435. Women in World War II Naval Aviation

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Level: Hangar Deck

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During World War II, women were essential to naval aviation. A few women made headlines as test pilots. Thousands more worked in factories building planes or served in the U.S. Navy as WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service).

Video: Women in World War II Naval Aviation

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Collection Connection

Booklet cover featuring two men and two women with light skin in Navy and Marines uniforms. Text reads: “We keep ‘em flying. N. A. Tech. Tra. Cen., Memphis, Tenn.” A plane patrols the sky in the background.
Naval Air Technical Training Center Booklet

The Naval Air Technical Training Center (NATTC) opened in 1942 to meet the growing demand for skilled aviation machinists’ mates, aviation ordnancemen and aviation radiomen. This booklet depicts the work of WAVES and Women Marines who worked and trained on site. WAVES are shown training male aviation radioman recruits, drilling, and enjoying recreation time on base.

Collection of the Intrepid Museum. A00.2011.287

Learn More: Women in the Navy during World War II

Over 100,000 women served in the U.S. Navy as WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) during World War II. The Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, responsible for aviation, was essential in founding the WAVES. When the Navy rejected the idea of a Women’s Reserve, Aeronautics called on allies in Congress and public life to network in Washington. Congress established the WAVES in 1942. 

At least 23,000 women served in the Bureau of Aeronautics. Women in aviation served in challenging technical jobs, including gunnery, radio and radar, flight instruction, aircraft maintenance, metalsmithing and pigeon training. 

The women recruited to the WAVES were overwhelmingly white. Asian American, Native American and Hispanic women could serve, but the Navy did not allow Black women to join until 1944. Because of stricter recruiting standards, WAVES were older and better educated than the average male sailor. WAVES were paid equally to male sailors but did not receive the same family benefits. 

WAVES earned high praise, even from skeptics. Though they made up just 2% of the Navy by 1945, they were the majority of the workforce within critical areas of aviation, administration and research. The Navy abandoned its plan to discharge all women at the end of the war. Instead, in 1948, Congress made women’s service in the U.S. military permanent.

World War II WAVES served with distinction on the ground, but the U.S. Navy rejected efforts to put women in the air. The Navy did not permit women to serve as pilots until 1972. 

In the early 1970s, public pressure and labor shortages led the Navy to reconsider its policy towards female pilots. The first class of female aviators began flight training in 1973, opening a new era in naval aviation. 

Congressional regulation prevented women from flying in combat. Therefore, the first female pilots learned to fly non-combat aircraft, including helicopters and transport planes. Even so, by the early 1990s, some women aviators had flown combat jets and completed carrier qualification training. 

The expanded role for women in the air created more opportunities for enlisted women. In 1972, only 700 enlisted women worked in aviation. By 1990, that figure increased more than tenfold, to 7,700. 

In 1993, Congress repealed restrictions on women in combat. The Navy could now assign women to duty on aircraft carriers. Women pilots were quickly dispatched to combat training, and mixed-gender carrier crews set sail in 1994. 

In 2021, Amy Bauernschmidt assumed command of USS Abraham Lincoln, becoming the first woman to captain an aircraft carrier.

Panel Photo: This is a description of the image printed on the panel for this stop at the museum.

Photo description: A comic book-style panel of a woman in pilot gear. She sits in the cockpit of a Grumman F6F Hellcat plane. The caption reads: “WHAT? A woman flying a “Hellcat” fighter? Yes, and Teddy Kenyon can handle ‘em—from wing-overs to check-dives! Here, she’s giving a new plane its preliminary ground check.”

Caption: Panel from a Camel cigarette advertisement, 1944.

Credit: Museum Purchase. 2011.33


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