Women in the Air Force (WAF)

Women in the Air Force (WAF)

Women in the Air Force (WAF) was a United States Air Force program which served to bring women into limited roles in the Air Force. WAF was formed in 1948, when President Truman signed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, allowing women to serve directly in the military.

WAF was distinct from the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), a small group of female transport pilots that was formed in 1942 with Nancy H. Love as commander. WAFS was folded into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in 1943; WASP was disbanded in December, 1944.

Life in the WAF

When the USAF was officially formed in 1947, a number of former Women's Army Corps members (WACs) continued serving in the Army but performed Air Force duties, as the Air Force didn't admit women in its first year. Some WACs chose to transfer to the WAFs when it became possible.

At its inception in 1948, WAF was limited to 4,000 enlisted women and 300 female officers. Women were encouraged to fill many different roles but were not to be trained as pilots, even though the United States Army Air Corps had graduated their first class of female pilots in April 1943 under wartime conditions. The WAF directorship was to be filled by a non-pilot. All WAFs were assigned ground duties, most ending up in clerical and medical positions.

Women who were already pilots and who would have been good candidates for WAF leadership were instead diverted to the Air Force Reserves. For example, Nancy Harkness Love, founder and commander of the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and executive of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), was awarded the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Reserves in 1948 after it was directed to admit women. Jacqueline Cochran, who had volunteered in the RAF and had demonstrated solid leadership in greatly expanding the WASP program, was similarly directed to join the Reserves in 1948 within which she rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1969. Female pilots in the Reserves were classified as federal civilian employees, not active military personnel.


The first director of WAF was Colonel Geraldine Pratt May, who received her first commission in August 1942. She had been among the first women officers assigned to the Army Air Forces, where she served as WAC staff director within Air Transport Command. May's wartime command at "Air WAC" included 6,000 enlisted women and officers. On becoming director of WAF, May was promoted to full colonel, the first woman in the Air Force to attain that rank. May served until 1951 at which time she accepted a non-military government post. [ [http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/gpmay.htm Arlington National Cemetery website "Geraldine Pratt May, Colonel, United States Air Force."] ]

Mary Jo Shelly picked up the WAF directorship in 1951. Shelly was among the first women officers in the Navy and had been instrumental in setting up WAVES training in 1942; after the war she had returned to civilian life as assistant to the president of Bennington College. In WAF, Shelly worked to expand women's assignments within the USAF, as most women were still being placed in traditional "women's jobs" such as stenographer or nurse. A push to employ women in more technical fields was undertaken. Some male USAF commanders were interested in the good results obtained by using women in air defense control centers, passenger air transport operations and in data processing and analysis. Others wanted to see women restricted to a few tightly defined roles. Against the ingrained male-dominated military habits, Shelly achieved only limited success; her outgoing report in 1954 stated that the WAF was fated to remain small and exclusive as long as Selective Service applied only to men. [Linda Witt. "A Defense Weapon Known to Be of Value: Servicewomen of the Korean War Era". UPNE, 2005. ISBN 1584654724]

Colonel Phyllis D. S. Gray, another ex-WAVE, was director of WAF starting in 1954. She passed the baton to Colonel Emma J. Riley in 1957. Riley linked forces with Army Colonel Mary Louise Milligan (WAC) to work with the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) in a successful attempt to retroactively grant active military service status (and its benefits) to former WAACs (Women's Auxiliary Air Corps) who had served in World War II and had also been in WAC, WAF or one of the other women's services. Riley pointed out to a Congressional subcommittee that SPARS, WAVES and female Marines had been given active duty status but Army and Air Force women had not. The bill passed in 1959 and approximately 1,400 women gained additional active duty credit. WAACs who had chosen not to continue service would wait until 1980 to be granted this status. [ [http://www.army.mil/cmh/books/wac/chapter7.htm Betty J. Morden. (1989) "The Women's Army Air Corps, 1945-1978." Chapter VII: Management and Image.] ]

Further directors:
*1961–1965: Elizabeth Ray
*1965–1973: Jeanne M. Holm (first female two-star general in the United States)
*1973–1975: Billie M. Bobbit
*1975–1976: Bianca D. Trimeloni


The first WAF recruit was Sgt. Esther Blake who enlisted July 8 1948 in the first minute that regular Air Force duty was authorized for women; Blake transferred from the WACs where she had a post in Fort McPherson, Georgia.

Lackland Air Force Base, near San Antonio, Texas, was where the first cadre of WAFs reported. Recruits were expected to appear attractive and were schooled in posture and cosmetics along with their physical training and military indoctrination.

African-American recruits joined the WAFs in greater numbers in 1949 when basic training for women was desegregated in the USAF. Integration of quarters and mess was slower in coming. [ [http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/History/afamvet.html Dr. Judith Bellafaire, (2006). Women's Memorial History Archive: "Volunteering For Vietnam: African-American Servicewomen"] ]

Captain Lillian Kinkella Keil was a member of the Air Force Nurse Corps branch of the Air Force Medical Service (AFMS) and is among the most decorated women in the United States military. In World War II, Keil flew 250 air evacuation missions including 25 trans-Atlantic crossings. In Korea, she flew 175 more missions. The 1953 movie "Flight Nurse" was inspired by Keil's heroism; Keil served as technical advisor to the film. She earned 19 medals and ribbons in her military career.

Barbara A. Wilson started as a Private at Lackland then steadily moved up the ranks. She was the first WAF to complete her Bachelor of Arts degree through a military program at Long Island University. She was the first enlisted WAF NCO (T.Sgt.) to become an officer via Officer Training School (OTS). She retired at the rank of Major, and earned a Master's degree in an Air Force Program at Southern Illinois University. She produced and hosted a TV program about antiques and wrote as a syndicated newspaper columnist in the '80s. Wilson, writing as "Captain Barb", maintains a website with information about women in all branches of the military: [http://userpages.aug.com/captbarb/ "Women Military Veterans: Yesterday—Today—Tomorrow"] .

The first African-American female brigadier general of the USAF was Marcelite J. Harris who attained the rank in 1990. Harris took OTS at Lackland in 1966, after traveling with a USO tour to military bases in Germany and France. Harris said in a 1992 interview with Ebony: "Originally, I wanted to be an actress." After graduating from Spelman College with a BA in speech and drama she joined the WAFs. Specializing in aircraft maintenance, she served as a supervisor at Korat Air Base in Thailand, servicing Vietnam war aircraft. Harris later became Air Officer Commanding at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. She even picked up a degree in Business Management along the way. Major General Harris currently holds a command at HQ USAF, Washington, DC, where she is responsible for 125,000 airmen and an annual budget of $20 billion. [ [http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1077/is_n2_v48/ai_12970991 "Ebony magazine interview: Brig. Gen. Marcelite J. Harris: the Air Force's first black female general". December 1992] ]


Well-known fashion expert Hattie Carnegie was commissioned to design suitable uniforms for the WAFs and WACs in 1950, with prototypes revealed to the press on New Year's Day 1951. The result was sturdy yet timelessly elegant. Silk blouses were offered as an optional choice in addition to plain cotton blouses. The skirt was a conservative but active length ending just below the knee yet with enough volume to allow freedom of movement; it presaged Dior's A-line by four years. Enlisted women complained of their practical old-fashioned "grandma shoes" but officers were allowed high-heeled pumps. Heels were made available to all recruits in later years.

WAF Band

The 543rd Air Force Band (WAF) was organized in January 1951 by Colonel George S. Howard, Chief of Bands and Music for the Air Force. Eighteen women musicians were directed by PFC Mary Divens. In December 1951, MaryBelle Johns Nissly was recruited by Col. Howard to return to military life at the rank of Captain and given the task of Conductor and Commander of the WAF Band. Nissly had left Army service in 1946 as a Warrant Officer and had previously gained attention as a Sergeant by starting the first Women's Army Band at Fort Des Moines in 1942 while she was with the Women's Auxiliary Air Corps (WAAC). In its ten-year lifespan, the WAF Band was served by some 235 women musicians with approximately 50 members at any one time. Attrition from the organization was often caused by marriage, as bandmembers were required to be single. They also had to be white; the Air Force knew the WAF Band would be touring the segregated Deep South and they didn't want to cross the race barrier. Concerts were played all over the nation, including Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico. At least one concert took them to Mexico.

The band marched in Eisenhower's two inaugurations, played in the freezing cold for JFK's inauguration and appeared occasionally on live television broadcasts. Home base for the WAF Band was first Lackland, moving in 1953 to Bolling AFB in Washington, DC, where, by Air Force Regulation 190-21, published June 13 1955, they were officially designated "United States WAF Band", acknowledging their "de facto" status as USAF representatives rather than their former status as a simple base band. Their official mission became to "assist, within their capabilities, in promoting Air Force objectives and enhancing the prestige of the Air Force and the United States." [ [http://www.wafband.org/Assets/History/History.html Dixie L. Johnson. "WAF Band History" (GIF image)] ] This meant there were now "two" bands serving as ambassadors of the USAF: the all-male Air Force Band and the WAF Band.

In 1957, while flying aboard a C-124 Globemaster II, the WAF Band was invited by General James L. Jackson, Deputy Commander of the San Bernardino Air Materiel Area, Air Materiel Command, [ [http://www.af.mil/bios/bio.asp?bioID=5921 Air Force biography: "Brigadier General James L. Jackson"] ] to move to his headquarters at Norton AFB in San Bernardino, California. The move took place in January, 1958. The band retained its training and chain-of-command connection with the USAF band school at Bolling. At Norton, the band found it easier to schedule C-124 planes and pilots to keep up their touring schedule. [ [http://www.wafband.org/Assets/NisslyTribute/Tribute.gifDixie L. Johnson. "Tribute to MaryBelle Johns Nissly" (GIF image)] ]

The WAF Band was deactivated in 1961, most likely victims of their success. Colonel Howard, as leader of the all-male band, had apparently grown less eager to share the spotlight. In 1960, he had diverted a special request for the WAFs to perform in Europe, substituting his band instead. That same year Howard issued a directive forbidding the WAF Band to appear at any civilian functions such as county fairs and schools where they had become popular. Nissly continued to accept these civilian invitations in contravention of the directive, allowing anti-women elements in the USAF an excuse to charge the WAF Band with insubordination. The band was dissolved. Bandmembers were given the option of transferring to a different WAF unit but some left the service entirely. Colonel Howard retired on September 1 1963. Nissly retired at the rank of Major in 1968.

ROTC program

In 1956, a WAF section was introduced into the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. Four universities were running ROTC WAF sections in 1959. By 1970, the Air Force ROTC women cadet program had expanded to a more national scope.

Closing chapter

In 1967, President Johnson signed Public Law 90-130, lifting grade restrictions and strength limitations on women in the military. 1973 saw the end of Selective Service (the "draft"), meaning military recruiting practices were beginning to experience radical changes. In 1976, women were accepted into the military on much the same basis as men; the separate status of WAF was abolished. That same year, the United States Air Force Academy began training female pilots.

ee also

*Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP)
*Women's Army Corps (WAC)
*United States Army Air Forces
*United States Air Force


* [http://userpages.aug.com/captbarb/ Women Military Veterans: Yesterday—Today—Tomorrow]
* [http://userpages.aug.com/captbarb/musicians.html Women Military Musicians]
* [http://www.wafband.org/ WAF Band website]
* [http://www.wafband.org/Assets/NisslyTribute/Tribute.gifDixie L. Johnson. Excerpt from "The U.S. WAF Band Story": Tribute to MaryBelle Johns Nissly]
* [http://www.usafband.com/about_history.cfm History of The United States Air Force Band]

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