First Black American Women Officers in the Navy Joined as WAVES

In World War II, women were desperately needed in all branches of the military to assist with the war effort. On July 30, 1942, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) became a division of the U.S. Navy. This organization allowed thousands of women to enlist and it even commissioned several hundred others to supervise.

WAVES served in several fields that typically were not open to women, including those in the aviation community, in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps, in the medical professions, communications, intelligence, and in science and technology, according to Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, in a blog written for the National Archives, “Pictorial History of Black Women in the US Navy during World War II and Beyond.”

WAVES were able to serve in many fields that were once considered only for men, but they still had to endure geographical restrictions. Their military activity was restricted only to duty in the continental U.S. and they were not allowed to serve aboard combat ships or in aircraft.

All women interested in serving in the WAVES had to adhere to several strict regulations, Ligon wrote. They had to be native-born American and at least 18 years old with a good character. They were required to have three references in support of their background. Women had to be at least 5 feet tall and at least 95 pounds with 20/20 vision (wearing corrective glasses was okay), she wrote.

Enlisted women needed two years of high school or business school and women interested in becoming an officer had to have a college degree or two years of college plus two years of acceptable business or professional experience, Ligon wrote.

Black women were not permitted to join the WAVES until late 1944, according to Ligon. WAVES Director Mildred McAfee and Activist Mary McLeod Bethune encouraged Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal to push for the acceptance of black women into this program. As a result, the Navy trained roughly 1 black woman for every 36 white women enlisted in the WAVES, which was nearly 3 percent, she wrote.

In November 1944, Harriet Ida Pickens and Frances Wills graduated from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (Women’s Reserve) at Northampton, Massachusetts, and became the first African American WAVES officers, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Pickens had worked as a public health administrator, who was encouraged by her father, William Pickens, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to join the WAVES, according to Ligon.

Wills, a social worker, joined the WAVES because she did not have any brothers to serve in the war effort and decided it was her duty to enlist, Ligon wrote. As commissioned officers, Wills taught naval history and administered classification tests and Pickens led physical training sessions at the Hunter Naval Training Station in Bronx, New York, the main training facility for enlisted WAVES recruits.

To explore the history of women in the Navy, please visit the Naval History and Heritage Command collections:

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