An Important Moment for Military Women
Women’s Armed Services Integration Act
Prior to the Korean War, women served in the US armed forces for brief periods, but returned to domestic life in peacetime. Based on their vital contributions during World War II, the Army requested full permanent military status for women. On June 12, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act authorizing women to serve permanently in all military branches, including the newly-formed US Air Force. The legislation, however, limited women to only two percent of the total force.
Women’s roles remained limited during Korean War operations. Female medical air evacuation nurses of the USAF Nurse Corps were the only women permitted to serve in the Korean battle zone. The remainder of Women in the Air Force (WAF) carried out various support roles at rear-echelon bases in Japan, including air traffic control, weather observation, radar operation, and photo interpretation. In June 1953, the number of WAFs serving in Japan peaked at 600 while total WAF strength worldwide reached 12,800 female officers and enlisted personnel.
First Director: Women in the Air Force
Geraldine Pratt May transferred from the Women’s Army Corps to become the first Women in the Air Force Director in June 1948, on a reserve commission. As director, May was promoted to colonel, becoming the first woman in the Air Force to hold the rank. As the top Air Force woman, she advised the Chief of Staff, Air Staff, and commanders on plans and policies for integrating women into the regular and reserve forces.
Each service maintained a women’s branch after the signing of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. Colonel May is seated to the right of the other services’ womens branch directors.
First Woman in the Air Force
Staff Sergeant Esther M. Blake was the first woman in the Air Force. Enlisting the first minute of the first hour of the first day the Air Force authorized women’s participation, she remained on active duty until 1954.
Sergeant Blake served almost 10 years in the military during World War II and the Korean War. Initially spurred to join the US Army Air Forces when both of her sons were listed as missing in action, she remained in the military due to her strong sense of patriotism.
Follow the Story of Jacqueline Cochran
After World War II, Jacqueline Cochran remained with the military as an officer in the Air Force Reserve and Civil Air Patrol. She served as a special consultant to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force on Women in the Air Force (WAF) issues. She also returned to her passion of racing, competing, and shattering aviation records. During the years following the war, she broke numerous records. On May 18, 1953 at Edwards Air Force Base, California, Cochran flew an F-86 Sabre into a high-speed dive breaking the sound barrier twice in one day, officially becoming the fastest woman alive.