Aug 4

The Founding of the WAVES

Thursday, August 4, 2016 12:01 AM

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On July 30th, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law legislation that authorized the U.S. Navy to accept women into the Naval Reserve as commissioned officers. These were the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service — the WAVES.

Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) leave boot camp at Cedar Rapids, Iowa for their next assignment. February 1943. U.S. Naval Institute

Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) leave boot camp at Cedar Rapids, Iowa for their next assignment. February 1943. U.S. Naval Institute

The WAVES were led by Captain Mildred McAfee (1900-1994). Prior to the war she was President of Wellesley College. She commanded over 82,000 women in her role as director of the WAVES, helped found the Coast Guard’s SPAR program, and received the Navy Distinguished Service Medal for her service. She married Dr. Rev. Douglas Horton after the war.

Mary Cleo Smith (left), Doris Youlio (center), and Mary Gale Booth (right), from the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), riveting a wing at NAS Jacksonville, Florida. October 1943. U.S. Naval Institute

Mary Cleo Smith (left), Doris Youlio (center), and Mary Gale Booth (right), from the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), riveting a wing at NAS Jacksonville, Florida. October 1943. U.S. Naval Institute

In the early 1970s, members of the WAVES were interviewed by Dr. John T. Mason Jr. as part of the Naval Institute’s Oral History Program to gather their first-hand recollections of their service. In honor of this, the seventy-fourth anniversary of the founding of the WAVES, the Naval History Blog is proud to present an audio selection from Captain McAfee’s interview with Dr. Mason at her home in Randolph, NH in August 1969. In this snippet and transcript, one of several selections from the Naval Institute’s digitized oral histories available online, Captain Horton tells of the initial surprise many male naval officers had on first encountering the WAVES.

Note: In the clip selected below, the transcript provided is taken from the printed oral history volume. Because the printed transcript has been edited to improve flow and for accuracy, the words spoken in the clips may differ slightly from what is printed.

Doctor Mason: When you went to Washington, you didn’t actually divest yourself of the authority you had as president of Wellesley? This was carried with you in a very intangible way, perhaps.

Captain Horton: Exactly, and of course the trouble is that many times I used it without ever knowing it was abnormal, see, because I thought this is what you did when you were organizing something, you just go ahead and do something about it. This is the thing which I think was the most perplexing to a lot of the people in the Navy, that this bunch of women came in here and, with no axe to grind at all, we just went on about our business. The men were perfectly astonished over the fact, or instance, that the first group of yeomen were good workers in the offices, and they’d never seen a woman working in an office before. I didn’t understand this until I went out to an Army and Navy Club night one Saturday night and saw these gorgeous creatures who were the Navy wives whom these men thought of as women, see. And these little girls who’d been hard-working secretaries for years, and years, and years, were glad to get out of an office and into the Navy and do something for the war, were simply fine stenographers. The men were simply astonished because it hadn’t occurred to them that they really would be skillful, and in that particular category, obviously the boys, many of them, had no interest in being yeomen from the point of view of running a typewriter. They wanted to get out where the action was. And when these girls came in knowing there wasn’t any better action than this for them, they did a perfectly stunning job, and a lot of the commanding officers were just genuinely surprised because they’d never seen women in this kind of action.

And since we knew it was temporary for us, we were the women accepted for volunteer emergency service, and we weren’t going to be there for ever or stay there. . .