In 1942 Mildred McAfee took a leave of absence from serving as president of Wellesley College to become the first director of the organization that would become the WAVES. Congress passed enabling legislation for women to serve in the Navy in July of that year. The law specified a top rank of lieutenant commander, and at 42 McAfee was young enough to fit the age bracket. In the following excerpt from her U.S. Naval Institute oral history, she describes some of her early on-the-job challenges.
My understanding is that the Navy resisted very much the whole idea of having women in the service, but then they began to see that the manpower shortage might prevent their doing some of the things they needed to do. This was a case of the nation being at war and men being drafted. Everything was revised, and here was a very direct way in which a woman could get into something that was really going to further the war effort. Congress decided to establish it on a different basis from the one tried earlier for the Army—as a women’s auxiliary corps. Our women were going to be in the Navy and under the control of the naval officials.
The name of our group evolved fairly early in the process. I was extremely high-minded about this. I said I thought they should just be known as women in the services and called by their ranks. That was until I saw a headline in a Washington newspaper early in the summer; I think it was just after the legislation had passed. It said, “Goblettes Come to Town,” a takeoff on referring to Navy men as “gobs.” At that time there was a classification called VS—Volunteer Specialist—for reserve officers who’d come right from civilian life into the Navy. We added a W for women, making it WVS. That could be either Waves, Wives, or Wolves, and Waves seemed to be appropriate for the Navy. Then they attached the words: “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.”
One issue that came up had to do with the stockings worn with our uniforms. The Chief of Naval Personnel, Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, went to Canada and there saw some British WRNS [Women’s Royal Naval Service]. The byproduct of that visit was his absolute insistence that the Navy women of America must wear black stockings, because they looked so handsome as the British women marched past him on review. So we had to fight that battle.
We were determined not to give in, because at the time black stockings were simply not being worn by American women. The only ones I could find were the sheerest of sheer things, suitable for a nightclub. They would have worn out in half a day. But I was making no dent at all on the admiral, even though his wife and daughter were protesting on my behalf. Finally, he said that at dinner the night before he was seated next to a man who told him that the same chemical used for the dye in black stockings was needed for ammunition of some sort. So, rather than jeopardize the war effort, he would allow us to wear tan stockings.
The Bureau of Personnel was the organization that would administer the WAVES, and Admiral Jacobs finally got, I think, really excited about it. He kind of felt that he was the grandfather of the whole thing, and he was very helpful. But my impression was that the Bureau of Aeronautics, headed by Rear Admiral John Towers, was even more eager and wanted very much to get women in quickly.
After I’d been there for certainly weeks, if not months, I went to Admiral Jacobs and said, “It seems to me a little bit funny that we aren’t finding out what people want women to do, instead of just getting women trained to do something.” He said, “I think you’re right,” and he arranged for me to visit the chiefs of all the various bureaus. When I got to Admiral Towers, I was perfectly astonished at the violence with which he spoke, saying, “Where have you been all this time? We’ve been clamoring for these WAVES, and nobody’s ever listened to us to know who we want.”
Starting as a lieutenant commander was a disadvantage in a way, because I learned that rank is so important. Admiral Jacobs’ door was open to me any time I wanted it, but I’ve often thought he didn’t make it very plain outside the Bureau of Personnel what the relationship of this strange new thing was going to be to the rest of the Navy. A man from Marshall Field’s department stores was brought in to help reorganize the bureau, and I suggested calling some men in to talk things over. At Wellesley I had telephoned people, and they came to see me. He said, “Miss McAfee, you go to see them.” That was my introduction to rank. I used to say that my function was to be the dangling link on the chain of command—to make enough noise so that things could get done.
This excerpt is from Captain McAfee Horton’s interview with the U.S. Naval Institute’s oral historian, John T. Mason Jr., on 25 August 1969. The oral history also included an interview the following day.The U.S. Naval Institute’s Oral History Program has collected, organized, and indexed the recollections of prominent naval servicemen and servicewomen since 1969. To learn more about Naval Institute oral histories, visit the program’s web page here.