WAF's: Not your ordinary woman

  • Published
  • By Mr. Richard Shea
  • 49th Fighter Wing Historyoffice
During the United States Air Force's infancy, leadership perceived their new branch of service as the military elite. This elitism evolved from the Army Air Force's involvement with breaking technology at the time (1947), thereby causing Air Force leaders to apply the same sense of elitism to the women who would soon be associated with the newest military branch of service.

The Air Force had become familiar with women serving in the military during its days as the Army Air Corps and Army Air Force. Yet, the new Women in the Air Force (WAF) would be just that - integrated into the Air Force, not separate like the WASPs, WAACs, WACs and WAVEs had previously been.

Integration did not happen overnight and acceptance was slow. Faced with day-to-day decisions, males trained in Army traditions found old habits hard to break. They instinctively thought of women as a separate category of people. More often than not, women were referred to as the "Women's Air Force" or "Women's Corps." Additionally, rather than being referred to as Air Force officers or enlisted women, they were referred to as "WAF officers" or "WAF airmen."

Adding to that, the restrictions placed on women in regard to their career choices proved stifling. Of the 43 Air Force career fields within the Air Force system, Air Force leadership concluded 13 were to be "fully" suitable for women, 14 were determined to be "partially" suitable for women and 16 were determined to be "unsuitable" for women. Most of the career fields open to women, at the time, were either administrative or nursing.

After integration, the question of how exactly to administer WAFs at base level created more discussion and disagreement than any other subject relating to the WAF program. Before becoming a separate service, the enlisted women were assigned to Air-WAC squadrons, but performed duty in other units such as supply squadrons, communications squadrons and the base hospital. Except for performance appraisals ratings, the Air-WAC commander, a female, had complete responsibility for the administration and management of women. The fledgling Air Force adapted a similar system, whereby WAFs were assigned to their duty organization, but attached to a WAF squadron for housing, guidance, counseling, discipline, health, welfare and off-duty supervision.

Serious consideration had been given to the abolishment of the WAF program in 1961. However, with the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, the status of Women in the Air Force began to greatly accelerate and on Aug. 1, 1971, Holloman AFB noted the arrival of its first WAF.

Airman 3rd Class Janet Mason, a supply services specialist with an AFSC of 61130, arrived at Holloman's front gate. A supply services specialist in 1971 is what we know today as a lodging specialist. One can only imagine what ran through her mind as she began her in-processing - being the only WAF in the middle of the desert.

By Sept. 30, 1971, Holloman had 15 WAFs. The question of where exactly to house these women had not yet been decided and wouldn't be until Col. Jack Bellamy, 49th Tactical Fighter Wing commander, returned from Crested Cap sometime in early October. Until then, they were housed in the Visiting Officer Quarters.

After Colonel Bellamy's return, it was decided that one of the oldest buildings on base - building 331 - would serve as the WAF barracks, housing a total of 89 WAFs. As one of Holloman's oldest buildings, 331 was already in need of repairs. Housing WAFs there would require even more extensive renovations. A few of the renovations required were reconfiguring the rooms, as they were somewhat small for two individuals, the latrines would need to be equipped with bathtubs rather than showers and kitchenettes needed to be installed.

It wasn't until Oct. 1, 1971, that Holloman's WAF Squadron was established, 60 days after the arrival of Airman Mason. Maj. Fay McCormick served as the temporary WAF squadron section commander. She not only was the first WAF squadron section commander, but continued to work her primary function as the Chief of Military Personnel at Holloman.

On 14 February 1972, 1st Lt. Janis Goicoechea took command of the squadron, assisted by WAF Squadron first sergeant, Master Sgt. Leona Davis. At the time of Lieutenant Goicoechea' command the squadron had increased to 67 women.

While the number of Air Force women continued to climb, more non-traditional women's career fields began to open their doors. Women were now working side by side with their male counterparts. The first woman to integrate into a non-traditional AFSC at Holloman was Airman 1st Class Sylvia Stallings, when she became the first WAF member of the 49th Security Police Squadron April 4,l 1972. By the end of 1973, having shown their abilities and capabilities, WAFs served side by side with men in scientific, engineering, biological, communications, weather, electronics, data automation and many other career fields.

The years 1973 and 1974 proved to be pivotal years for the WAF program as it amassed a strength of 19,767 women, with 1,394 serving as line officers. Along with the AFSC breakthrough, 1974 proved a pivotal timeframe for WAFS assigned to Holloman as well.

The Crested Cap '73 exercise marked the first time women were allowed to participate as seven WAFs deployed with the wing. Women participated in intramural sports with the squadron they worked with as opposed to participating as a member of the WAF Squadron.

Despite the breakthroughs women were making, problems did arise. Morale problems became apparent on Holloman's flightline. For those who work on Holloman's summertime flightline, we all know how miserably hot it gets and the first thing most do is shed that BDU blouse! The WAFs stationed at Holloman in 1974 were not allowed to discard their fatigue blouse even though their male counterparts were.

Through it all, WAFs persevered and overcame. So much so, that by May 1975, the Air Force felt confident enough to fully integrate women into the regular active-duty Air Force, ending a tumultuous, yet proud and enduring, chapter of women's military history. Today, women comprise nearly 20 percent of the active-duty Air Force, honing their skills in previously "untouchable" career fields like that of fighter pilots and group and wing commanders, continuing the legacy left to them.

Historical women firsts ... Timeline