Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
The recent efforts to integrate women into America’s combat units signify a far different attitude than the enormous resistance they faced during World War II. Female participation in the U.S. Armed Forces during the global conflict was a major turning point in the military’s relationship with women.
Facing a worldwide, two-front war, the United States followed the example of Great Britain and supplemented it all-male fighting force with women in numerous noncombatant roles. Women served in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps, Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and in the Navy (WAVES), Coast Guard, and Marine Corps. Although not officially members of the armed forces, Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) provided critical support for the war effort by ferrying airplanes. Other women worked with the military through organizations such as the American Red Cross, the USO, and the Civil Air Patrol.
At the beginning of World War II, the United States had no facilities, staff, or regulations in place to handle enemy prisoners. Hastily constructed POW camps popped up across America, mostly in the South and Midwest. One of the largest was near Ruston but its first inhabitants were not enemy POWs but some of the first American women affiliated with the U.S. Army. Due to the initial slow influx of captured soldiers, the facility first served as a basic training base for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
President Franklin Roosevelt set a goal of enlisting 25,000 WAACs by June 30, 1943. WAAC recruiting exceeded the objective by November 1942 and the sole training center at Fort Des Moines, Iowa reached its capacity. New training centers opened at Fort Devens, Massachusetts; Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia; and Camp Ruston.
In March 1943, the new internment facility of Camp Ruston was activated as Branch “A” of the 5th Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps Training Center. The Provost Marshal provided the camp under the condition that group toilets and showers and other “masculine-type plumbing” would not be modified and that the WAACs “would move out on a 30 days’ notice if German and Italian prisoners should need the place.”
The 5th WAAC headquarters moved into the recently vacated high school building in downtown Ruston, with additional but smaller training facilities at other Army bases in the region. Female members of the headquarters unit took over Hotel Ruston, a building later housing Stow’s Bar and now occupied by retailers The Fashion and The Chartreuse Pear. All recruits were housed at the POW camp just west of Grambling.
In April 1943, the first 500 recruits arrived at Camp Ruston to form the 42nd WAAC Regiment. In greeting the young women, the regimental commander reminded them, “Now you’re a soldier,” and went on to explain the rules of army life and discipline. He encouraged them to dedicate themselves to their training and “take it like a soldier.”
The women came from big cities and tiny villages, some with previous job experience while others were fresh from school. Some had worked as secretaries, others as store clerks or on the family farm.
An enthusiastic welcome marked the arrival of the WAAC recruits. The introduction of more than 2,000 young women into the community was the most momentous event since the Pearl Harbor attack. The WAACs were treated to picnics, dances, and outings. Over a thousand citizens attended an open house at the camp followed by a parade through Ruston. A USO center in downtown Ruston served the WAACs and camp guards as well as servicemen passing through town. Civic clubs set up day rooms around the camp and local churches furnished the chapel. The owner of a Ruston beauty parlor opened a shop at the camp.
Ruston’s cafes and three movie theaters fared well with the influx of military personnel. Like many small towns in the Bible Belt, Ruston compelled movie theaters and other forms of entertainment to close on Sundays. With the arrival of the WAACs, a temporary waiver was granted by the city for Sunday shows.
Curiosity about the soon-to-be POW camp and the WAACs led to the opening of the facilities to the locals from 5:30 to 7:30 each evening. Visitors could spend time with the young women or tour some of the buildings. Ruston citizens were encouraged to go to the camp and invite WAACs into their homes or entertain them for the evening. The camp bus into Ruston each hour could not possibly accommodate all the women seeking diversions elsewhere.
News articles about the WAACs often dominated the front page of the Ruston Daily Leader with sometimes as many as four separate stories per issue. WAAC public affairs officers wrote articles profiling various staff members and recruits. Every social event was chronicled, from huge dances chaperoned by Ruston society women to picnic outings on bicycles provided by local Boy Scouts. When a convoy of army engineers returning from flood duty in Arkansas bivouacked in Ruston’s Woodland Park, the USO hastily arranged a dance. A strong contingent of chaperones escorted the 700 soldiers to Camp Ruston where they were among the few troops to ever see WAACs drilling on a parade ground. While the 1,200 soldiers and WAACs danced and enjoyed ice cream and Coca-Colas, the camp command staff entertained the engineer officers at the Officers’ Club. By 11:00 p.m., the soldiers were back in their tents.
In many respects, WAAC training was patterned after that received by combat soldiers. The basic training course included infantry drill, physical training, military customs and courtesies, and WAAC regulations. A detailed schedule of drills, calisthenics, and classes filled each day. Recruits participated in numerous simulated chemical attack drills, complete with inert gas bombs and decontamination exercises. Optional classes in Spanish and German occupied the evening hours.
At the conclusion of basic training, some recruits remained for specialized courses. About 160 WAACs completed a cooks’ and bakers’ school. Others received training in motor transport to become drivers of jeeps and trucks and make minor repairs to military vehicles.
Although the training operation was large, it was short-lived. The last class at Camp Ruston graduated on June 18, 1943, and the 5th WAAC Training Center was officially closed and the camp returned to the Provost Marshal. Enough facilities had been constructed at the first four WAAC training centers to eliminate the need for a fifth. In three and a half months, 2,277 WAAC recruits received training at Camp Ruston before transfer to duty stations around the world.
The close of the training program at Ruston coincided with the redesignation of the WAAC as the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and for the first time, females other than nurses served in the ranks of the United States Army. Each of the 150,000 American women who filled a support position as a cook, clerk, or truck driver freed a male soldier for fighting.
Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston who writes extensively on Reconstruction era crime. His books include Greetings From Ruston: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana and Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Tom Sisemore, available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out his Louisiana history blog at http://diggingthepast.blogspot.com