Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Women and World War II

With the advent of World War II, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts established a Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps (MWDC) in May of 1941, under a Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety. The MWDC worked closely with the Massachusetts State Guard, the U.S. Army, state agencies and local communities. Its function was to assist in training women volunteers in five areas: medical, transportation, communications, canteen, and air raid precautions.

Pin that had belonged to Mrs Louis Boeske.
Women's Defense Corps Pin. “ARP” for
Air Raid Precautions; “PARATUS ET FIDELIS”
 translates as Ready and Faithful
From a start as a Women’s Civilian Defense School in Boston, the organization had quickly grown to having more than one hundred auxiliary defense schools by the end of 1941. Maynard was one. The Maynard Historical Society notes that in November 1941, Maynard women of the MWDC Motor Corps received diplomas from their instructor, Mrs. Frank Sheridan. The following March the women conducted a drill involving a convoy of twelve cars. The women drove to a rendezvous site in Clinton, where their final test was a tire change. Mrs. Louis Boeske was complimented for her speed at this skill. She replied that she had spent many years in and around cars with her husband.

Later during the war, the various states’ organizations were superseded by federal government action. The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was made active duty status on July 1, 1943. The idea behind WAC was that women serving in non-combat roles would free up men for combat assignments, essential because the Army was running out of men to draft. WACs initially served as switchboard operators, clerk/typists, mechanics and in food preparation. In time, other classifications were added, such as transportation, postal clerk and armory staff. WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) were the Navy equivalent, SPARS for the Coast Guard, WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) flying planes, and Marine Corps Women's Reserve. The previously existing Army Nurse Corps dating to 1901, expanded to 60,000 women during World War II. All totaled, more than three hundred thousand women served in the armed forces during World War II. Per the plaques in Memorial Park, this included more than two dozen women from Maynard.

All was not champagne and roses for the women who volunteered for military duty. There was serious backlash. Men in service who had a safe, stateside or behind the lines job did not want to be sent to combat. Mothers, wives and girlfriends did not want their men being sent to combat. Priests and ministers sermonized against women joining the military. There was a slander campaign – much of it initiated by men in uniform – that women who were enrolling were prostitutes, or that they were sexually promiscuous, becoming pregnant, spreading venereal diseases…  Part of the motivation was a fear that if their wives, fiancés or girlfriends joined the army they would be far from home and in the company of other men.

In Massachusetts, soldiers in the Fort Devens area were credited by investigators with originating the rumor that "fantastic" numbers of pregnant women had been sent back to Lovell General Hospital from North Africa. Agents descended on that hospital's records "without prearrangement" and reported, "No record of an overseas pregnancy was found." Another Fort Devens’ rumor was that the venereal disease rate was skyrocketing. Also not true. A third rumor was that women in uniform were officially advised to utilize prophylactics, or even issued same. Agents interviewed hundreds of women and were unable to find even one who had ever been so instructed.

Locally, whether women were in the Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps or not, enrolled in WAC or not, all were deeply affected by the war. Rationing included gasoline for cars (three gallons per week), also fuel oil for houses, sugar and coffee (one pound per adult every five weeks). Meat, butter and canned goods were in short supply. All new car manufacture ceased February 1942, to not be resumed until the war was over. A national speed limit of 35 miles per hour was imposed to save fuel. All forms of rationing ended in the United States in August 1945. In stark comparison, rationing of many good and foods continued in the United Kingdom until the summer of 1954. George Orwell’s famous novel “1984” was completed in 1948; the title stemming from an inversion of the last two numbers of the year. Food rationing was present in Orwell’s real life and in his novel.

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