For country and community: Remembering an African American woman from Morristown who served in World War II

"Members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion take part in a parade ceremony in honor of Joan dArc at the marketplace where she was burned at the stake. National Archives Photo, May 27, 1945

Jeffrey V. Moy, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center

When the United States entered World War II following the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor, congressional leaders who lived through World War I realized the need to recruit a large number of women to aid the war effort.

Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts was eager to ensure that those women who served were afforded the same rights and benefits of male soldiers.

Recruitment poster for the Women’s Army Corps. Library of Congress poster. Crandell Bradshaw, artist, 1943

The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp (WAAC) was created on May 14, 1942, “for the purpose of making available to the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of women of the nation.”

The first WAAC training center opened on July 20, 1942, at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, when it welcomed 125 enlisted women and 440 officer candidates; African American women comprised 40 of these candidates.

“Members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion take part in a parade ceremony in honor of Joan of Arc at the marketplace where she was burned at the stake.” National Archives Photo, May 27, 1945

Since recruits were not segregated by race until after completing Officer Candidate School, the training program became an early glimpse into how a desegregated Army might operate.

Of the 35,000 women from across the United States who applied to the WAAC program, only 1,000 were accepted. Among these patriots was Constance Brown, the first African American resident of Morristown to join the WAAC program.

Daily Record article featuring Morristown’s men and women in service at the height of World War II, including Pvt. Constance Brown, the town’s first African American member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. May 15, 1943

Before volunteering, Constance worked as explosives operator at Picatinny Arsenal. Prior to that, she was a school teacher in North Carolina, and a graduate of Winston-Salem Teachers College in NC. Private Constance Brown was not the only member of her family to serve in the military. Her husband, Sgt. James L. Brown, was stationed overseas with the Army.

Lt. Florie E. Gant tends a patient at a prisoner-of war hospital somewhere in England. New legislation eliminated the “Auxiliary” from the WAAC, freeing women from clerical and kitchen assignments in order to perform duties more closely suited to their education and aptitude. National Archives photo. October 7, 1944

In spite of Mrs. Brown’s extensive background in education and ordnance handling, she was initially assigned to the Bakers and Cooks School, where she was instructed on how to prepare large amounts of food to fellow Auxiliary Corp members, with the chance to train at Mess Leader’s School.

Most OCS graduates were assigned to a limited number of jobs, typically baking, clerical, driving, or medical.

“Inspecting a Grumman Wildcat engine on display at the U.S. Naval Training School Bronx, NY.” Apprentice Seaman Frances Bates, pictured. National Archives photo, 1945

Additional legislation introduced in 1943 eliminated the “Auxiliary” status of female volunteers, changing the unit’s name to Women’s Army Corps (WAC), which meant graduates could now serve in support positions overseas that allowed male counterparts to serve combat duty.

Experiences of African American Women in integrated WAAC training units helped pave the way for integrated male units when President Harry Truman desegregated the Army in 1948. Pictured here is a squad of soldiers who rescued a drowning Marine at Iwo Jima, narrowly sacrificing their own lives when their amphibian truck was swamped by heavy seas. National Archives photo, 1945

The new law also granted WAC members the same pay and benefits as servicewomen. Under this system, volunteers like Constance Brown were granted the opportunity to pursue fields more closely aligned with their professional expertise or aptitude. Now women were assigned as weather forecasters, airplane mechanics, radio technicians, instructors, cryptographers, chemical warfare specialists, and many other positions.

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