The Women of Portland Army Air Base in World War II: Part I, 1941 to 1943

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Wing/Historian's Office

The role of women in service at Portland Air National Guard Base dates back to the activation of the base in 1941.  In military aviation service, in uniform and as civilian employees and citizens, the women at Portland were part of a large-scale mobilization of woman-power to meet the nation’s demands of global conflict in World War II.

With the United States anticipating the possibility of a worldwide conflict in the late 1930s, planners in the Army envisioned a role for women in uniform.  This role was modest at first, a corps of perhaps 11,000 women.  The reality of the mobilization needed for a world war soon rendered such limited plans obsolete.

Massachusetts Representative Edith N. Rogers, however, introduced a bill on 28 May 1941 to establish a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).  The bill did not have War Department support, and floundered in budget hearing as until after Imperial Japan’s attack on Hawaii and the full-fledged entry of the U.S. into World War II.

By the spring of 1942, the bill made its way through Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law on May 15, 1942, thus formally establishing the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).  He set a goal to recruit 25,000 women, and when that goal was quickly achieved, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson increased the authorizations to 150,000 female enlistees.

Women At Portland Army Air Base

In the meantime, women were already serving at Portland Army Air Base (PAAB), from when the base was first established in 1941.  At that time, female civilian personnel were employed in various offices at the base.  For example, Ms. Angela Meyer was the secretary for the first base commander, Colonel Joseph L. Stromme. 

Base officers’ wives met in May, 1941 in Vancouver, Washington and organized the Ladies’ Auxiliary to support the air base community.  Vancouver Barracks was then a key Army installation for the establishment and development of PAAB in many ways, including the accommodation and training of many personnel in the base’s early days.

The American Red Cross established an office on the air base in 1941.  The Red Cross recruited women to serve in the Red Cross Motor Corps (RCMC), something the organization had done during the First World War.  In Portland, RCMC drivers transported servicemen to and from scheduled entertainment events in Portland as well as schooled them in first aid.  These female drivers received training and maintenance support from base transportation personnel.  By the fall of 1941, some 15 women attended weekly classes at the base in motor vehicle driving and maintenance.

In February, 1942, the base’s weekly newspaper, the Pabloid, announced that Mrs. Alma B. Howes was the first Post Librarian.  Mrs. Howes had returned to the US from Shanghai, China in June, 1941 after 20 years in Asia.

In early July, 1942, the base commander’s wife, Mrs. Elma F. Stromme, christened the first Liberty ship to be launched from the new Kaiser Company shipyard in Vancouver, Washington.  This was likely the July 4 launch of the EC2-S-C1 type vessel, US Army Transportation Service (USAT) ship named S. S. George Vancouver.

In August, 1942, Mrs. Eleanor B. Arnold, wife of Commanding General of the Army Air Forces Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, visited Portland Air Base where she was honored with a tea dance at the base officers’ club.  Of note, General Arnold was an enthusiastic supporter of women in uniform to help the war effort.

On January 2, 1943 the wife of Portland’s second base commander, Col Dale D. Fisher, Mrs. Ida M. Fisher, christened the EC2-S-C1 Liberty ship S.S. John W. Weeks for the USAT at Kaiser’s Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation yard in the St. Johns neighborhood of north Portland. 

Women Supporting the Base

Portland area women also supported the base and the personnel stationed there from its earliest days.  They were members of various civic organizations who organized numerous shows, dances and social gatherings for the troops, both on and off-base. 

For example, on Sunday, October 12, 1941 the Junior Daughters of the American Revolution entertained PAAB and other servicemen off-base in a social event featuring dancing and refreshments held aboard the retired battleship USS Oregon (BB-3), then a museum ship on the Willamette River.

Local women were not the only ones to support the base and mission.  Numerous USO and private show troupes came to the base during the war that featured female entertainers.

Hollywood movie star Lana Turner, hometown Wallace, Idaho visited Portland and the air base in June, 1942 while on a war bond tour across western states.

“America’s favorite problem child,” the young actress Jane Withers, a contemporary of Shirley Temple, visited PAAB on September 1, 1943 and entertained personnel with song and dance.

Women in Uniform at Portland

The first women in uniform to serve at Portland also did so early in the base’s existence after its activation as an Army air installation on March 13, 1941.  They were all volunteers for the service, unlike the male draftees of that time, and were both officer and enlisted. 

The women in uniform at Portland Army Air Base served in two capacities.  One was as nurses in the Army Nurse Corps at the station medical detachment/base hospital, and the other was in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).

Although it is unclear exactly when the first female nurse arrived at Portland or who she was, it was no later than the fall of 1941, when the November 19, 1941 issue of the Pabloid made reference to nurses’ quarters on the base.

Fast forward to review of the Christmas program for the PAAB Station Hospital dinner in December 1943 and there it is revealed that by that time a total of 14 women were assigned to the base hospital. 

All but one of these women were nurses.  The senior nurse was 1st Lt. Evelyn M. Hahn, Chief Nurse, and 12 female nurses, all 2Lt’s in the names shown.  One more woman, 2nd Lt. Thelma A. Brown, Diet Corps, was the Hospital Dietician.

In July, 1943 the WAAC became part of the Army rather than just serving with it, with the “A” for Auxiliary being deleted.  The change allowed for deployment of women overseas with legal coverage by the Geneva Convention, benefits if injured as well as pay and privileges equal to men. 

The WAC Arrives at Portland

Members of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) served in other diverse duties on the base as compared to the women working in the station hospital.   They came from about 150,000 women who served in the WAC during World War II – of which about 40,000 served in the U.S. Army Air Forces, the forerunner of today’s United States Air Force.  Compared to other branches of the Army at that time, the USAAF under General Henry “Hap” Arnold was enthusiastic about the use of womanpower.

On the WAC side, base histories from 1943 indicate that WAC female soldiers arrived at Portland in mid-1943.  A roster of base units shows that the 807th WAAC Post HQ Company at Portland Air Base on 9 June 1943, which soon became the 807th WAC Post HQ Company.  “Now that the WAC’s are part of the Army it is noted that there is an increased joining of mixed conversations in the Post Exchange—coffee time has its more interesting side,” recorded the 44th Air Base Squadron history for August, 1943.

Information in the base history indicates that WAC officer presence began at Portland on July 27, 1943, when 1st Lt. Mary F. Witt arrived.  Born in Manila, Philippines, she was commissioned in October, 1942 at Ft. Des Moines.  Promoted to 1st Lt. in December, 1942, she attended the Inspector General’s school and was transferred into the Air Corps on July 22, 1943 and thence to Portland as the commander of the 807th.  Other WAC officers soon followed.

The September 8, 1943 issue of the Pabloid recorded the arrival of 2nd Lt. Marie D. Vater, who became the first woman assigned to the 44th Air Base Squadron.  A native of Enid, Oklahoma, she graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1937. In January, 1941 she earned a private pilot license after completion of the government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program.  She then worked as a civilian employee at Enid Air Field in Oklahoma before she entered the WAC Officer Candidate School at Ft. Des Moines.  After her assignment to PAAB, she was appointed as the Assistant Base Adjutant. 

In October Lt. Vater moved to become the Assistant PX Officer and was replaced by 1st Lt. Ruth McCraw as Assistant Base Adjutant.

Later in October, 2nd Lt. Wilma H. DeMaster joined from Headquarters, Fourth Air Force and assumed duties as Assistant Post Exchange (PX) Officer, and Lt. Vater moved yet again to duty as Library and Theater Officer.

On October 15, 1943 the 807th WAC Post HQ Company was redesignated as the Provisional WAC Detachment. Lt. Witt continued as the WAC commander at Portland.

Enlisted WAC presence at PAAB is noted in the base’s 1943 history when on October 18, 1943 Corporal Anne Seger, Privates Sarah Applebaum, Edna Taylor and Adele Waldman reported for duty with the air base’s weather station, which was successful in gaining the WACs as weather observer trainees. 

On October 27, the provisional status of the WAC unit disappeared as the organization was disbanded.  But that was hardly the end of the WAC presence at PAAB - the WACs were not going anywhere and yet another redesignation led to the establishment of the WAC Detachment.

A short time later, on November 2, a fifth weather WAC, Private Alice E. Caldwell, was assigned.  The WAC weather observer training proceeded well and all performed excellent work; Edna Taylor had the highest mark on the WAC observers’ qualifying test.  By December 19, however, after they had been trained at Portland, these weather WACs were reassigned to McChord Field, Washington.

WAC Numbers Increase

Meanwhile, as the WAC weather observer training took place, more WACs arrived at Portland with a big boost in strength.  November 6 was a “red letter day” when 50 enlisted WACs were assigned to the WAC Detachment at Portland for rations and quarters.

Base personnel were challenged with a G.I. Quiz contest that month and the newest weather WAC, Private Alice Caldwell, won second prize in the contest.

PAAB formally recognized the arrival and performance of its WACs in a review held on December 12, 1943.  By account of the 864th Guard Squadron (formerly the 864th Military Police Company (Aviation) “It was well attended and splendidly performed.  Many civilian visitors were present to witness the spectacle.” 

Corporal Genevieve Washiek was noted as the sole WAC on the roster for personnel of Detachment 6, 854th Signal Service Company (Aviation) on December 31, 1943 when the unit became part of the 44th Base HQ and Air Base Squadron in a base reorganization.

By the end of 1943, PAAB had received a significant boost in personnel strength with the addition of the WACs who began to serve in different functional areas around the base.  This assignment enabled more men to be transferred for service overseas. 

Together with the Army Nurse Corps nurses, the dietician at the station hospital and the female civilian employees and other women who supported the base, the WACs demonstrated the aptitude and interest of American women to volunteer and contribute to the war effort in many meaningful ways. 

To learn more about how they contributed to the wartime mission at PAAB in 1944-1945, look for Part II of this story, to be featured on the 142nd Wing website soon.