,000 Italian nationals living in the U.S. were labeled as “enemy aliens” with 1,881 of them detained by the Department of Justice under the Alien and Sedition Act.

We owe women like Helen Gibson and the women discussed in this article a debt of gratitude and honor. If women veterans are willing and able, talk with them about their experiences. Be willing to listen and you’ll discover that you can learn so much about dedication, humility, true heroism and sacrifice from women who were the first to serve.

Judy Moore works with the Central High Museum and can be reached at caesar502021@outlook.com. She lives in Wylliesburg.