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Historical Vignette 016 - Women's Contributions to the Corps of Engineers During World War II

During World War II, women worked outside their homes and in non-traditional occupations in unprecedented numbers. As millions of men and thousands of women entered the armed services, the country faced a shortage of workers needed to maintain a strong economy and support the war effort. While the most famous image of wartime women workers was "Rosie the Riveter," women moved into hundreds of other occupations that formerly had been the preserve of men. Contemporaries recognized this revolution in the world of work and acknowledged the new and critical roles of women in the wartime economy.

In June 1944, the Society of American Military Engineers’ magazine, Military Engineer, published an article on women who worked for the Corps of Engineers on the home front. Titled, "Woman Power in the Corps of Engineers," the article, based on a Corps press release, described the wide variety of jobs filled by women. At that time just over 2,000 women worked in Corps headquarters, then called the Office of the Chief of Engineers (OCE). In 1903, only three women clerks worked in the much smaller OCE, and only 150 worked in OCE just after World War I. Many women remained in clerical positions during World War II, but others moved into new areas. According to the article, "Mary Elizabeth Spies and Dorothy Frye are the first two female mechanical and heating engineers of the Corps."

More than a thousand women worked in other engineer agencies in the Washington, D.C., area. At the Army Map Service (AMS), predecessor of today’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, women worked as photographers, negative cutters, translators, "draftsmen," and "women pressmen." Many worked the swing shift and spent hours on busses and streetcars getting to work. Proving that some things never change, the article noted that "traveling in Washington at any time isn’t fun."

Eleanor Roswell, a graduate geologist, headed a section in the map research group. Before the war an engineer officer filled her job. According to LTC Frederick Mast, executive officer of AMS, Roswell was "as dependable and faithful as any front-line soldier."

Throughout the Corps, women filled jobs that men traditionally held. At the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Engineer Depot, 30 women served as plant guards. Although the article in Military Engineer praised the contributions of women to the war effort, it did not entirely escape the gender stereotyping that characterized the period when it noted that the plant guards "have shown an unusual aptitude for both marksmanship and Judo." In the Portland District a female survey crew measured the contour and depth of the Columbia River channel. The district’s chief survey engineer noted that the work required "intensive accuracy and teamwork," and according to him the female crew had "proved as capable, if not more so, than the men who formerly held these same positions."

After the war, many women returned to working in the home, but during the wartime crisis, women demonstrated that they could perform traditional and non-traditional jobs with skill and dedication. Their contributions to the war effort were critical to the success of the Corps of Engineers and Nation.



 Lucy Barney, Radio and Telegraph Operator on the Mississippi River, for the Vicksburg District  Danella Raworth, Junior Engineering Aide, making hydrometer analysis of soil at the Waterways Experiment Station, Vicksburg, MS


Photographs used with permission of The Military Engineer.

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March 2001