GI GLAMOUR: BARBARA GATES AND THE WOMEN’S ARMY CORPS
In 1944, Barbara Gates (1916-1980) of Las Vegas, NV enlisted in the Women’s Army Corp (WAC). Barbara was a longtime Las Vegas resident and graduated from Las Vegas High School in 1933. Prior to enlisting, Barbara had worked at Basic Magnesium Inc., in Henderson, NV making magnesium for the war effort. After enlistment and training, Barbara was stationed at Patterson Airfield working in the personnel office. Barbara went overseas in 1945 as a secretarial clerk serving in the Pacific Theater in Dutch New Guinea and then the Philippines where she witnessed the aftermath of the Battle of Manila. For many, WWII was a time of great anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. However, for Barbara, the war opened many opportunities that would not have been available to her at the time. Gate’s early wartime experiences tell a uniquely Las Vegas home front story while her service in the WAC help illuminate the quintessential experience of war affording women more opportunities.
Before she joined the WAC, Barbara worked at Basic Magnesium Inc. in Henderson, NV. At the time, Basic Magnesium was the largest Magnesium plant of its kind. The plant was placed in Henderson, NV due to its proximity to Lake Mead, Hoover Dam, and Gabbs, NV where the raw materials for Magnesium was mined. During the War, Basic Magnesium was a major employer in the Las Vegas area; around 13,000 men and women worked at the plant. While Gate’s experiences at Basic Magnesium were no doubt formative, it was her experience in the WAC that allowed her to expand and experience new realities.
In 1941,U.S. Representative Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts introduced a bill that would create a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) to help with the war effort. Rogers was inspired by witnessing the status of women who helped during WWI, and she wanted to ensure that women who took part in the new war effort would do so with the rights and benefits of soldiers. The bill was passed in 1942 after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Only 1,000 positions were created for women to go to the WAAC Training Center at Fort Des Moines, Iowa for which 35,000 women applied. Women in the WAAC were not governed by Army regulations or Articles of War resulting in women not being eligible for overseas pay, government life insurance, and in the event of their death their parents would not be able to collect the militaries death gratuity.
While the WAAC had originally exceeded recruitment goals, by the middle of the war recruitment fell due to attitudes within the army, unequal rights with men, and the availability of a variety of higher paying civilian jobs. In 1943, Representative Edith Nourse Rogers introduced a bill that would allow enlistment and commissioning of women in the Army of the United States or Reserve forces. When this was passed, it allowed the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps to drop the Auxiliary and become the Women’s Army Corp. This allowed women the same rank, privileges, and benefits of male soldiers as well as the opportunity to serve overseas thereby eliminating the disparities that existed when the WAAC was first created.
While serving in the WAC, Barbara sent letters home to her parents in Las Vegas, NV. She explained her day-to-day life and went into detail about the clothing, makeup, hairstyles, and physical requirements that were mandatory for enlisted women. Barbara wrote about the type of clothing issued to her, how ill-fitting some of it was, and how much work went into keeping it clean and presentable. WAC’s were paid fifty dollars a month, but Barbara wrote much of that went to tailoring costs. Barbara frequently drew pictures of her clothing on letters home so her parents could visualize what she was describing. In one letter she drew a new kitchen duty uniform, writing “I’ll look like Rosie, the Riveter, without her snood” and named the look “GI Glamour.”
While Gate’s did spend much attention in her letters home to all the new clothing she was wearing, she also deftly related all the exciting new things the experienced as part of the WAC. Barbara writing shows a women excited for all the possibilities the war brought. She was able to travel outside of Las Vegas, learn new skills working in the personnel office, met other women from all over the United States, and was able to serve alongside men in the military. Gate’s service also allowed her to go overseas and serve in the Pacific theater, something she actively encouraged the military to let her do and would not have been possible without the legislation introduced by Representative Edith Nourse Rogers. For other women, particularly those in countries who saw active fighting, the war was a time of great fear. For Barbara, it allowed her to expand her experiences, see the world, and make new friends…. all while maintaining “GI Glamour.”
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JUNE 24 – DECEMBER 31, 2023
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