Saturday, March 24, 2012

“Honey, are you a WAVE?” No ma’am, we’re all Sailors now!

By Nancy Harrity
Walking down Chicago’s Michigan Ave. in my dress whites in July 1996, more than one older person asked me, “Honey, are you a WAVE?”  I’m not one of the WAVES, nor are the nearly 55,000 women serving in the Navy today.  We’re Sailors, and I’m sure a good number of us would have been honored to have been one of the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service during World War II. 
Then, as is the case now, war enabled women to break barriers. “When World War II came to an end, women had established a remarkable legacy of womanpower in the U.S. military.  The Navy in 1942 originally visualized the maximum strength of the naval women reserve at approximately 11,000, and plans were formulated with that number in mind. It soon became evident that this thinking was not sufficiently imaginative.  Shortly before Japan was defeated, there were approximately 86,000 women in the Navy and 19,000 women in the Marines, stationed at some 950 shore activities in the United States and Hawaii and serving in practically all ratings except those from which they were excluded because of physical limitations, combatant nature or sea-going requirements,” according to Capt. Winifred Quick Collins in her memoir, “More than a Uniform: A Navy Woman in a Navy Man’s World.”   Quick Collins served as one of the first WAVES in WW II and retired as the chief of navy personnel for women in 1962.
At every command where the WAVES were stationed,  their presence brought about change for the better for both the men and women serving there.  In her memoir, “Lady in the Navy:  A Personal Reminiscence,” retired Capt. Joy Bright Hancock, who retired as the chief of navy personnel for women in 1953, writes of a chaplain who told her “that the WAVES brought an air of refinement to the service…’The mere presence of WAVES in the chow line brought more orderliness and courtesy than was ever achieved by the stoutest chief boatswain.  And we do know that with more and more men staying on board instead of going out on the town, the discipline cases have decreased tremendously.’”
During her tenure as the chief of naval personnel for women, Quick Collins traveled throughout the fleet on inspection trips of Navy women paying particular care to their health and morale issues.  In more than one place,  the women’s barracks and morale facilities were lacking, a state she worked tirelessly to improve.  “Oddly – or maybe not so oddly – the improved housing arrangements for Navy women led to improved housing arrangements for Navy men, since it was not long afterwards that newly constructed or renovated barracks with private rooms were also built for Navy enlisted men, as well as new bachelor officers’ quarters for men and women.”
These two ladies made such significant contributions to the Navy they have leadership awards named for them,  the Joy Bright Hancock Leadership Award and the Captain Winifred Quick Collins Award for Inspirational Leadership.
Just as quickly as WWII made a great many things possible for women in the Navy, the end of the war brought a desire to for things to return to normal, which included sending the women home.   “Although high-level military officials were enthusiastic supporters of bringing women into the postwar military, I don’t think that they – or anyone else – fully understood at the time the difficulties of implementing the policy,” writes Quick Collins. “Once that nucleus was established, the status of women in the armed forces evolved to a point at which women achieved higher ranks, a broader range of assignments, and greater recognition than many males in the military ever imagined – or ever wanted.  Every gain for women in the military was achieved only after a long battle with ignorance, military tradition, entrenched interests, male chauvinism, or some combination of these tough barriers.  And the battle started within a few months after Japan had been defeated, mostly because many civilians and politicians held negative attitudes about the need for military women in peacetime.”
Thankfully, women like Bright Hancock and Quick Collins persevered, worked with leaders to change policy and laws as necessary to enable women to continue serving in the post-WWII peace through today.  I’m certain they would be proud to call the women serving in the Navy today, “Sailors.”
Senior Chief Aviation Machinist's Mate Lora D. Porter, leading chief petty officer of the aircraft intermediate maintenance department aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), speaks with Sailors at the women's personal and professional growth symposium March 7, 2012.  (U.S. Navy Photo by MCSN Kristina Young)
(Special thanks to Navy Reads contributor, mentor and thinker Nancy Harrity for this guest post for Women's History Month examining how far we've progressed since World War II.  Coming soon, posts related to Battle of Midway in this 70th anniversary year of the War in the Pacific. -- Bill Doughty)

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