A forgotten Great War tale

With today being International Women’s Day, there is no better time to point out a forgotten story in the U.S. Navy’s Great War experience, one that would echo across future conflicts.

While the role of female Navy nurses and the wartime Yeomen (F) program of WWI often get a lot of play— and for good reason– there were other women suiting up to do hard work for Uncle during 1917-19 that weren’t changing bandages or pushing paper.

Nearly 600 Yeomen (Female) were on duty by the end of April 1917, a number that had grown to over 11,000 in December 1918, shortly after the Armistice.

U.S. Naval Gun Factory, Washington Navy Yard, District of Columbia: Panoramic photograph of the Gun Factory’s Clerical Force employees, posed in front of the north face of the Commandant’s Office (Building 1), with the east addition of Building 76 behind them, circa 1918-1919. Note a large number of Yeomen (F) and female civilian employees, who make up about 2/3 of the assembly, as well as the two banners, one featuring the Naval Gun Factory emblem and the other its seal. Panoramic photograph by Schutz NH 105074

Following in the wake of the one-two punch that was conscription for the great new Army of the U.S. and rapid expansion of U.S. factories for war production, able-bodied young women stepped forward and went to work.

In Connecticut alone– home to giant firearms concerns like Colt, Marlin and High Standard– no less than 86,991 women joined the workforce by 1918.

Yup, odds are, those iconic Great War-era Colt M1911s were made by a woman.

The Navy also was no shirker when it came to signing up female factory workers to help kick the Kaiser.

Naval Aircraft Factory, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Female worker planing a woodblock in the panel department, 16 August 1918. NH 2662

Naval Aircraft Factory, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Female worker filing dirigible frames, 5 February 1919. NH 2660

Navy Yard, Portsmouth New Hampshire. Female employee caulks boats, October 1918. NH 46516

Navy Yard, Portsmouth New Hampshire. Cargo nets are manufactured by female employees, October 1918 NH 46514

Navy Yard, Portsmouth New Hampshire. Female power press operators on duty, 1918. NH 46508

Navy Yard, Portsmouth New Hampshire. Female operating the power presses, October 1918. NH 46512

Navy Yard, Portsmouth New Hampshire. Female sheet metal operators manufacturing bread pans for mess use, October 1918. NH 46517

Navy Yard, Portsmouth New Hampshire. Female employees assembling electrical fixtures. October 1918. Note: flags and SecNav portrait NH 46510

Navy Yard, Portsmouth New Hampshire. A female operator on bending press. C. 1918. NH 46518

So while, yes, nurses and yeomen helped in the war effort for Mr. Wilson, the weapons, accessories, aircraft and ships produced by American women likely endured in many cases on to the next World War and beyond. For example, there are still WWI-era M1911s in the Army’s stockpiles in Anniston.

Remember that whenever someone says that they just don’t make them like they used to.

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