The Korean War marks the beginning of important social advances in the armed services. Both attitudinal and legal changes permanently altered the military landscape for African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Women and others.
Women in the Armed Services
When the Korean War erupted in June 1950, women in the armed services numbered 22,000. Roughly 7,000 of these women were healthcare professionals, the rest served in line assignments in the Women's Army Corps (WAC); Women in the Air Force (WAF); Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or Navy Women's Reserve (WAVES); and Women Marines. Although Congress had passed the Women's Armed Forces Integration Action in 1948 giving women increased prospects for military careers, the Department of Defense's efforts to recruit more women during the Korean War met with limited success and were discontinued in 1952. Individually, the WAC, WAVES, WAF and Women Marines each increased their strength during the war. However, the overall number of enlisted women in the services during the Korean War declined as a net percentage of Armed Forces personnel.
Women's Army Corps
With the onset of the Korean War, the need for more personnel from the Women's Army Corps increased quickly because Army leaders viewed these women as a means of releasing male soldiers for combat duty. To augment WAC numbers, the Army initiated voluntary and involuntary recalls for WAC reservists, began an ambitious recruiting campaign, and suspended the separation-on-marriage rule. The rule was reinstated for enlisted women and officers in July 1951 and October 1952, respectively. Nearly 1,600 members of the WAC, Army Nurse Corps and Women's Medical Specialist Corps, who were members of the Organized Reserve Corps (changed to U.S. Army Reserve in 1952), volunteered for active duty in the Army between July 1950 and June 1951. Fewer than 200 WACs were involuntarily recalled to active duty in 1951; this was the first time women were summoned to active duty without their consent.
Commanders in the Far East Command (FEC) and other overseas installations requested Women's Army Corps officers and enlisted women. These WACs worked in FEC Headquarters, other Tokyo and regional Japanese commands and station hospitals. In 1950, there were only 629 WACs in the FEC; one year later, that number increased to 2,600. WAC units in Japan, primarily hospital units, increased from two in 1950 to nine by 1953. A WAC unit in Okinawa, staffed by both medical and administrative personnel, was opened in 1951. Seven WACs served in Korea during 1952 and 1953; two were stenographers, four were interpreters and one was an aide-de-camp.
WAC personnel performed a wide range of occupational specialties, though they were prohibited from combat-related assignments. They served primarily in personnel and administration, communications, intelligence, medical, supply and food service units. WACs also had assignments as draftsman and censors and performed parachute rigging and weather observation duties.
The shortage of male soldiers in some overseas commands created more opportunities for women to serve in supervisory capacities and in some of the military occupational specialties traditionally reserved for men. In the U.S. military hospitals in Japan, where many of the combat soldiers wounded in Korea were sent, WAC sergeants became ward masters. In other locations, women became senior noncommissioned officers holding jobs in motor pools, mess halls and post offices. WAC personnel in Japan also provided services outside their regular work assignments, donating blood for soldiers wounded in Korea and "adopting" fighting units — supplying them with stationery, food, books and knitting the men socks and sweaters.
Army Nurse Corps
When fighting began June 25, 1950, the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) had a total strength of about 3,450. One year later, the ANC's strength had grown to 5,397. Most of these nurses were World War II veterans who had joined the Reserves at the end of that war. During the war, approximately 540 nurses — all volunteers — served in Korea. When fighting began, Captain Viola B. McConnell, assigned to the U.S. Military Advisory Group in the Republic of Korea (ROK), was the only Army nurse on duty in Korea. For her work in assisting with the evacuation of about 700 Americans from Seoul, she was awarded the Bronze Star. McConnell also received the Oak Leaf Cluster (the equivalent of a second Bronze Star) in recognition of her outstanding service.
"Most nurses were World War II veterans who had joined the Reserves at the end of that war. During the war, approximately 540 nurses — all volunteers — served in Korea."
On July 5, 1950, four days after the first U.S. Army combat forces, Task Force Smith, arrived on the Korean Peninsula, 57 nurses arrived at Pusan, South Korea, from Japan to establish a U.S. Army hospital. The nurses helped set up the hospital and began caring for casualties the next day. Two days later, on July 8, 1950, 12 U.S. Army nurses moved forward with a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) to Taejon on the front-line perimeter. By August, less than a month after the onset of hostilities, more than 100 Army nurses were on duty in South Korea in support of U.N. troops. The first Army nurses from the United States arrived on Aug.14.
Members of the ANC served throughout the Korean Peninsula. Army nurses supported combat troops defending the Pusan Perimeter, were present during the amphibious landing at Inchon and on the eastern coast of North Korea, and accompanied troops in the advance across the 38th parallel to the Yalu River on the Manchurian border. They also supported the U.N. Forces in their withdrawal south of the 38th parallel in the face of Chinese communist intervention.
The experience of 13 nurses who landed with the 1st Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) shortly after the X Corps invasion of Inchon and Seoul on Sept. 15, 1950, provides a vivid example of the unique combat situations some Army nurses faced. These nurses took over the operation of an improvised civilian hospital in Inchon, living and working in the same primitive conditions as the GIs for whom they cared. These nurses wore fatigues, steel helmets and combat boots rather than their traditional uniforms. The nurses used their helmets as wash basins and carried and ate out of their aluminum mess kits. Like combat soldiers at the front, they lived in tents or shattered buildings and slept in sleeping bags.
Nurses from Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Thailand and Turkey also served in the Far East Command. Japanese nurses worked in hospitals in their homeland, and Korean nurses cared for members of the ROK Army and patients in prisoner-of-war hospitals. No Army nurse was killed due to enemy action in Korea, however, Major Genevieve Smith died in a C-47 crash en route to her duty assignment as chief nurse in Korea.
Air Force Nurse Corps
The Air Force Nurse Corps was challenged almost immediately upon the start of the war, being called upon to assist in air evacuations of casualties. On Dec. 5, 1950, the Nurse Corps assisted in the evacuation of about 3,900 patients after Chinese intervention in the war; by the end of the war, they helped evacuate about 350,000 patients. In December 1950, the 801st Medical Air Evacuation Squadron received the Presidential Unit Citation for heroism in the evacuation of more than 4,700 wounded servicemen after the Chosin (Changjin) Reservoir Campaign. These flight nurses, sharing all the hardships of the regular flight crews, performed a myriad of other nursing tasks while reassuring the young patients. Two Air Force nurses, First Lieutenants Virginia May McClure and Margaret Fae Perry, were killed in Korea in a nonhostile aircraft accident.
Navy Nurse Corps
The need for naval medical facilities in Asia grew when the war began. A small naval dispensary at Yokosuka, staffed by only six nurses, evolved into a full-fledged hospital staffed by 200 nurses. The Navy Nurse Corps expanded its ranks by recalling Reserve nurses with World War II experience. It temporarily reduced staffs at continental hospitals to staff the forward area. The Navy also commissioned civilian nurses. These nurses served in hospitals as well as aboard three Haven-class ships where almost 35 percent of battle casualties were admitted through September 1952. These hospital ships were a new type of mobile hospital, moving from place to place, sometimes supporting the Inchon invasion or aiding the Hungnam evacuation, or simply shifting about the Korean coast as needed. Two senior Navy nurses, Commander Estelle Kalnoske Lange and Lieutenant Ruth Cohen, received the Bronze Star for their work on the Navy hospital ships.
Though outside the Korean theater, one aviation accident claimed the lives of 11 Navy nurses. The mishap occurred on the South Pacific island of Kwajalein on Sept. 19, 1950. These women were en route to hospitals in Japan to care for war casualties when their plane crashed into the Pacific shortly after take off.
For more information, see Nurses in the Korean War
In August 1950, the Women Reserves were mobilized for the Korean War; the number of women on active dury in the Marine Corps peaked at 2,787. The Korean War gave women serving in the Marine Corps new career opportunities outside of the usual clerical and administrative service and a chance to return to several duty stations. A 1951 report by the Procedures Analysis Office determined that Women Marines were capable of serving in 27 of 43 military occupational specialties such as personnel and administration, intelligence, logistics, mapping and surveying, fire control, instrument repair, electronics and aviation electronics, motor transport, public information, operational communications and disbursing. However, most Women Marines served in the traditional areas such as clerical and administration. For women officers, only nine fields were considered appropriate for women.
Prior to the Korean War, only a few of the women who had seen military service were granted a commission in the regular service. Most of these women were placed on inactive reserve status. At the onset of the Korean War, however, service requirements for women on inactive reserve status were extended. Thus, the Women Marines changed from an inactive reserve force to a core of trained personnel who had a minimum requirement of active duty service.
Coast Guard SPARs
On June 30, 1946, the Coast Guard demobilized its reserve program, including the Women's Reserve, nicknamed SPARs for Semper Peratus Always Ready. At the onset of the Cold War, and eventually the Korean War, the Coast Guard brought back a reserve program to meet personnel requirements brought about by new missions and increased activities. Former SPAR officers, through the rank of lieutenant only, were invited to rejoin the Coast Guard beginning in November 1949 and former SPAR enlisted personnel were recruited beginning in March 1950. Approximately 200 former SPARs voluntarily reenlisted and served during the Korean War. They were primarily stationed at Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C., as well as the various district headquarters throughout the country. Most SPARs were released at the end of hostilities. By 1956 there were only nine enlisted women and 12 female officers in the Coast Guard — so few that The Coast Guard Magazine reported that "your chances of seeing a SPAR on active duty today have a slight edge over the possibilities of your running into Greta Garbo at the corner drugstore."
Anna Rosenberg, a recognized labor relations expert and owner of a public relations firm, was appointed Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Personnel in 1950. Her office was responsible for coordinating all Defense Department policies on military manpower and civilian personnel. An advocate of universal military training and integration of the Armed Forces, Rosenberg sought to improve the conditions of service life. To accomplish these goals, she recommended, with the approval of Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall, the formation of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) in August 1951. This committee, comprised of 50 prominent women from academia, business, the arts, politics, the legal profession and former wartime women directors, led a unified recruiting drive to increase the number of women in the services. DACOWITS also promoted military service for women as a prestigious career and sought public acceptance of their broadened roles in the armed services. DACOWITS continues to exist today.
A unique example of another civilian woman involved in the Korean War was that of war correspondent Marguerite Higgins. Initially ordered by Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker to leave Korea on the grounds that women did not belong on the war front, Higgins defied the demand and remained in Korea when General Douglas MacArthur overruled Walker. Covering the Korean War for the Herald Tribune for almost two years, Higgins provided eyewitness accounts of the war, including the assault at Inchon. She won a Pulitzer Prize and the Overseas Press Club Memorial Award for this reporting.
Personnel shortages during the Korean War led military leaders to revert to the World War II solutions of encouraging women to fill the ranks of the armed forces. Although military leaders sought to increase the number of women in the military, overall, expansion efforts failed. Social pressures on women to maintain traditional roles in the home and family and the relative unpopularity of the Korean War hampered the recruitment of women into military service. While some opportunities for service in the theater of operations existed for women during the Korean War, the majority of servicewomen were concentrated in traditionally female administrative positions; the armed services merely duplicated the stereotypical civilian employment patterns of the 1950s.
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