TIME World War II

‘Take off the Silk, Put on the Khaki’: America’s First Women Soldiers, 1942

LIFE celebrates the pioneers of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps -- the WAACs -- who enlisted, donned uniforms and learned to soldier for the United States in the early days of the Second World War.

In light of recent reports of rampant sexual violence against women in America’s armed forces — with an estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact last year, “rampant” is hardly too strong a word — combating sexual assault without relying on the military itself to safeguard its female troops is now high on lawmakers’ agendas. In fact, with the news that the Army is investigating yet another officer who might have been preying on those he was charged with protecting, Michigan’s Carl Levin, who heads the Senate’s armed services committee, acknowledged that “the depth of the sexual-assault problem in our military was already overwhelmingly clear before this latest highly disturbing report.”

[MORE: “Yet Another Sexual-Assault Investigation Likely to Spur Congressional Action.”]

All the more remarkable, then — and all the more moving, in a way — to recall how America’s very first “women soldiers” were viewed when they came on the scene, seven decades ago. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was founded in May 1942, and the women who first served in the corps were instantly pegged with the now-famous collective moniker, WAACs. (From 1943-1978, renamed the Woman’s Army Corps, or WAC, it was an official branch of the U.S. Army.) More than 150,000 American women served in the corps during World War II, and did their jobs so well, and so uncomplainingly, that no less an authority on proper soldiering than Gen. Douglas MacArthur reportedly characterized the WACs as “my best soldiers.”

When LIFE magazine published an article on the corps just a few months after its inception, in September 1942 — an article that featured a full-page version of Marie Hansen’s striking, now-famous photograph of gas-masked WAACs — the tone of the article was a remarkable mix of the laudatory and the patronizing. (See excerpt below.) But overall, all these years later, the magazine’s take on this strange and perhaps inevitable new phenomenon of American women in uniform comes across as a straightforward piece of reportage — even if, say, describing the formidable head of the corps as a “a svelte and definite Texas lady” might sound almost comically condescending to modern ears.

In LIFE’s own words:

The idea behind the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps is simply this: Women can do some of the jobs that men are doing in the Army. By taking over these jobs, they can release men for active or combat duty. For instance, if too many service troops are ordered away from a post, the post commander will send in a call for some WAACs. Pretty soon a WAAC contingent — probably a company — will descend on him and then disperse about the camp to do clerical work, mess work, light transportation work, mechanics work or any kind of work which women can do as well as men.

There are 1,500 WAACs training at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, now, the first women soldiers ever to join the U.S. Army. Soon the number will jump to 6,000. … By next April about 25,000 WAACs will have finished their training courses and will have gone out to serve with the Army.

The WAACs who arrived at Fort Des Moines at the end of July were met by Oveta Culp Hobby, a svelte and definite Texas lady who is director of all WAACs. Director Hobby said very simply: “You have taken off silk and put on khaki. You have a debt to democracy and a date with destiny. You may be called upon to give your lives.”

Thought old Army men harumph at the sight of girls trying to act like soldiers, all WAACs get a thorough grounding in basic infantry drill. They have to live with the Army and know its ways. They also have to know how to work in groups, to take and give commands. … Except for the fact that they get no training in forearms and tactics, WAACs are like any other soldiers. Once they enlist, they are in the Army for the duration.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

WAACs clothing 1942
Marie Hansen—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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