The Women's Naval Reserve of the U.S. Naval Reserve was created in order to enlist and train women for shore duty during World War II, thus releasing men for combat duty at sea. After the success of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), Congress passed the Navy Women's Reserve Act, which was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 30, 1942. This legislation created the Women’s Naval Reserve, popularly known as the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). The first director of the WAVES was Mildred McAfee, president of Wellesley College and later a Navy captain. McAfee was sworn in as a lieutenant commander, the highest rank that women were allowed, and became the first permanent woman officer of the armed forces.
Several colleges offered their facilities as training stations to provide immediate housing, classrooms, dining halls and recreation spaces. The first full-time recruit boot camp for women opened at Naval Training Station, Iowa State Teachers College, Cedar Falls, in December 1942. Courses included Navy ranks and ratings, fleet ships and aircraft, naval traditions and customs, naval history, and physical fitness.
From boot camp, enlisted WAVES went to training schools for yeomen duties at Oklahoma A&M at Stillwater and at Iowa State Teachers College, Cedar Falls. Storekeepers were sent to the University of Indiana at Bloomington, and radio operators to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A few of the specialist ratings earned at naval training schools were aviation machinist, control tower operator, cryptologist, parachute rigger, electrician, storekeeper, printer, operating room technician and pharmacist. There were 34 specialist ratings for women by the wars end.
Once at their duty assignments, housing for WAVES was either in barracks formerly assigned to men or in large-city hotels commandeered by the government for that purpose. Since many of these "hotels" had actually been homeless shelters, hours of scrubbing, painting and furnishing by the first WAVE occupants were required before this housing was considered adequate.
In total, over 100,000 women served as WAVES during World War II at some 900 naval shore facilities. Eighty percent of the mail service for the fleet was handled by WAVES, and 75 percent of the staff members of "Radio Washington," the nerve center of the Navy communication system, were WAVES. Other duties mostly managed by Navy women included logistics support to the fleet, pay and accounting. WAVES staffed at least four stateside aircraft control towers, and many others provided instrument flight training to 4,000 men each day. Women made up 18 percent of the total Navy personnel assigned to shore duty in the United States, filling 27,000 new jobs in the Navy's greatly expanded shore establishment. Their service released an estimated 50,500 men for duty overseas.
With the victory over Japan in September 1945, the Navy Bureau of Personnel moved quickly to demobilize. All WAVES were to be discharged within six months. Meanwhile 444 officers and 1,610 enlisted women were reenlisted while plans were formalized to petition Congress to make women a permanent part of the regular Navy (as opposed to just being part of the reserves). With the July 30, 1948, signing of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act by President Harry S. Truman, WAVES between the ages of 20 and 31 could apply to enter the regular Navy, up to a total strength of 500 officers, 20 warrant officers and 6,000 enlisted.
Arthur W. Radford, a World War II veteran who became a Navy admiral, summed up the WAVES contributions in this way: "Officers and enlisted, women have become so much a part of the Navy that I doubt we could ever get along without them. I hope we never have to."