Richard Warner, D.D.S. Family Dentistry in Council Bluffs, Iowa
(Story by Dr. Richard Warner)
Women in the War
Women weren’t always found at the front lines of a battlefield. It was actually a former Council Bluffs mayor who had a significant role bringing them there.
Woman have long provided significant contributions on the home front. Women also made good spies; the prevailing notion females were too simple to understand the complexities of military strategy led men to readily discuss secret plans in their presence. But near the battle lines it was another matter.
The notion that the front lines were no place for women was challenged in World War I by the man that was also the first to bring a complete movable hospital to the battlefield, Jennie Edmundson Hospital’s Chief of surgery and two-term Council Bluffs mayor, Dr. Donald Macrae, Jr. Macrae insisted his team of Mobile Hospital #1 function as a complete unit and his women were equally as capable as his men of handling the challenges of being within artillery range of the enemy.
The going wasn’t easy. The doctors, nurses, and staff of Mobile Hospital #1 endured cold rain, mud, heat, and the constant noise of guns and bombs exploding. Surgical nurse Emily Vuagniaux wrote, “We worked sometimes 18 hours straight. I have the operating room and they run four tables day and night. We have 200-300 patients right off the field each day, so you can see we are quite close”. On a cold October day at the Meuse-Argonne front an order was issued for the signature of any of the women who felt the physical strain on them had become too great; they could go home. Dr. Macrae’s hunch was right; not a single woman signed.
Unit K was the nucleus of Mobile Hospital #1. Though Yale lays claim to having spawned America's first mobile hospital-- their unit having been sent overseas first-- the reality is Dr. Macrae had created Unit K several months earlier. Also, despite being a mobile hospital in name, Yale's group never actually moved until almost the end of the war, in contrast to the Council Bluffs unit's dozen locations along the front lines. Twenty-one women were permanently attached to the unit, all as nurses. The very first graduate of the Women’s Christian Association Hospital (later Jennie Edmundson) School of Nursing, Mattie Gibson, was one of the nurses. in 1898 Ms. Gibson became the first nurse in Iowa to offer her services to Governor Shaw to serve as a trained nurse in the event of a war. Ms. Gibson, along with fellow Unit K nurses Emily Vuagniaux, Agnes Richardson and Ella J. McManigill were awarded the Croix de Guerre with Bronze Star, France’s highest honor.
In World War II women had their own divisions: the WAAC (Woman’s Army Auxiliary Corps) and WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service). When the WAAC was created in1942 800 recruits were sent to Iowa to train at the Fort Des Moines Provisional Army Officer Training School. Following the recommendation of Eleanor Roosevelt, Congress created the WAVES, a women’s auxiliary for the Navy. While the WACC were an auxiliary unit intended to serve with the Army, the WAVES were actually a part of the Navy, holding the same ranks and receiving the same pay as males. The WACC was merged into the Army as the WAC (Women’s Army Corps) before the war was over.
Though referred to as “lady soldiers” and “lady sailors” the intent was not use in combat, but rather to release able bodied enlisted male personnel from clerical tasks. Unlike the men, the recruits weren’t promised a chance to see the world; their intended assignments were only in the States.
The first group of WAVES trained at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Council Bluffs had a native in that initial group. Betty Evans was the second woman in the country to report for training; the 129 recruits ranged in age from 23 to 44.
Newspaper stories suggest officers were a bit uneasy in how to deal with the women. A Navy captain was quoted as saying he hoped “this use of make-up business will solve itself.” Every gentleman of the 1940s knew to stand when a lady entered a room, but what if the gentleman outranked the lady? WAVES were forbidden to date enlisted seamen. News reporters likewise showed departures from the norm, noting the class of WAVES at Smith College to be a mix of blonds, brunets, and red heads and that all were unmarried except one, not facts routinely reported in discussing military personnel.
While the WAAC, WAC, and WAVES provided valuable services to the war effort, their role was not universally supported. Since the primary purpose of the women was to free up men for assignment to combat duty, some male soldiers who would prefer to remain in less dangerous jobs saw them as a threat. Female civilian employees sometimes saw the military women as competitors for jobs that would have otherwise gone to them. Some of the nation wasn’t ready for women in uniform. Occasionally recruits came home to find slander rather than respect, encountering rumors they were lesbian. Some conservatives and some religions saw inclusion of women in the armed forces as upsetting the social order.
That wasn’t the case in Council Bluffs. Clippings from the Daily Nonpareil and Omaha World Herald in the Historical Society archives show both newspapers followed the progress of local WAVES recruit Betty Evans closely, giving much attention to her promotions and progress.
Lt. Evans graduated from Abraham Lincoln high School in 1927 and Drake University in 1931 where she studied journalism. When the WAVES opportunity came along she decided to enlist. When asked about this she told a reporter women in her family women weren’t scared of war. She explained when her great-grandfather was in the civil war her great-grandmother borrowed a friend’s buggy and traveled to the battle zone to await the outcome. When her great-grandfather exclaimed, “Good God, Sadie, what are you doing here?” She replied, “If it’s not too tough for you here I guess it isn’t for me either!”
1927 Abraham Lincoln High School graduate Betty Evans was the second woman in the country to report for training to become a WAVE in World War II.
The members of Unit K were given a heros' welcome upon their return in May, 1919. Just one member of the original group did not come home; Private First Class Boyd Tucker died of pneumonia shortly before the trip back. Unit K was mustered into service in Council Bluffs June 18, 1917.
The Women’s Christian Association Hospital School of Nursing was established in 1893 in the former home of Dr. Phillip McMahon at Ninth Street and Sixth Avenue. The school’s first graduate, Mattie Gibson, volunteered for service with Mobile Hospital #1.