Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Women of Wednesday: Women in the U.S. Military

Molly Pitcher may be legendary, but America's wars have seen many heroic women 

Pearl Harbor Day challenges us to think about the sacrifices of those who choose to serve in the armed services. And while the United States has generally had a military draft during times of war, the women who have served have always been volunteers. A number of veterans have been included in the pages of the Notable Women series. Here are a few more.

Most New Englanders are familiar with the story of DeborahSamson, the woman from Massachusetts who dressed as a boy so she could go fight against the British in 1782 (Cornwallis had surrendered in October 1781 but the Treaty of Paris wasn’t signed until 1783).  Less well known is  Margaret Corbin, who became a “camp follower” when her husband joined the Continental Army, cooking and washing and tending the wounded. Margaret also worked with the gunnery team, and when both the gunner and John were killed in battle at Fort Washington, New York, Margaret stepped in, loading and firing the cannon until British grapeshot found her, as well. Captured along with the other Colonials when the fort fell, she became the first woman included in the active duty muster lists.

America’s next armed conflict, the War of 1812, perhaps saw Lucy Brewer dress in men’s clothing to join the Marine Corps, fighting on the USS Constitution. The Civil War saw the first official establishment of an Army Nursing Corps, as well as the heroic efforts of a number of women who served as couriers and spies. Dr. Mary Walker and Clara Barton are probably the best-known women veterans of the Civil War, although it is estimated at least 80 women (many in disguise) died on battlefields during that conflict.

The Spanish-American brought saw both the first official recruiting of women, as Army Nurses, although they were not considered military personnel. Among the 1500 women who served during that conflict was the first to die in a foreign land, Ellen May Tower. Her 1898 funeral in Michigan was the first military funeral for an American woman.

By the time the War to End All Wars convulsed the opening years of the 20th century, the military establishment had begun to warm to the possibility of women serving in non-combat roles. The Army repeatedly requested permission from the War Department to enlist women for clerical and support roles but never received an official approval. Women did serve in the Army as Nurses and in the Signal Corps – an elite group of 300 women, bilingual (French/English) long-distance telephone operators. The Navy and Marine Corps apparently decided not to wait for permission and enlisted 13,000 women with the same ranks and status as male recruits, who took non-combat positions in order to free up men for combat roles.

December 7, 1941, saw the heroic efforts of women nurses in the Army and Navy hospitals at Pearl Harbor, including Lt. Anne G. Fox, who received a Purple Heart for her outstanding service (later replaced with a bronze star when the Purple Heart was redefined as a medal awarded for combat injuries. The Coast Guard was the first branch of the military to accept women into the regular ranks, establishing the SPARS, both enlisted and commissioned, who filled the on-shore positions (including critical surveillance roles) while male yeomen were deployed at sea. Ironically the 1948 act (championed by General Eisenhower) which integrated women into all branches of the military, did not include the Coast Guard, which was not officially integrated until 1973. Army, Navy and Marine Corps nurses served in both the European and Asian theaters in the later years of the war, while thousands of military women worked in stateside jobs. Another often overlooked role of women in World War II were the aviators of the WASPs – more than 1000 women pilots who flew military planes to destination bases and in training missions. They were, however, considered civilian employees and the 38 who died in the service of their country were denied military honors. (Today 20% of the United States Air Force are women.)

Korea and Vietnam were, of course, conflicts marked by deep divisions among Americans over the missions and the ways they were carried out. Without the broad support on the home front, they were wars fought mostly by draftees, but of course all the women in the field hospitals and MASH units and support outfits were volunteers. Over 100,000 women served during Korea and more than a quarter million during Vietnam. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial   was finally dedicated in 1993.

Desert Storm saw the largest deployment of women troops in American history to that time, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have seen four times as many women “in harm’s way.” More than 15% of the active duty force of today’s American military are women. Women are still, technically, not permitted to serve in combat units, despite the fact that the reality of the two wars we are currently fighting is that members of “support” units are frequently engaged in volatile locations filled with snipers and IEDs, while more and more of the “combat” is being carried out electronically, often from remote locations like Colorado Springs.

 While many of us would rather look for alternatives to warfare, let us not overlook or ignore the brave service of so many of our sisters and fore-mothers who were willing to put aside comfort and risk life and limb for the country they loved.


I'm Jet . . . said...

I was running errands this morning and saw this bumper sticker: SHE SERVED TOO.

A fabulous reminder, and a good post, Sally.

Diane Mayr said...

New Hampshire has had its share of women in war including Civil War nurse Harriet Patience Dame, and children's writer, Terry Farish, who worked for the Red Cross in Vietnam.

Great post for today, Sally.

Diane Mayr said...

Take a look at the photo of women manning the fire hoses at Pearl Harbor in the photo found here.

Sally said...

Diane - what an AWESOME photo - I really hope that they're able to find out who those women are - although maybe their very anonymity makes the photograph more powerful?