Improbable Warriors: Women Scientists and the U.S. Navy in World War II

Improbable Warriors: Women Scientists and the U.S. Navy in World War II

by Kathleen Broome Williams
The remarkable naval careers of four US women scientists in WWII are the subject of this carefully researched work. In her introduction, Williams (military history, City U. of New York) describes the historiography of women's roles in WWII and the discrimination against women in the US in the 30's and 40's. The lives of Mary Sears, Florence van Straten, Grace Hopper,


The remarkable naval careers of four US women scientists in WWII are the subject of this carefully researched work. In her introduction, Williams (military history, City U. of New York) describes the historiography of women's roles in WWII and the discrimination against women in the US in the 30's and 40's. The lives of Mary Sears, Florence van Straten, Grace Hopper, and Mina Rees are compelling not only for having overcome such discrimination; each made a significant contribution to naval science in the area of computers, the use of weather in combat, oceanography, and applied mathematics.

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...a unique contribution to military history (naval history in particular), [and] women in science...

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Naval Institute Press
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Chapter One


an overview

On 30 July 1947, U.S. Navy women celebrated their fifth anniversary as WAVES: Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. In ceremonies across the country, flags snapped and young women saluted crisply Congratulatory messages arrived from navy brass around the globe. The commander in chief (C-in-C) of the Atlantic Fleet, Adm. William H. P. Blandy, promised (perhaps too optimistically) that "the splendid services rendered by the WAVES ... and their uncomplaining spirit of sacrifice and devotion to duty at all times" would never be forgotten by "a grateful navy." Adm. Louis E. Denfeld, C-in-C Pacific, wrote more perceptively that "the vital role" played by the WAVES "in the defeat of the Axis nations is known to all and, though often unsung in peacetime, their importance has not decreased." Significantly, Admiral Denfeld added that he would welcome the addition of the WAVES "to the Regular Naval Establishment," an issue then hanging in the balance. Indeed, for all the anniversary praise, the WAVES' contribution to wartime successes did not even guarantee them a permanent place in the navy once peace returned. Nor, until recently, has their "vital role" in the Allied victory received much scholarly attention. This is particularly true of their contribution to naval science and technology.

    The navy has always been a technical service, but World War II was the first truly technological war. The demands of a two-oceancampaign placed enormous pressure on the U.S. Navy to develop new scientific and technical capabilities and to train skilled operators for increasingly sophisticated technical devices. While most people would agree with historian David Zimmerman that "the scientific war was won in large measure by the Allies because they were more successful than their enemies in mobilizing their scientific, technical, and engineering expertise," until now there has been little focus on the part women played in that mobilization.

    American women with scientific and technical skills had little incentive to join the navy—or any other service. Unlike women in Allied countries such as Britain and the Soviet Union, they were not subject to compulsory military service. The institution of the draft in September 1940, which took young male scientists and mathematicians away from their positions in industry and academia, enhanced the civilian careers and earning power of many women, stiffening the competition faced by the navy in acquiring their services.

    Further, the pool of technically skilled women for the navy to draw on was much more limited than that of comparably trained men. Before the war, few women graduated with technical degrees of any sort; fewer than a dozen a year graduated in engineering, for example. In 1941 the National Roster of Scientific and Specialized Personnel found only 144 women engineers in the whole country, or 0.3 percent of the total number of engineers. The navy was also handicapped in its effective use of women because of pervasive institutional (and societal) skepticism about women's technical aptitudes and abilities. Ultimately, however, women proved essential to the expansion of U.S. naval science and technology in World War II.

    In early 1942 the newly created War Manpower Commission declared itself unable to supply a sufficient number of men to satisfy the needs of the projected naval expansion, and a generally reluctant navy was forced to consider using unorthodox personnel instead—that is, women. As Dean Virginia C. Gildersleeve of Barnard College expressed it later, "if the Navy could possibly have used dogs or ducks or monkeys, certain of the older admirals would probably have greatly preferred them to women." However, the admirals were pressured by Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts, who sponsored a bill to admit women to the army and then cast her eye upon the navy. Uncertain how to proceed, the navy directed Gildersleeve and a select group of academic women with no knowledge of naval affairs to draw up the initial plans for a women's naval force. This abdication of responsibility on the part of the navy led to unnecessary confusion and inefficiency during the WAVES' early days.

    Gildersleeve was appointed to chair the Advisory Council for the Women's Reserve United States Navy, and her national reputation attracted a remarkable group of very able women to head the proposed new force. Among them was Mildred McAfee, at forty-two the still youthful president of prestigious Wellesley College, who soon became the first director of the WAVES. Interviewed after the war, McAfee ruefully acknowledged that it might have saved the navy some confusion "had the supervision of the admission of women been put in the hands of an experienced naval officer." On the other hand, initial weaknesses in operational procedures were offset by the caliber of the women Gildersleeve's academic connections drew into the navy and by the high standards these women established for the WAVES. While the Advisory Council received little guidance from the navy, it did have a precedent to follow. A small number of enlisted women—the so-called Yeomanettes—had served briefly in the navy in World War I. The loophole making that service possible had been plugged, however, and the Naval Reserve Act of 1938 confirmed the restriction of reserve service to "male citizens of the United States." Congressional action would be required to reverse this.

    The Yeomanettes had generally filled navy yeomen's jobs ashore as clerical workers, telephone operators, translators, stenographers, and typists. But many legislators (and naval officers, too) believed that any clerical expansion required by war in the future could be met by hiring more civil service personnel. They failed to anticipate both the coming shortage of civilian employees generated by the military buildup and the rapidly increasing sophistication of warfare and weapons requiring not only clerical workers but also technically trained personnel. Although women with clerical skills would remain indispensable to the navy in World War II, the demand for technical and scientific skills burgeoned. In the absence of sufficient men, women would have to supply those skills.

    At the beginning of the war this need was far from apparent to most of the naval establishment. The WAVES' haphazard beginnings reflected the general dislocation of a service that grew from about a quarter of a million men in 1941 to more than three million men and 100,000 women by 1945. Yet in December 1941, when the Bureau of Navigation (BuNav, soon to become the Bureau of Naval Personnel, or BuPers) questioned naval commanders around the country on their need for navy women, the answers were almost unanimously negative. Even assistant navy secretary James Forrestal clearly indicated his belief that "the Navy had no place for a women's corps."

    Only the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer, the youngest and most technical branch of the navy) and the chief of naval operations (CNO) responded enthusiastically to BuNav's query. BuAer recognized "the educational and social changes which have taken place between the two periods of service," and quickly determined that it could employ women "in a wide variety of technical and skilled positions." Also looking ahead, the CNO foresaw an increasing need for communications personnel under military discipline and control to reduce security risks and to be available for work around the clock. To fill these needs, the CNO advised that an adequate women's reserve be begun without delay. On 2 January 1942, BuNav, ignoring the pervasive myopia of respondents to its survey, advised the secretary of the navy to request legislation permitting the employment of women in a naval reserve for duty ashore.

    After strong opposition from conservative senators led by Naval Affairs Committee chairman David Walsh, a bill was finally passed on 30 July 1942 accepting women into the naval reserve, but with limitations. They would be temporary emergency personnel only, signed on for the duration of the war plus six months and restricted to serving ashore within the forty-eight states. No numerical limits were set, but Rear Adm. Randall Jacobs, chief of navy personnel, had told the Senate that he thought numbers "will probably go up around 10,000 before we get through with it." By 30 September 1943, 776 WAVES officers and 3,262 enlisted personnel were working for the vice chief of naval operations in all communications areas, including cryptanalysis and hydrographics.

    There was a low ceiling on rank and no chance of excess women officers. McAfee was to hold the top post as a lieutenant commander; only thirty-five WAVES lieutenants were authorized; and no more than 35 percent of the remaining officers could be lieutenants (junior grade). The Senate debates emphasized the legislators' parochial concerns. Instead of galvanizing the nation for all-out war, Senator Andrews of Florida wanted to be reassured that "there would not have to be another Annapolis, would there?"

    When a representative from the Bureau of Ordnance informed the Senate committee that his bureau already employed some civilian women engineers, quite a few women draftsmen, and some other women in technical and professional positions, several senators expressed disapproval. Far from being reassured, they insisted that women were suited only to clerical work or nursing. Admiral Jacobs explained to the legislators that navy women were needed not only for clerical work but also for communications jobs of all sorts—coding work, cryptanalysis, photographic interpretation, radio and electronics—and as laboratory technicians. Senators Harry Byrd (Virginia), Allen Ellender (Louisiana), Charles Andrews (Florida), and David Walsh (Massachusetts) still wanted to be assured that such jobs would involve only "desk work." A cornered Admiral Jacobs was finally driven to respond, "Yes; in some instances."

    The legislators were not the only ones who did not seem to grasp the nature and dimension of the wartime personnel problem. The navy, too, was hobbled by a service-wide patronizing attitude toward women. Nevertheless, in some ways the navy treated women better than the army did. For one thing, from the beginning women were granted reserve rather than auxiliary status, and even initially—particularly in the Bureau of Aeronautics—professional women were generally used in their field of expertise. The navy's deeper weakness was strategic, part of a general "slipshod planning system." Throughout the war the U.S. Navy remained unable to establish a reliable method of estimating manpower requirements. In early 1944, for example, there was still no comprehensive manpower plan for the summer of 1945. Small wonder, then, that in 1942 BuPers estimated it would need only 10,000 Waves in total. When BuAer immediately requested 20,000, BuPers hastily revised its estimate upward. Ultimately, more than 100,000 women served in the wartime WAVES.

    The other military branches recruited women as well, all drawing from a common pool. The initial plan for the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) had been to recruit 12,000 women. Within three months the figure had risen above 65,000 and there was wild talk of an eventual 1.5 million. Finally, however, the army settled on a force of 150,000 women, the limit established by Congress. In June 1943 the WAAC was reconstituted as the Women's Army Corps (WAC) and was incorporated into the army reserve. The director of the WAC, its highest-ranking officer, held the rank of colonel. Of course, a man responsible for 150,000 soldiers would hold the rank of major general at least, more likely lieutenant general. The inequity of treatment (which was to last forty years) did not escape women's attention, and it both inhibited recruitment and lowered the WAC's reputation and morale. Nevertheless, by the end of the war some 150,000 American women had served in the WAC. The Marine Corps Women's Reserve, established in February 1943, similarly grew far beyond its initial planned size of 6,500 women; in the end 23,000 women marines had served. The Coast Guard Women's Reserve—the SPARs—set a more realistic goal of 11,000, which they reached. The total number of women in military service during World War II was small. In the end, women numbered less than 3 percent of the sixteen million wartime service personnel. They were not tokens, however, admitted to appease a constituency They performed a wide variety of functions; without them the military could not have operated as successfully as it did. They filled in the gaps and were happy to do so. Most served at very basic levels, but a few—among them Sears, van Straten, Hopper, and Rees—operated at levels commensurate with their education and abilities.

    Many women were eager to serve the war effort in any way they could. When a ninety-seven-year-old woman volunteered for coast-watcher duty it was evident to those allocating manpower that women were prepared to tackle unconventional occupations during the national emergency Three million women volunteered with the Red Cross, and others drove ambulances, worked at USO canteens, and sold war bonds. An additional six million women who had never before worked outside the home joined the labor force. As soon as rumors started that Congress was considering establishing a women's naval auxiliary, queries from interested individuals and groups flooded the Navy Department. Typical was the telegram from the chairman of the National Women's Council of the Navy League, which noted that the council had "at least twenty candidates all college graduates for the women's reserve of the navy. We are eagerly awaiting to hear where they may apply and when." This, at a time when fewer than 10 percent of Americans attended college, is indicative of the high caliber of the women attracted to the U.S. Navy. Fewer than 5 percent of all men in the army at that time had sixteen or more years of education, and only twenty-eight of the ninety-six Marine Corps generals on active duty during the war had college degrees.

    A navy survey based on the 1930 and 1940 census figures estimated that the pool of women eligible for the WAVES, which excluded married women with husbands in the same service and women with dependent children, was around four million. In spite of the initial enthusiastic response, however, women did not flock to join. The navy was forced to go out and look for them. Vigorous recruiting began at once, particularly among women scientists from college faculties and student bodies. Eventually, strenuous publicity campaigns using newspaper and radio ads were also required to attract sufficient numbers. The limitations on rank and the restrictions of military discipline undoubtedly deterred many well-qualified women who held more responsible positions at higher salaries than they would ever attain in the navy.

    The other services, too, had trouble meeting their recruitment goals for women. An editorial published in the Smithfield (N.C.) Herald in February 1944 complained: "We have commented before on the failure of women to respond to the war needs of the nation. For some reason, the ladies show no great enthusiasm to wear the uniform of the country." Perhaps part of the answer might be found in the headline of another North Carolina newspaper of that same month: "Navy Is Seeking Women, While Men Still Direct the Show." The editor of the Concord (N.C.) Tribune thought he had a solution, though: "The foundation garment; nearly extinct in civilian life, it is General Issue to the auxiliaries. So now here's a new slogan: `Join the services and get a girdle.'" "Stand aside and let 'em in," he concluded.

    Perhaps the publicity was directed to the wrong audience. In May 1942 Admiral Jacobs advised the secretary of the navy that "there seems to be a tendency on the part of male members of the family to discourage females from joining the armed services. This includes all branches." The negative attitude of the average serviceman toward women in the military kept many of their wives, sweethearts, and sisters from joining up. In fact, many of the women who joined did so, as one historian notes, "over the often vociferous objections of family and friends, in the face of scurrilous allegations directed their way by certain segments of society, and despite the crude reception they received from the men they were attempting to help." A patronizing paternalism in Congress also thwarted the navy's efforts to increase WAVES enrollment by lowering the enlistment age to eighteen. In Britain, too, the armed forces had trouble attracting sufficient numbers of women, even after March 1941, when all women between the ages of nineteen and forty had to register at employment exchanges so that the Ministry of Labour could direct them to essential war work.

    Nor was it only women who were failing to answer the recruitment call. By March 1944 the Selective Service was near a stalemate and still there were demands from all the services for more men. There were suggestions to expand the pool by reducing the minimum draft age to seventeen or raising the age limit for active service from thirty-eight to forty-five. The urgent need for more men also brought up the issue of deferments. More than 900,000 nonfathers between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five were on the nation's draft-deferred list according to a congressional committee convened to review all deferment cases. More than 500,000 of these were farmers and 350,000 were in industry—occupations classified as essential for the war effort—but there was a strong sense that many of these jobs could be filled by men over thirty-eight or by women. "Is it an essential job in an essential industry," one editorial asked, "or is the gentleman just a non-father who doesn't like the idea of wearing a uniform?" Scientists were generally able to defend their deferred status, and the great majority much preferred the freedom of being civilians. Unfortunately, numbers of them also preferred not to become involved in government projects.

    Civilian scientists leading the war effort such as Vannevar Bush, an electrical engineer and the president of Carnegie Institution who headed the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), and James B. Conant, a chemist and the president of Harvard University, offered suggestions to alleviate the situation. In 1942 Conant suggested creating "by law, a Scientific Research Corps into which men would be forced by fear of the draft, as well as by patriotic motives," but neither the army nor the president supported the idea, and it came to nothing.

    Bush's Office of Scientific Research and Development itself drew large numbers of men away from military service. Through an effective contract system OSRD channeled huge amounts of government money into scientific research projects at universities and laboratories all over the country. But while it was one of the largest wartime employers of male scientists—tens of thousands were ultimately involved—only several dozen women scientists received wartime assignments in OSRD commensurate with their professional status and abilities. It appears that only three women actually supervised OSRD projects: Maria Telkes, an MIT metallurgist; Agnes Fay Morgan, a Berkeley nutritionist; and pathologist Virginia Frantz. Unlike the normal large research teams working on OSRD projects, however, each of these women worked alone: Telkes on a project to use solar energy to purify water on life rafts, Morgan testing dehydrated foods for their vitamin content, and Frantz developing her own new cellulose compound to stop bleeding. At least five women scientists worked on various OSRD radar projects, another four contributed to its penicillin project, and three women chemists worked on the antimalaria drug project. Other women scientists, like chemists Louise Kelley and Hoylande D. Young, who were employed as chemical librarians, had been shifted into traditional women's work.

    There are several reasons for the poor showing of women scientists at OSRD. Most of the projects were located at prestigious universities where the female presence was very small anyway. In addition, scientists recruited from other academic institutions to join in the wartime research were usually found through an old-boy network that either actively excluded women or simply did not know about them. Mathematician Mina Rees, who had made an effort to be widely known in her discipline, was one of the few exceptions. She profited from her experience with OSRD, even though her position was administrative rather than in research. But she was one of only a very few women scientists in OSRD projects.

    OSRD's Manhattan Project, on the other hand, employed at least eighty-five women scientists and engineers. Among them were Lilli Hornig, who helped to develop the high-explosive lenses used in the plutonium bomb, and physicists Rose Moony, Maria Goeppart Mayer (Nobelist in physics in 1963), and C. S. Wu. Ella Anderson prepared the first sample of uranium 235 for use at Los Alamos, and Elizabeth Riddle Graves helped monitor the Trinity test. Minerologist Helen Blair Barlett, geochemist Margaret Foster, and chemist Lotti Grieff were also engaged on the project.

    A number of other civilian government agencies attracted women scientists during the war, although many of the women had to work in fields well outside their area of expertise. Among the best known was Rachel Carson, an associate aquatic biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who during the war wrote government food-conservation bulletins explaining how fish could be substituted for other, scarcer foods. Geologist Grace Stewart did geographical work for the Office of Strategic Services (precursor of the CIA), and other geologists did highly secret work preparing maps of battle zones in North Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands.

    Women who chose to enlist and serve in the military received even fewer guarantees than civilian women that they would be able to pursue their area of expertise and that they would be given an intellectually challenging assignment. Their commitment seems even more unusual when one considers that military service was not universally regarded as a patriotic step. A strong and rather aggressive women's antiwar movement flourished in the United States in the late 1930s and right through the war. Made up of a confederation of women's groups, the so-called Mothers' Movement was anti-Communist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Roosevelt. Part of the larger noninterventionist movement, the women joined forces with leaders of the extreme right like Father Charles Coughlin (the "Radio Priest"), Col. Robert McCormick (the Anglophobe owner of the Chicago Tribune), and such isolationist senators as Burton K. Wheeler, Gerald P. Nye, and Arthur H. Vandenberg. At its peak the Mothers' Movement had five or six million members, and far from disbanding after Pearl Harbor they continued to oppose the war until its end in 1945. Members of the movement blamed the war on British imperialism, supported Hitler as a barrier to communism, and claimed to be superpatriots defending their sons and husbands from the scourge of war. These women were predominantly upper middle class and college educated—the sort of women who should have been in the pool of potential women military officers. Nevertheless, in general American women supported the war and whether in uniform or as civilians contributed impressively to the Allies' eventual victory.


Excerpted from IMPROBABLE WARRIORS by Kathleen Broome Williams. Copyright © 2001 by Kathleen Broome Williams. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


By Nick Karas

Lyons & Burford, Publishers

Copyright © 1997 Nick Karas. All rights reserved.

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