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.
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:
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).