I believe that defeating the Axis Powers in WWII was America’s finest accomplishment of the 20th Century. Before the war, we were in an isolationist mode, focusing inward, trying to deal with our internal problems, notably the Great Depression. We had decommissioned much of our military men and materials. We were woefully unprepared for war. On the other hand the Axis powers – Germany, Italy and Japan – were ready, willing and able to wage war.
We were dragged into the war following Japan’s vicious sneak attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base on December 7, 1941, and we responded with a vengeance. We geared up at a frenetic pace. We fought two wars simultaneously on multiple fronts for four years, and we were victorious. During the war, we were at the very peak of our power and influence. Afterwards we had become the most powerful nation on earth and the world leader for democracy. Tom Brokaw, the newsman turned author, coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe the people of that time period, and it is hard to dispute that characterization. First, they endured great hardships to survive The Great Depression, which began with the crash of the stock market in October 1929 and did not end until we had to gear up to fight WWII. Then, they won the war, defeating three brutal totalitarian regimes.
Most of us are familiar with the history of the period. Time and space prohibit me from describing it in detail here. But, how many of us realize the vital part played by women in winning the war. True, women were not engaged in combat, at least not American women, but they did everything else you could imagine to support our combat troops. Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, not every soldier or sailor is actually engaged in combat. Armies and navies rely on a huge support staff.
Nearly 350,000 American women served in uniform in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard during WWII. The US was actually quicker to utilize women in the war effort than were the Axis Powers. Many of them enlisted, just like the men. In the military, they served as nurses, clerks, lab technicians, radio operators and even anti-aircraft gunners, among many other jobs. Often, nurses would be uncomfortably close to the front. Some were killed, wounded or captured. Over 2,000 women earned combat medals.
In addition, women took over many civilian jobs that had been the exclusive province of men, such as factory work, bus drivers and such. You name it; they did it, and did it well. Along the way they destroyed the conventional wisdom of the day that women were too weak physically, too emotional and too unreliable to perform many of these jobs.
From 1940 to 1945 the percentage of the civilian workforce that consisted of females jumped from 27% to 37%, and by the end of the war approximately 25% of married women worked outside the home. Before the war it was rare for married women to hold a job. In those pre-politically correct days society was of the belief that like the expression says “a woman’s place was in the home.” Generally, if a married woman was working it was assumed that the husband was unable to support the family.
At first, Hitler mocked the Americans for putting women to work in factories and such. The role of German women, he said, was stay at home, be a good wife and mother, and make babies for the Third Reich. Later, due to severe manpower shortages, the Germans did put their women to work.
Women also played a significant role in the war effort of many other countries. For example:
1. Great Britain – Like in the US, women entered the workforce in occupations that had previously been the exclusive domain of men, such as factories workers, munitions, gunners, and searchlight operators. Before the war, the conventional wisdom had been that women lacked the temperament, physical strength or technical ability to perform these jobs and others like them. They rose to the occasion and performed well. Then, at the end of the day, they went home and managed the household. In addition, thousands of them volunteered to serve in the armed services. Basically, they did everything but actually fire guns in combat.
2. Canada – The story was much the same. Canada established the Women’s Army Corps. Women volunteered by the thousands. Some of the jobs they performed were truck drivers, cooks, clerks, telephone operators and canteen helpers.
3. France – Many of the resistance fighters were women.
4. Germany – There was a severe labor shortage. Eventually, over half of the work-age women were in the country’s workforce. The Germans also employed people from subjugated countries as slave labor.
5. Russia – Approximately 800,000 women served, many of them in combat roles.
Upon the conclusion of the war the soldiers and sailors returned home and reclaimed their jobs. Once again, women were largely relegated to the home. This phenomenon was exemplified in a scene from a television show called “Homefront,” which was set circa 1945. In one scene, the personnel manager called a female employee into his office to inform her that she was to be replaced by a returning serviceman who needed and deserved her job. When she denoted that she was single and also needed the job to support herself, the personnel manager replied “why don’t you find a husband to support you?” With few exceptions, this was the prevailing custom of the day. Yes, times have surely changed.
One final point, a woman who was a real-life “Rosie the Riveter” back in the day was profiled recently in the local newspaper. During the war, she built parts for airplanes. She related that soon after the war ended she and the other female riveters were laid off to be replaced by returning servicemen. Nevertheless, she said she had no complaints and was proud to have “done her part” to win the war. She is still going strong at age 95. She travels around the country relating her experiences to enthralled audiences of mostly young people.