Newly-promoted World Heavyweight Champion, Joe Louis sews the stripes of a Technical Sergeant onto his uniform. April 10, 1942
A Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACS) would probably have been dismissed out of hand except it was 1941 and the country was engaged in a World War requiring all of the country’s resources. By the end of World War II in 1945 there were 265,000 women in uniform, of them more than 6,000 were African-American women.
Harriet M. West became the first, Black major in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps on August 21, 1943. Once promoted to that rank she became an aide to WAAC Director, Oveta Culp Hobby and an advisor to the army on racial issues. West, and Major Charity Adams were the only black women to attain the rank of major during World War II.
In commemoration of Major West’s accomplishment 70 years ago, I am offering my eBook: Long Way Home: A World War II Novel for FREE at the Amazon and Kindle bookstores on August 21, 2013. Please click on the book cover to access the free offer. I hope you’ll enjoy the read!
Long Way Home: A World War II Novel is historical fiction and I have been at work on the project for more than five years. The idea began in a very informal way after a series of conversations with a friend’s aunt who was a WWII veteran and one of the 150,000 members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Her memories of life at the Ft. Huachuca Army base provide the novel’s setting and emotional center.
My father also served in WWII as a Private First Class. He enlisted in 1943, just shy of 18 years old and worked in the Transportation Corps. We spoke only a few times about his army service but he recounted fondly the many places he’d seen during his service, among them: New Orleans, San Francisco and Liverpool, England. He wasn’t one of the “stand out” black soldiers of WWII–like the Tuskegee Airmen or naval hero Dorie Miller–he was just a regular soldier.
After Ken Burns’ produced his iconic The War series (amidst allegations of omitting the contributions of Latino soldiers*) I began to imagine there were many men and women, like “aunt” Lil and my father, who never won Medals of Honor during WWII or even got to the front lines, but whose service was nevertheless honorable.
The research that was required of the storytelling was daunting and many times I thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Ultimately, doing the research became an exhilirating treasure hunt.
Long Way Home has romance, conflict, celebration, humor and also detail about the tenor and tone of a segregated Army experience that is a microcosm of the Negro experience in 1940’s America.
* Hundreds of thousands of Hispanics served in the military during WWII; and 13 Hispanic servicemen were awarded the Medal of Honor for their WWII service.
Long Way Home is available as an eBook
updated July 2013 (original post April 2011)
Note: This post was corrected on December 4, 2013. The previous post erroneously listed Ft. Huachuca’s acreage. In actuality, during WWII the base was more than 71,000 acres and today is some 73,000 acres. Thanks to Major General (retired) John M. Custer for the correction.
Two-thirds of my work of fiction, Long Way Home: A World War II Novel is set on a 73,000-acre, army base in southeast Arizona that still operates today as an army installation.
Fort Huachuca has been significant in the training of black soldiers since the late 19th century and during World War II served the largest concentration of African-American (Negro) soldiers.
Nearly one million black soldiers served in WWII and most never faced combat. Long Way Home imagines the daily lives of these men and women, far away from the front lines, whose struggles and triumphs paved the way for America’s civil rights movement.
Available in the Kindle Bookstore.
One of the two, key protagonists in my novel Long Way Home: A World War II Novel (formerly Home Front) is Georgette Lillian Newton a twenty-one year old, North Carolina farm girl who leaves home to become one of only about 6,000 African American members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACS).
The WAACS played an integral and successful role in America’s military presence during World War II but the path to their involvement was a bumpy one. Public opinion about female soldiers was initially negative and the initial bill authorizing the WAACS failed in Congress. It was not until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that American military leadership saw the wisdom of adding new personnel to the war effort.
The law activating the WAACS was passed in May 1942 “for the purpose of making available to the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of the women of the nation.” A recruitment goal of 25,000 was established but enrollment quickly eclipsed that goal and a final ceiling of 150,000 was authorized by Secretary of the War Henry L. Stimson.
The first Director of the WAACS (later shortened to WACS when the corps traded its auxiliary status for a permanent one) was Oveta Culp Hobby, a former War Department employee who advocated for the WAAC Bill. Hobby’s general idea for the WAACS was that they be trained as non-combatants to take on positions that would free a male soldier for battle.
July 20, 1942, 440 women began officer candidate training at Fort Des Moines (over 35,000 women applied for the training). The four-week basic training of the first auxiliaries (enlisted women) began in August. Note: Forty black women trained as officers were placed in a separate platoon. They attended classes and ate with the other officer candidates but base facilities were segregated. Continue reading
The day after our sweet reunion, we boarded a bus to a beautiful port town in Sonora, Mexico. For five days we lounged on the beach in the early morning sun watching the local shrimp boats go out with empty nets and return hours later with nets full, inching their way to the wharf where their fresh catch was unloaded for market. In the afternoons, we explored the beach and the small shops filled with beautiful, handmade crafts painted with brilliant oranges, yellows and blues. At night, we ate wonderful seafood and rice dishes with olives, peppers and blue corn tortillas at outdoor cafes. We drank lots of red wine and enjoyed the wharf lights dancing across the black water.
We laughed with the patrons at one or another of the cafes that lined the village; all of us temporary escapees from the war that held countries on several continents in its grip. We spoke of music and art, we learned of the weather’s impact on the pristine coastline and we showed appreciation for photos of beautiful, brown children and smiling sweethearts with flashing eyes and long, dark hair.
No one held questions in their eyes about two men traveling together and sharing a small apartment with one bed; we were simply accepted.
Excerpt: Long Way Home: A World War II Novel (formerly Homefront)
Cheryl A. Head (NOW AVAILABLE in the Kindle bookstore)
This blog was originally posted in September 2012.
Long Way Home: A World War II Novel (formerly Home Front) is a love story recounting the journeys of self-discovery of a young woman and a young man who also happen to be African American soldiers during World War II.
They don’t face combat (most Negro soldiers never made it to the front lines of WWII) but their daily existence is one filled with heroic acts and small successes in the midst of demoralizing discrimination.
I was surprised when in the pre-dawn hours of half sleep one of my secondary characters nudged me to say: “you know I’m gay, right?” I awoke with a start of ‘what? Oh no!’
The character—Sergeant Moses a tough-as-nails career soldier charged with training Negro recruits—plays a pivotal role in the novel and serves as the reader’s moral compass as he reacts to the second-class treatment of the black soldiers in his care.
All of a sudden, I not only had to deal with how to weave the theme of race relations into my love story, now I was forced to think about what it would mean to be a homosexual soldier in 1943. Remember this is seventy years before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In those days it was more like… don’t dare even think about telling.
I took a couple of days away from the writing to analyze my feelings about this character’s secret and to figure out how my narrative would be affected.
At first I resisted.
This novel is loosely based on my father’s military experience during WWII. Was this
revelation something about him? Was I afraid of what I might find? I also worried about what this theme might mean for the book’s potential audience. I was already busily balancing a military backdrop with a romance narrative and hoping I wouldn’t lose my connection to the women’s market. I was also constantly second guessing about how much weight to give to historical fact in the novel.
Then I remembered the wise words of a teacher in a writer’s workshop…only worry about the writing. So, I let the needs of the story lead me and I started another wave of research. Here’s a fact I discovered: there is very little fiction or non-fiction (other than memoirs) about gays in the military during World War II and nothing about black gays.
Ultimately, I figured out how to use this new information to enrich the novel
Sgt. Moses’ secret (and its revelation in the novel) is a precipitating incident in the coming-of-age journey of one of my protagonists. I used my writer’s imagination to conjure the language characters would use within the story line–endearments between lovers; the words of curiosity, sympathy, hatred and acceptance. Remember, the terms “gay” and “queer” weren’t commonplace in the 1940’s. Even the term, homosexual was
The Lesson for me: Characters are almost always right.
Long Way Home: A World War II Novel is AVAILABLE in the Kindle Bookstore
On June 27, 2012, the Montford Point Marines (the first, black WWII marines) were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony at the U.S. Visitors Center.
Some 20,000 African American Marines received training at Montford Point between 1942 and 1949. More than 400 of them, mostly in their 80’s and 90’s today got their due.
Read more at: The Detroit Free Press
350,000 women served in the military during World War II, of these 150,000 were members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACS) led by the service’s first director, Oveta Culp Hobby.
The eligibility requirements were straightforward: each woman must be a U.S. citizen, 21-45 years of age with no dependents, at least 5 ft. tall and weighing a minimum of 100 pounds.
The service of these women was a critical element of the U.S. war effort. They took on jobs in the military that would free service men to be on the front lines. Primarily they worked in clerical jobs, in medical units, in the motor pool, as radio operators, in military post offices and as cryptographers.
The WAACS were the first of these services to allow Black service women (1942). Forty black women who entered the first WAAC officer candidate class were placed in a separate platoon; most had attended college.
But the transition of women in the military 70 years ago was not easy or smooth. By early 1943, the number of women joining the WAACS dropped dramatically due to a backlash of public opinion against women in the armed forces. 84% of letters received by the families of male soldiers were critical of WAACS.
Still, America’s World War II service women played an important role in the war. Some women served in combat zones, were held as prisoners of war in the Philippines, conducted undercover operations, and sacrificed their lives.
For more information about women in the U. S. military during World War II check out the National Women’s History Museum “Partners in Winning the War” web page at:
And the archive at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro The Betty H. Carver Women Veterans Historical Project at:
An excellent bibliography on the WWII service of black women in the military “We Served America Too” is available at:
- 150,000 WAACs served during WWII; 6,520 African American WAACS
- 35,000 women applied for WAACS officer’s training school
- The first WAAC training center was at Ft. Desmoines training began in 1942..
- Successful service of WAACS led to a permanent corps in 1948 with the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act; but not until the 1970s were women fully assimilated into the army
- 100,000 women were members of the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency)
- The Airforce also had a contingent of women service members called Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASPs.
Cheryl Head’s first novel, Home Front, is the story of two, black World War II soldiers (one a WAAC) serving in a segregated Army base near Tucson, Arizona. It is a love story.