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The Role of Women in the Korean War

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The Role of Women in the Korean War

Archeologists who study American culture thousands of years from now could be forgiven for concluding that the only consequential, valued or appreciated people in our society were men. After all, the National Mall is full of monuments to gallant male soldiers and founding fathers, but bereft of those that commemorate the role of women in war, politics and diplomacy. Certainly, monuments to important women are there, but they are most often segregated from more popular and heavily-visited memorials. Since women’s participation and sacrifice in all American wars has been well documented over the past half-century, public historians must now re-evaluate the monumental landscape to better acknowledge their role.

The Korean War Memorial sits east of the Lincoln Memorial, just south of the reflecting pool. The memorial’s central figures, cast as statues, are all male soldiers. Those visitors unfamiliar with the history of the war might walk away with the impression that men and only men were central to the war effort. Those who look closer might notice that the memorial does include women, discreetly embossed in the black granite wall backdrop. However, their positions on that wall, designed to better reflect the male statues, reinforces the idea that women played a secondary role in the war. [Reference Link]

The memorial, like many others, does not reflect the sacrifices that women made on the home front. It doesn’t adequately acknowledge their crucial roles as medics, caretakers, logisticians, and communications operators, and it certainly doesn’t portray them in combat.

The reality was that during the Korean War, there were 120,000 women on active duty. A third of them were healthcare providers. Others stepped up when their country called on them, volunteering for service in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), Women in the Air Force (WAF), Navy Women’s Reserves and Women Marines.

Women’s presence in the armed forces became more culturally acceptable after Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act in 1948, just two years before the outbreak of hostilities in Korea. The act allowed women to serve as permanent members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force for the first time in American history. Air Force nurses played a crucial role in evacuating injured soldiers from battle zones in Korea, triaging their wounds and facilitating communications with loved ones back home.

Many women served in Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH), on MEDEVAC aircraft, and on hospital ships. Others served in military hospitals in various parts of the United States. Countless women held down their households while their husbands went to war, or took the places of men in the workforce. Eighteen died during the Korean War in service to their country. [Reference Link]

Shirley Gates McBride was one of the 120,000 female soldiers who contributed mightily to the U.N. war effort in Korea. She remembers taking care of wounded soldiers while serving at Pennsylvania’s Valley Forge Army Hospital: “I remember one guy. He was a pianist, and they were trying to repair his hand so he could play the piano again… We saw a lot… I saw soldiers that came in [with] part[s] of their bodies missing.” She recalled that at Valley Forge, the army treated women the same as men. “[We got] the same pay. You were not a female soldier, you were a soldier. And, you were a ‘corpsman’, not a ‘corpswoman.’ It was ‘yes, ma’am and ‘no, ma’am,’ and ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir.’” [Video: Shirley Gates McBride]

Dottie Harris also served valiantly in the war. Dottie was born in Verona, Pennsylvania in 1931. She enlisted in the Air Force when she was nineteen years old, and was stationed at James Connally Air Force Base in Waco, Texas during the war. There, she served as an Airman First Class Sergeant. Dottie remembers that most of the men on the base accepted her and were respectful, but some thought that she shouldn’t be there. But regardless of those tensions, Dottie recalls a playful atmosphere at times between men and women. Even snowball fights between men and women broke out on occasion! [Video: Dottie Harris – From Khaki to Air Force Blue]

In basic training, Dottie lived with four other women in a tiny barracks that was suffocatingly small. Each women had only 28 inches of open hanging space. “It was just as if someone came in and put a rod up and divided it down the middle… It was just no good.”

Doris Porpiglia served in the Army, earning the rank of Private First Class. In charge of communications at a military post office, she relayed messages between commanding officers and ensured that they received their mail in a timely manner. Other women drove Jeeps for officers and worked as switchboard operators.

Doris was asked about how her family felt about her being in the military. Her parents and immediate family were proud of her. They were all for it. But when she told her aunt that she had enlisted, her aunt sneered, “Ladies don’t do such things.” Not one to easily back down, Doris replied, “I am more of a lady than you’ll ever be!” Her aunt didn’t bother her after that. [Video: Doris Porpiglia – Ladies Don’t Do Such a Thing]

Patricia Johnson of Sterling, VA was a recruiter for the Navy during the Korean War. She believes that women’s participation in the war was one factor that led to women’s advancement in the broader society: “Women were getting out there and we wanted to do more than just administration and personnel… “During that time, we had the first woman chaplain… and of course, there were doctors… [and] one of the first few women civil engineers.” [Reference Link]

In the future, how will we commemorate the sacrifices of both men and women in combat? How will we acknowledge the sacrifices made by children? By African-Americans? By other groups that earlier generations have marginalized? To write complete histories of wars, we must begin by recognizing the contributions of all of those involved, regardless of gender, race, class, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation or religion.