WWII Mobilization

How were Berkeley women mobilized into the war effort?

WW2 recruitment poster featuring illustrations of 4 women from profile angle, sandwiched between white bold words proclaiming "For your country's sake today- For your own sake tomorrow"

WWII militarized the campus in many of the same ways WWI had. It was once again filled with young men in uniform, some taking regular courses and others receiving separate training from military instructors. Their numbers more than made up for the undergraduate men who had enlisted in 1941-2 and left campus. This time, most of the student housing around campus was requisitioned by the military: Bowles Hall (the only men’s dormitory at the time), International House (which had been emptied of its foreign students), the sparsely-occupied fraternities, and even the sorority houses (from which the women were removed) were quickly filled with soldiers. Barracks and other temporary facilities were put up on campus as well. 

Although Berkeley in 1941-45 recalled scenes from 1917-1919, California was much more centrally involved in the Second World War than it had been in the first. Not only had America’s participation started with the Japanese attack on the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, putting the whole West Coast on high alert, but its victory would depend on the state’s rapid development of war industries and its accommodation of the two million new residents needed to arm and support the forces. The kind of war being fought was also on a far larger scale than the first and was so much more technologically sophisticated and reliant on new scientific discoveries that universities needed to be closely integrated with the military. Thus, the unprecedented mobilization of the state as whole extended throughout the University of California and included many of its women.    

As historians have pointed out, WWII relied on women’s work far more heavily than any major conflict before it (Hartmann, passim). To be sure, American women had made important contributions in WWI, sometimes by taking on men’s manual labor, but often by performing traditionally female roles (nursing, rehabilitation, nutrition, and education) in newly militarized contexts. WWII, however, deepened and broadened women’s modes of involvement, and this essay will look at the ways Berkeley women embraced the novel opportunities. For the first time, they were able to travel to war zones as correspondents, enlist in the regular military services, recruit and train servicemen, help produce weapons, and plan for their use. In short, Berkeley women joined a national trend toward participating in types of war work previously restricted to men.    

Telling War Stories

War correspondent was one of the career opportunities that WW2 officially opened to women. During WW1, the War Department had explicitly banned female reporters, but in the 1930s a few American women became famous by covering the Spanish Civil War, where numerous volunteer international brigades fought without authorization from their governments. Those reporters no doubt inspired younger women to follow suit in the 1940s, but they needed government permission to enter the tightly controlled arenas. Although there was opposition from some in the military, the U.S. War Department did accredit 127 women as official war correspondents, stipulating that they were not to cover actual combat, a limitation the women frequently circumvented. 

black and white newspaper clipping of Marguerite Higgins smiling at the camera above the words "GIRL WAR CORRESPONDENT"One young writer who got her start in those years was Berkeley alumna Marguerite Higgins (1941), a French major who had started her journalism career by writing for and then editing (in 1940) The Daily Californian. After graduation, Higgins moved to New Yorkand became a reporter for the Herald Tribune while studying for her MA at Columbia Journalism School. Her editor was opposed to giving a woman an overseas post, so Higgins went over his head and appealed to the owner’s wife, Helen Rogers Reid, who was active in the paper’s management and a feminist. Rogers Reid believed Higgins “had the courage of a lion. There was no story that she wasn’t prepared to go after” (May, A., 64-5). Soon she was on her way to London, then Paris, and finally Germany in 1945. On April 29, she advanced with the troops of the U.S. 7th Army to liberate Dachau and reported the release of “33,000 prisoners at this first and largest of the Nazi concentration camps. Some of the prisoners had endured for eleven years the horrors of notorious Dachau” (Higgins). One of only two reporters present at the liberation, Higgins was given an Army campaign ribbon for her assistance at the surrender of the S.S. guards (May, A., 86-92). 

Higgins went on to report many of the most important events of the postwar period: the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, the blockade of Berlin, and the outbreak of the Korean War. In Korea, she penetrated so close to the action that an Army General tried to evict her from the country until he was overruled by Commanding General Douglas MacArthur, who telegrammed, "Ban on women correspondents in Korea has been lifted. Marguerite Higgins is held in highest professional esteem by everyone” ("Last Word"). She received a Pulitzer Prize for her Korean War reporting. In addition to her journalism, Higgins wrote numerous essays and four books. 

Berkeley’s military women 

The women who actually entered military service during WW2 were also exploring untried professional and social territory. Alumna Katherine Towle (BA ’19, MA ’35), who eventually became Berkeley’s first female Dean of Students, was also the university’s most prominent—and highest ranking—woman WWII veteran. She retired as a Colonel from the Marine Corps in 1953. Towle was an administrator at the UC Press when the war broke out, and she soon became aware that women in all walks of life, not just nurses, were being recruited into the various branches of the military service for the first time. In the oral history she recorded decades later, she describes the country’s sense of its vulnerability: “The country was not prepared for war. So desperate were our manpower needs that we were in danger of invasion and defeat” (Towle 98).That critical shortage, she goes on to explain, led to a revolution in women’s military service:

image of Colonel Katherine Towle from the Marine Corps with a determined look

Each of the services--Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard--knew that every man possible must be made available. Many were then performing routine [noncombatant] jobs--jobs which could in an emergency be filled by women. All of the services, of course, had civilian employees and it was possible to obtain more. They would not, however, be susceptible to orders, to discipline, or to mobility to the same degree as women actually in military service. The Congress passed enabling legislation opening the way for women to join the military services. Hence, the formation in midsummer 1942 of the women's branch of the Army (WAAC, later changed to WAC), followed by the WAVES of the Navy, the SPARS of the Coast Guard, and finally the Women Reservists of the Marine Corps” (Towle, 98).   

Towle was commissioned a Captain in the Marine Corps Women Reservists immediately after its establishment. One of seven women officers coming from civilian life (she was on leave from her job at the Press), she served on the staffs of various Commanding Officers at training camps and then at Marine headquarters. Her main responsibility during the war was to advise the Corps on women’s issues, and apparently they needed a great deal of advice. The Marine Corps was the last and most reluctant branch to admit women, and at first they allowed them only into the Corps’ clerical jobs, freeing the men in the offices to join the fighting. Later, though, they filled other noncombatant jobs: “Forty percent of the women were eventually assigned to aviation posts and stations. They were Link [flight simulation] trainers, aerologists, parachute riggers--they did all sorts of things” (Towle, p. 107). Towle’s account of how the Marine Corps expanded and diversified women’s jobs as the war proceeded accords with the histories of the other branches of the military: some women in uniform were crossing into new vocational opportunities (Hartmann, 31-48).

Even beyond the opening of career horizons, though, Towle reported that the most important advantage for women of serving in the military was their increased experience of citizenship: “the feeling of complete commitment [to the national good] with which everyone, man and woman, accepted whatever they were given to do”. Serving in the military deepened their sense of individual responsibility for the country’s destiny: “For most of the women in uniform the sense of sharing in a national crisis had a profound effect on them personally. I know it did on me, and I think I wasn't any different from a great many others” (Towle, 110-11). From historian Susan Hartmann’s description of military women’s wartime recollections it’s clear that Towle’s experience was, indeed, typical: “Servicewomen experienced profound satisfaction in rising to the diverse challenges of military service. Above, they enjoyed the opportunity to fulfill the most demanding role of citizenship” (Hartmann, 47).

We do not know how many other Berkeley students, alumnae, and employees joined that first cohort of military women, which nationwide totaled 350,000 volunteers (Hartmann, 47). We do, however, know of two extraordinary alumna who gave their lives in the cause; they deserve to be mentioned here. 

portrait of Margaret Sanford Oldenburg, WASP smiling while looking into the distance against blue sky and white cloudsAlumna Margaret Sanford Oldenburg (‘31) signed up for military duty when the war broke out, joining the Women Army Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) squadron. Sanford Oldenburg was already a practiced pilot, having taken up flying in 1933 after meeting Amelia Earhart. Her squadron trained women to fly military planes between bases, freeing male pilots for combat assignments. Oldenburg was killed in a training accident in Texas in 1943. According to the account of fellow trainee, “The weather in Houston had been terrible and the planes were grounded. When the weather cleared, the students from 43-4 were eager to practice spins in the PT-19s. But something went wrong with one of the flights and Margaret and her instructor dove straight into the ground. The training command ordered that the accident be kept quiet. Since these women were not considered as military at the time, they were not entitled to burial expenses or survivor's benefits”. Technically, the 1,100 pilots in this program were civilians, although they functioned under Army discipline and flew military planes. Indeed, they were sometimes the test pilots for new models. The Army both needed their services and refused to give them full military status. Consequently, fellow pilots took care of all the burial expenses for Margaret Sanford Oldenburg and escorted her body home to Oakland (“Women Airforce Service Pilots”; “Oldenburg”). 

image of evacuation hospital at Anzio after bombing in which nurse Esther Richards died

Alumna Esther English Richards (’18) had the distinction of serving in both World Wars, although only once in the U.S. Army. In the earlier war, women serving in the US armed forces belonged to the Army Nurse Corps (ANC), which was established in 1901. When the US entered WWI, the Corps was small (403 nurses on active duty and 170 reserve nurses), and though it grew over the next few years, most American nurses served through the Red Cross. Richards had enlisted in the Army Nurse Corps in 1918, but when she tried to reenlist during World War II, she was denied because of her age. Determined to serve, she joined the Red Cross and was stationed in the Mediterranean. She was wounded while serving on the HMHS Newfoundland, a British hospital ship torpedoed in September 1943, off the coast of Italy during the U.S. invasion of that country. The ship was destroyed by fire and had to be sunk, but Richards survived. Early the next year, however, at the Battle of Anzio, one of the bloodiest of the war, she was fatally injured while working in a field hospital (“Military on campus”).

Organizing women workers in home-front war industries 

WWII put hundreds of thousands of women workers into manufacturing jobs that would ordinarily have gone to men. To understand how novel the situation was, we must remember that both the war industries and the workers were new to the state. The combination of new industries and the novice labor force might have led to major labor-management problems if unions and industrial representatives had not cooperated with the military to insure the steady production of supplies; they formed the National War Labor Board, which acted as an arbitration panel. To represent the interests of the new women workers and make sure they had a place at the table, unions first needed to organize them without hampering the war effort: no strikes or slowdowns were allowed. Under these conditions, organizing women who were unfamiliar with unions, like the many Black workers from the Deep South who arrived in the Los Angeles area, was a difficult task. 

sepia image of 4 women labor organizers; Helene Powell is on the right side

One young Cal alumna, Helene Powell, (B. A. ’41) took on the assignment when she was appointed as an International representative for the Warehouseman’s (ILWU) union in L. A.  Powell was born and raised in a small Black community in San Jose; she moved with her family to San Francisco in her teens, and started at Berkeley in 1937 (Kaplan). Like most women (and most Black students of both sexes) she lived at home while studying at Cal. Her career in the labor movement followed easily from her politically active undergraduate life; she served as President of The Negro Students’ Club for two years and also belonged to the Student Workers’ Federation. In her oral history for the California Historical Society, she explains that her cohort of students formed the core of the state’s Black professional class, which stood ready to serve and lead California’s rapidly expanding Black population during and after the war (Powell, part 5). Powell organized and represented many women in the growing L. A. military supply industries, especially the large number of Black women who worked in the sector of reclamation, a crucial component of the war effort. In the transition to the peace, though, she became disenchanted with the ILWU’s retreat from gender equality. Both Blacks and women, she recalls, began disappearing from the higher paid jobs in the late 1940s despite the efforts of women organizers like herself to maintain nondiscrimination policies (Powell, part 13).

Student mobilization       

The largest mobilization of women on the Berkeley campus was the training program for technical and managerial employment in the region’s burgeoning ship and airplane manufacturing plants. The training program was the most visible evidence that the university recognized women’s new importance to military success. During the war preparedness period of 1940-41, the College of Engineering joined a federally financed program, which lasted throughout the war, to train women for technical and managerial jobs in war industries. The federal program (Engineering, Science, and Management War Training, or ESMWT) brought young people to many universities to get the knowledge and skills that would allow them to fill labor shortages as men went off to war. Berkeley’s engineering program was specifically designed to replace thousands in the technical and managerial staff of the shipbuilding and aircraft industries that were new to the region. According to alumna Bernice Hubbard May (’23), who was the general administrator for the program, the “professional courses” offered by the university often took a year to complete. There were also shorter “drawing and detailing, or junior drafting” courses that could be finished in “three or four months—eight hours a day”. Most of the trainees, May recalled, were “recent graduates and housewives. And lots and lots of soldiers’ wives”. Applicants were at first required to have taken “trigonometry, mechanical drawing, and solid geometry and so on. Later, the pressure was so great that we began just asking applicants, ‘Can you add your bridge score?’”(May, B. H., 78-9). The program enrolled, trained, and placed 3,500 female draftsmen, as well as hundreds of women with other kinds of mathematics and managerial skills.

black and white image of students working on assignments, captioned "Classes in mechanical designing prepare many girls to take jobs in nearby aviation plants and shipyards" from a source called Campus on the March

A 1942 film, Campus on the March, shows these classes while the voice-over describes “girls” learning to make blueprints as preparation for jobs in “nearby aviation plants and shipyards”, implying, rather misleadingly, that the trainees were undergraduates in regular university programs. To be sure, the classes were college-level and taught by regular faculty, but the ESMWT courses did not in fact carry academic credit, and the trainees were usually not part of the regular student body. They also tended to live closer to the places where they planned to work than they did to campus, and their intensive, uninterrupted eight-hour class days left them little time for student social activities (May, B. H., 79). The special courses prepared them for immediate employment, and hence students who weren’t willing to interrupt their educations would have joined them either just before or after graduation. Thus the trainees and the undergraduates were normally separate groups, seldom intermingling.Although not folded into the Berkeley student body, they were nevertheless Berkeley products, taught by the College of Engineering faculty and recruited, advised, and placed by Berkeley staff.  

Moreover, their presence on campus was a sign of the times, one of the many indicating that undergraduate women would be welcome in fields they had not previously been encouraged to enter. The message was reinforced in special appeals from the administration and individual academic programs, as well as campus publications. As Charles Dorn notes in his groundbreaking article on Berkeley’s women in WWII, the university produced and distributed a Training for War Service directory, listing all of its courses in “nationally needed professions” and containing a special section for women (Dorn, 541-3). The pamphlet does mention some traditionally feminine fields—nursing, public health, social welfare, and education—but it pointedly also recommends that women take courses in “engineering, public administration, and medicine” and in “scientific fields important in the war effort such as chemistry, physics, metallurgy, and the like” (quoted in Dorn, 542). The university sponsored “work forums” to make undergraduate women more aware of openings in such fields and help them navigate the job market. Much recruiting for war industries appealed to the women’s patriotism, making the connection between their ability to enter new jobs and the country’s ability to turn out powerful weapons. A writer for the California Monthly, for example, reporting the launching of a new warship in record time, exulted that it was due to: “college trained womanpower. . . University of California women are to be found in all phases of shipbuilding at the Richmond yards” (quoted in Dorn, 544). Others stressed the advantages to the women themselves; the College of Pharmacy, for example, claimed that, “The opportunity for women in pharmacy is greater now than ever before”, and assured them “of postwar positions as well” (quoted in Dorn, 543).

From 1940 to 1945, the message was consistent and relentless that women should be thinking beyond their usual vocational categories, and President Sproul reported in 1942 that the response was substantial: double the pre-war number of women had enrolled that year in the premedical program, and four times as many were in College of Chemistry courses. (Annual Report, 1942, 41). By the war’s end, according to Dorn, Berkeley women had received twice their pre-war number of Bachelor’s degrees in mathematics. Engineering, which had poured its energy into short-term training for immediate employment, also saw a rise in the number of women taking its regular courses, from two to thirty-eight (Dorn, 541).

It’s doubtful, though, that recruiting regular undergraduates into “nationally needed professions” had much of an effect on the war effort itself, for normal academic programs could not be finished in time to supply many new professionals. It is also unlikely that many women received immediate advantages from entering male-dominated fields. A student entering at the beginning of the war in 1941-2 would not have finished her Bachelor’s degree until after VE-Day, by which time the war industries were winding down. If she’d chosen her field of study because it had a manpower shortage, she would have entered the job market just in time to compete with returning soldiers. She would have faced both steep competition and social disapproval for taking a man’s job at a time of demobilization. Little wonder, then, that the postwar period saw women retreating from traditionally masculine fields. WWII and its aftermath might have demonstrated their potential to succeed in those fields, but it also demonstrated how swiftly any gains could be erased.   

The Mobilization of Career Academic Women

There were, of course, women graduate students, researchers, and faculty members who already had the training needed to join the university’s war efforts from the start. Faculty in fields like nutrition, nursing, and bacteriology were asked (as they had been during WWI) to devote some of their instruction to the nation’s needs. Every student was required to take one National Service Course, such as “Wartime Problems in the Food Industry” or “Nutrition in Peace Time and War” (Stadtman, 312), so the faculties were busy preparing new courses. Moreover, since the students in the Navy’s officer training program were taught by the regular faculty, women were sometimes called on to give courses geared to their needs. In the Mathematics Department, for example, Associate Professor Pauline Sperry taught navigation for the Navy ROTC (Greene and LaDuke, “Sperry”).

photo of mathematician Julia Bowman Robinson smiling into camera

Given the intense pressure to hasten scientific progress, there was also plenty of opportunity for female “computers”, lab assistants, and graduate students to become involved in war-related research. Some women were even recruited to work on aspects of the fighting itself. Three graduate students, two in Mathematics and one then in Astronomy, were asked by Professor Jerzy Neyman, the founder of Berkeley’s Statistics Laboratory, to oversee work on a project for the Army Air Force that developed probability tables on which bombing policy could be based. The task was to find the optimal plans for impending bombing runs, so the work was extremely urgent. The three women, Elizabeth Scott, Evelyn Fix, and Julia Bowman Robinson, would eventually finish their dissertations and become faculty members, but their war work absorbed much of their time and energy from 1942-45 (Golbeck, 64-69). Her colleagues later recalled Fix spending “days and nights at her machine, aided by a group of students and faculty wives, so that the needed results could be transmitted on time, usually to New York but occasionally directly to England” (Neyman, et. al., Humphreys). The women supervised teams of female computers, who did the calculations, while they worked to solve what Scott later recalled as an impressive list of “messy” problems, which made the young mathematicians “experts in practical statistics” (Golbeck, 68). Julia Robinson, an immensely talented mathematician whose career would be temporarily set back because she married a faculty member in the Math Department, did not stay in the field of statistics. However, her war work on that project did form the basis for the first publication in her distinguished career: “A Note on Exact Sequential Analysis” (Feferman, 456).   

Women in the race for atomic weapons  

image of WAC division at Los Alamos, dozens of women in uniform marching rank and file down the street

The Los Alamos Laboratory, the top-secret site in the New Mexico desert where the first atomic weapons were assembled and tested, was a UC Berkeley facility, under the direction of Berkeley Physics Professor Robert Oppenheimer. Relatively few of the thousands of people who worked there—640 of whom were women—had prior Berkeley connections, but the Los Alamos laboratory put Berkeley at the center of the international effort to create an atomic weapon. Berkeley, moreover, was no arbitrary choice, for its faculty and researchers had already played key roles in laying the scientific foundations for such weapons. UC had taken an early lead in the field of atomic research when Professor Ernest O. Lawrence invented the atom-smashing cyclotron, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939, and it was Lawrence who later insisted that the US Army should pay serious attention to atomic technology’s military potential. It was also at Lawrence’s expanded cyclotron and radiation laboratory that researchers in physics and chemistry isolated a number of elements, including plutonium, which would be basic to nuclear physics. And, finally, Berkeley was the place where a task-force of scientists met regularly to do preliminary planning for an atomic weapon under Oppenheimer’s leadership in the summer of 1942. 

When the remote Los Alamos Laboratory was set up to test their ideas, it drew over six hundred women from all parts of the country: technicians, clerks, librarians, human “computers”, scientists, engineers, and an entire division of Women’s Army Corps military personnel. A few examples can help fill out our picture of women’s expanding roles in the history of modern warfare. 

image of explosives technician Frances Dunn, hunched over technology, at Los Alamos

Explosives technician Frances Dunne, for example, was part of the assembly crew for the Trinity test, the world's first nuclear explosion.A Swarthmore graduate, she field-tested mock bomb assemblies, and was especially useful because her small hands and manual dexterity allowed her to adjust the trigger in the high-explosive shells better than her male counterparts (“Women of Los Alamos”). 

One of the women scientists at Los Alamos, Lilli Hornig, was working on her PhD degree at Harvard when her husband was recruited to a Los Alamos team developing a specialized explosive charge nuclear weapons. She had been assured that the project would welcome her help as a chemist, but when she arrived she was asked how fast she could type. “I don’t type,” she said, and soon after she was put to work on plutonium chemistry (“Short History”).

image of physicist Chien-Whiung Wu busy operating machineryLos Alamos, of course, was only one of the many sites where the international Manhattan Project (of the UK, US, and Canada) oversaw research directed toward atomic weapons, and several important women scientists contributed to the effort from other locations. Of that far-flung group, the woman most closely associated with Berkeley was Chien-Shiung Wu. Having done her undergraduate work in China, Wu came to Berkeley in 1936 and began graduate work under Ernest Lawrence’s direction, working closely as well with physicist Emilio Segre. She completed her dissertation on uranium fission products in 1940. Wu’s early career illustrates how resistant academic physics departments were to hiring women professors as well as the role the war played in breaking down some of that resistance. Both Segre and Lawrence recommended Wu most highly; indeed, the Chair of the Physics Department, Raymond Birge, reported that Lawrence claimed Wu was “the most brilliant student he has ever had, either male or female” (Leimbach and Einstein, 5). Nevertheless, she could not find an assistant professorship at a research university, so Lawrence gave her a post-doctoral position at the Radiation Lab, where she worked on several teams that made important discoveries from 1940-42. She married a fellow physicist, Luke Chia Yuan, and reluctantly took a job on the east coast, at Smith College, where she had no research opportunities. Finally, in 1944, the Manhattan Project allowed her to get back into her chosen research field, working on gaseous diffusion for uranium enrichment.

The Manhattan Project also brought her to Columbia University, where she became an associate research professor when the war ended and eventually one of the most famous members of her department. Often referred to as “the First Lady of Physics”, she won many awards, including the National Medal of Science (1975). In 1956, she played a key role in experimentally demonstrating the principle of parity nonconservation in Beta decay, a paradigm-changing discovery for physicists. Two theoretical physicists who helped inspire the experiment were awarded the Nobel Prize, but Wu's role was not honored until 1978, when she was awarded the first Wolf Prize (Benczer-Koller) 

Effects of the Mobilization 

Although the postwar years saw a return to the gendered status quo ante in many academic fields, the mobilization did have some lasting effects. As we’ve seen, it played a crucial role in advancing individual careers, like those of Marguerite Higgins, Katherine Towle, Helene Powell, and Chien-Shiung Wu, which later became emblematic of what women are capable of achieving even in male-dominated arenas. And, although the collective efforts of the mobilized women fell out of public memory and took a few decades to be retrieved and appreciated, they also became inspirational for later generations: Rosie the Riveter’s “We Can Do It” poster was a 1970s feminist icon. 

Moreover, even while the women’s contributions to the victory were being ignored, there seems to have been a subtle change in the terms of the debate about their higher education during the postwar years. Their wartime record gave strong evidence that women were capable of excellent performance in traditionally male roles. Perhaps it was partly because of their success that the reasons later given for freezing them out of such jobs seldom relied on the idea that they were innately incapable. As we’ll see, when a debate over what women should be educated for erupted in the late 1940s and 50s, it took a new and different form.    

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“The Women of Los Alamos: Their life in the super-secret fraternity that built the atomic bomb.” https://www.theatlantic.com/sponsored/wgn-manhattan-project/the-women-of...