Ethel LeBlanc Palma
Smiling brightly in her new military uniform, Ethel LeBlanc Palma knew she would do great things for her country. One of the 150,000 women who enlisted in the Women's Army Corps during the Second World War, Ethel joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in 1942 before it was an official component of the U.S. Army. She felt "that women could do just about anything, that we could serve our country the same as men could." In January of 1943, Palma was sent to Fort Des Moines, Iowa for basic training. Here she was trained as a recruiter, and then dispatched to work in New York, New Jersey, and Delaware before returning to Officer Candidate School at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia in 1943. Soon after becoming an officer, Palma embarked upon a life changing assignment in support of the war effort and her country.
Collage Edith Nourse Rogers and Hello Girls (1926) by Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives and National WWI Museum and Memorial, Kansas City, Missouri, USANational Women’s History Museum
Foundations of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it became evident that the United States would soon be engaged in total war. On December 30, 1941, Congresswoman Edith Norse Rogers introduced a bill (HR 6293) to the Committee on Military Affairs with the purpose of establishing a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Earlier the same year she proposed a similar bill but, without the immediate need for more military personnel prior to Pearl Harbor, Congress did not see the importance of women’s ability to free men to fight.
This would not be the first time women were called to serve. During the First World War, as the state of communications worsened on the Western front, General John J. Pershing issued a nationwide request for women telephone operators who were willing to volunteer with the Army Signal Corps in France. The Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit, affectionately nicknamed the "Hello Girls," sat behind switchboards within the trenches of the Western front defending their country in a new way. These women served as predecessors to members of the WAAC who took on similar roles in communications during the Second World War.
H.R. 6293 Establishing the Women's Army Auziliary Corps (1942-01-28) by U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233, National ArchivesNational Women’s History Museum
After intense debate of Rogers' legislation on the floors of Congress, and an obvious need for an increase in military personnel, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the WAAC bill into law on May 15, 1942, effectively creating the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. The following day, Oveta Culp Hobby was sworn in as the First Director of the WAAC.
Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby, First Director, Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (1942) by Courtesy Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice UniversityNational Women’s History Museum
Director Oveta Culp Hobby
Born in Killeen, Texas to Isaac William Culp, lawyer and legislator, and Emma Elizabeth Hoover, Oveta always had a keen interest in reading and education, and had a library of 750 volumes by the time she reached young adulthood. By the age of fourteen she became curious about law and politics, and often accompanied her father, who was elected to the state legislature, to his legislative meetings. As an adult, her professional political career blossomed. Between 1925 and 1931, she served as Parliamentarian in the Texas State Legislature, assisted with organizing the Democratic National Convention in Houston in 1928, worked on Thomas T. Connally’s US Senate campaign, and ran for Texas state legislature. During the 1930s, she worked in publishing at “The Post,” a newspaper owned by her soon to be husband William P. Hobby.
Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby shaking a Corps member's hand (1942) by Courtesy Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice UniversityNational Women’s History Museum
Between 1941 and 1942, Oveta worked as the head of the Women’s Interest Section in the War Department Bureau of Public Relations, where she sought out ways that women could actively serve their country. As a result of her accomplishments and experience, she was chosen as First Director of the WAAC on May 14, 1942. In 1943, when the WAAC became a full part of the Army, she became Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby.
We're in the Army Now (1943) by Office of the Chief Signal Officer, Record Group 111, National ArchivesNational Women’s History Museum
"We're In the Army Now," 1943 documentary film detailing life in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.
The first assignment Director Hobby was tasked with was setting up training centers for the WAAC. In 1942, the First WAAC Training Center was established at Fort Des Moines, Iowa where an officer candidate school was arranged. Strong leadership was an important factor of the WAAC, and needed to be established early on. Women who demonstrated outstanding qualities in the performance of their duties were often chosen to become officers. On July 20, 1943, the first class of 440 officer candidates commenced. After these new WAC officers graduated, they “would be followed by classes of 125 women weekly until at least 1,300 officers had been trained.” Following Fort Des Moines, the Second and Third WAAC training centers were established in Daytona Beach, Florida and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. In total, the Army opened five training centers throughout the United States.
Passing In Review by 6th Cavalry MuseumNational Women’s History Museum
“Every soldier in the Army, male or female, gets this training. It makes a soldier of the civilian; it lays the groundwork for all future training.”
– WAC Life PAM 35-3
All women who enlisted with the Army were first enrolled in a six-week basic training program where they completed courses such as military customs and courtesy, WAAC regulations and Articles of War, wearing of the uniform, defense against gas attack, safeguarding military information, and drill without arms. Before being assigned to bases across the United States, there was also supplementary job training, and even overseas training for those sent into the various theaters of war. When the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps transitioned into the Women’s Army Corps in 1943, there were over 200 different occupational specialties that WAACs could fill including automobile mechanic, baker, cartographer, supply clerk, switchboard operator, Link trainer instructor, photographer, control tower operator, weather observer, and cryptographer among others.
The Slander Campaign, 1943
With the introduction of a women’s auxiliary into the Army, members of the WAAC became the victims of vile attacks. In May 1943, Director Hobby wrote to General Grunert that "there have been many indications of an organized whispering campaign directed against the WAAC," and subsequently asked for an investigation. It was suspected by both Hobby and the War Department that Axis powers had begun spreading these rumors in order to discredit the WAAC, which would disrupt the mobilization of the Army as a whole. In June, a full-scale investigation of possible Axis influence was launched by the Army's Military Intelligence Service. Their investigation found that these rumors were not created by the Axis powers, but instead by male Army personnel, soldiers' wives, jealous civilian women, gossips, fanatics, and disgruntled discharged WAACs. Ethel Palma recalls one such instance: there was "a woman who had joined the Women's Army Corps... she was doing things that weren't acceptable, and she was discharged, dishonorably discharged, and she would hang out in bars and say unkind things about the WACs" while wearing pieces of the uniform.
"WAAC Gossip Lie, Says Stimson" (1943-06-10) by Daily News, Newspapers.comNational Women’s History Museum
Traditionally, women who had any relation to the military were categorized as “prostitutes,” “camp followers,” or “cross-dressers.” These categories emerged from the long established notion that women were not suitable for combat. Throughout American history, women assisted the war effort in other ways, be it disguising themselves as men to fight on the frontlines, following their deployed husbands and sons to cook meals for them, or making money from soldiers in ways deemed “problematic” to society. Director Hobby’s job was to create an entirely new category where women could fit in as respectable soldiers.
Initially, newspapers published stories of loose morals and promiscuity among the WAAC, including a falsely reported increase in pregnancy. One claim came from John O'Donnell in his "Capital Stuff" column. O'Donnell insisted that he had obtained top-secret information revealing that members of the WAAC were being issued contraceptives and prophylactics. For members of the public who were adamantly against sending women into the military out of fear that they would be subject to unladylike behavior, namely non-marital sex and pregnancy out of wedlock, this was deeply alarming. Secretary of War Henry Stimson defended the WAAC stating, "sinister rumors aimed at destroying the reputation of the WAAC are absolutely and completely false."
WAAC to WAC Conversion
Despite the Slander Campaign, the WAAC was an unqualified success. The Army began receiving more requests from its units for WAAC personnel than it could provide, so Representative Rogers proposed bills in the House and Senate that allowed for the Army to convert the WAAC from a force that served beside the Army, to one that served in the Army. WAACs were also desperately needed overseas. If they became full members of the Army, they would be completely protected if captured or injured while overseas. The plans for an Allied invasion were underway and with it came a need for increased manpower. WAACs could provide this additional manpower, effectively freeing a man to fight. On July 1, 1943, President Roosevelt signed a bill converting the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Women soldiers were now given full military status along with rank, benefits, and pay comparable to male soldiers in the Army. Women currently enlisted in the WAAC had to decide whether to re-enlist or part ways with the military. In the end, more than 75 percent of the WAAC had chosen to reenlist as WACs.
The WAC Overseas
WACs served in all theaters of the war between 1942 and 1945. After the Allied invasion, it was decided in mid-1944 that half of the unit known as the Forward Echelon, Communications Zone (FECOMZ) would comprise of WACs. Only 38 days after D-Day, these WACs landed on Utah beach in Landing Ship Tanks. The WACs first slept in pup tents, and later in pyramidal tents. They "received the usual field rations, and washed in cold water carried in helmets. They immediately went to work as telephone operators, typists, and clerks, working in tents, cellars, prefabricated huts, and mobile switchboard trailers." In order to protect themselves from the elements, they wore leather boots, leggings, trousers, and combat jackets. In Europe, the most forward WAC Detachment was that of the 12th Army Group. This detachment followed closely behind its headquarters, often near the front lines.
Ethel Palma in New Guinea (1944) by Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina at GreensboroNational Women’s History Museum
WACs in the Pacific Theater of Operations
First Lieutenant Ethel LeBlanc Palma was one of the many WACs who served in the Pacific Theatre of Operations during the war. In May 1944, she boarded the West Point, a converted cruise ship, that took her on a 14-day journey to Sydney, Australia. Here, the WACs took over censoring mail from the Australian civilians who had been performing that duty. Palma and her unit spent two weeks in Sydney before being sent to New Guinea, where she was asked to establish a mail sorting department. Not long after the gruesome fighting in Manila, WACs were sent in to assist male soldiers stationed there. While there, Ethel worked with Filipino civilians to spot-check and censor mail. About 70 percent of all WAC personnel serving in the PTO worked in administrative jobs, though they also worked in supply and stock, communications, radio and electrical, and mechanical positions. Ethel remained stationed in Manila until the end of the war in September 1945.
African American WACs
During the discussion of WAAC legislation, it was established that the newly formed Corps would follow the Army's 10 percent rule. This meant it would take 10 percent of African American recruits to fill the designated number of openings. When Fort Des Moines opened in 1943, Black WAACs filled 40 seats of the first 440 officer candidate training vacancies. It was also clearly defined that there would be no discrimination in the type of jobs that African American women be assigned, although the segregation of, and discrimination against, Black WACs still occurred. These women had separate companies, separate barracks, separate tables in mess halls, and different swimming pool hours. The NAACP, The National Board of the YWCA, and the Boston Urban League all objected to the segregation and argued that the policy of segregation would deter the best-qualified African American women who wished to serve.
Somewhere in England, Maj. Charity E. Adams and Capt. Abbie N. Campbell Inspect Women's Army Corps (1945-02-15) by Office of the Chief Signal Officer, Record Group 111, National ArchivesNational Women’s History Museum
6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion
African American WACs only saw overseas duty in the European Theater of Operations. After D-Day, mail services began to rapidly back up. Near this time, African American organizations were also heavily advocating for the rights of Black personnel to be sent overseas. This caused the European theater to request 800 Black women be sent to establish a central postal directory. The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, nicknamed the "Six Triple Eight," arrived in Europe in February 1945, and was commanded by Major Charity Adams. In Birmingham, England they were confronted with a large warehouse stacked with years' worth of letters and packages. In three organized shifts, seven days a week, they processed roughly 65,000 pieces of mail a shift and finished a six-month job in only three. After completing this job so efficiently, they were sent to Rouen, France to process another backlog.
Photograph of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion in France (1945-11-07) by Office of the Chief Signal Officer, Record Group 111, National ArchivesNational Women’s History Museum
"No mail, low morale!"
- Slogan of the Six Triple Eight
The End of World War II
The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, but continued to rage on in the Pacific. It would take three more months of fighting before imperial Japan surrendered on August 15. Despite having the option to assist in the occupation of Japan and obtain the rank of Captain, Ethel decided her time in the Army was up. She boarded the USS Evangeline in October 1945 headed straight for home. Alongside her were prisoners of war, many of whom had almost starved to death while imprisoned at De La Salle College in Manila. She arrived back in the United States thirty days later and married Lieutenant Elwood Palma, whom she met during her stateside recruiting duties, in a dress made from a parachute that had saved a fellow G.I. whose P-38 was shot down over the Pacific. Ethel went on to have four children, serve as the first female post commander of the local VFW in Henderson North Carolina, and volunteered in many civic organizations before her passing in 2018.
Portrait of Captain Westray Battle Boyce (1943) by Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina at GreensboroNational Women’s History Museum
The end of World War II brought uncertainty to those remaining in the Corps. Colonel Hobby resigned from her command in July of 1945 and Colonel Westray Battle Boyce was named the Second Director of the WAC. Demobilization of WAC forces increased in momentum, enlistment ceased, and WAC training centers were closed. By the end of 1946, "only 8,461 enlisted women and 1,194 officers" remained in the Corps. Like that of the WAVES and the USMCWR, a volunteer program was offered to the remaining WACs, but the response was not enthusiastic because the enlisted women wanted more specific information regarding their eligibility for future careers and steady pay within the military. For this reason, the number of WACs dwindled even further throughout the next year.
"For Your Country's Sake Today - For Your Own Sake Tomorrow" (1942/1945) by Office of Government Records, Record Group 44, National ArchivesNational Women’s History Museum
The Fight for Women in the Armed Forces
Because the WAC was set to expire on June 30, 1948, leaders of the Army expediently fought to integrate the WAC permanently into its ranks. In 1946, General Eisenhower wrote to field commanders personally requesting their support for an initial bill: the WAC Integration Act of 1947. However, in a 26-1 decision, the House Armed Services Committee passed only the Reserve portion of the bill. In January 1948, Representative Margaret Chase Smith, the only dissenting member on the reserve status of the initial WAC integration vote, proposed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act. This bill allowed women to serve as permanent, regular members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. It was passed on June 2, 1948 and signed into law ten days later by President Truman.
Collage of Post-War WACs (1946) by Office of the Chief Signal Officer, Record Group 111, National Archives and Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina at GreensboroNational Women’s History Museum
Post-war members of the Women's Army Corps, 1946-1968.
Members of the Women's Army Corps continued to serve throughout the occupation era, the Korean War, and the Vietnam conflict.
Public Law 95-485 (1978-10-20) by 95th U.S. CongressNational Women’s History Museum
Abolishment of the Women's Army Corps
After the end of World War II, the Women’s Army Corps persisted for another 33 years. In 1978, the Corps was disbanded by President Carter's signing of Public Law 95-485, which integrated women into the Army.
Researched, written, and curated by Lacey Opdycke, Summer 2020.
Images and sources courtesy of:
Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Collection of the House of Representatives.
National WWI Museum and Memorial, Kansas City, Missouri, USA.
Office of the Chief Signal Officer, Record Group 111, National Archives.
Office of the Chief of Transportation, Record Group 336, National Archives.
Office of Government Reports, Record Group 44, National Archives.
Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University.
6th Cavalry Museum, Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.
Cardenas Walsh, Kelli. “Oveta Culp Hobby Ability, Perseverance, and Cultural Capital in a Twentieth-Century Success Story,” in Texas Women: Their Histories, Their Lives, edited by Elizabeth Hayes Turner, Stephanie Cole, and Rebecca Sharpless, 318-337. University of Georgia Press, 2015.
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LeBlanc Palma, Ethel. Interviewed by Eric Elliot. November 22, 1999. Transcript. Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project, UNCG University Libraries, Greensboro, NC. libcdm1.uncg.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/WVHP/id/4198/rec/11
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Brion, Irene. Lady GI: A Woman’s War in the South Pacific: The Memoir of Irene Brion. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1997.
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Spring, Kelly A. “Charity Adams Earley, 1918-2002.” National Women’s History Museum. Last modified 2017. www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/charity-earley
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