Swapping Silk for Khaki: America’s First Female Soldiers

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Marie Hansen for LIFE

"In their first gas-mask drill the WAACs took two minutes to get their masks adjusted." Fort Des Moines, Iowa, June 1942.

Amid the bumper crop of tales of sexual assault in the ranks of the U.S. military, it’s refreshing to go back in time — 71 years ago this month, to be precise — when Army created the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps amid World War II.

More than 150,000 American women served in the corps during World War II, double the 75,000 serving in the service today (but not as many as the 200,000 active-duty women now in uniform in all the services).

LIFE magazine, Battleland’s distant cousin, published a major piece on the WAACs in September 1942, four months after its creation:

The idea behind the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps is simply this: Women can do some of the jobs that men are doing in the Army. By taking over these jobs, they can release men for active or combat duty. For instance, if too many service troops are ordered away from a post, the post commander will send in a call for some WAACs. Pretty soon a WAAC contingent — probably a company — will descend on him and then disperse about the camp to do clerical work, mess work, light transportation work, mechanics work or any kind of work which women can do as well as men.

Check out some fascinating photos over at LIFE’s website, here.