Today in Women’s Transportation History – 1917: The US Navy Gets a New Rating

A memo to U.S. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels from Rear Admiral L.C. Palmer, chief of the Bureau of Navigation  (the office within the Navy Department that handled personnel matters), helped set into motion the unprecedented enlistment of women to perform various responsibilities for that military branch – including those that involved transportation. With the ever-increasing likelihood that the United States would soon be drawn into World War I on the side of the Allied Powers, there were strong concerns within the Navy Department about being able to fill a wide range of positions when servicemen went overseas to carry out combat duties. Civilian employees in the federal government were deemed an inadequate solution to this looming personnel shortage, in large because they could not be deployed as quickly and flexibly as those serving in the Navy. In addition, civil servants were not subject to military discipline and rules.

Palmer’s March 7 memo offered a new and decidedly novel staffing option for Daniels to consider: recruiting women to join the Navy to fill all those vacant positions on the home front. (Up to this time, women had been able to serve in the Navy only as nurses.) As someone who had long supported the expansion of rights and roles for women in American society, Daniels did not flinch from Palmer’s recommendation and instead wholeheartedly embraced it. In ascertaining the legal authorization for enrolling women in the Navy to perform a wide range of tasks, Daniels seized upon   the U.S. Naval Reserve Act of 1916 and specifically its provision that “all persons who may be capable of performing special useful service for coastal defense” could be enrolled in the Naval Coast Defense Reserve Force. “Nothing can be found which would prohibit the enrollment of women,” noted Daniels in his response to Palmer. “On the contrary, it is believed their enrollment was contemplated.”

A dozen days after Palmer wrote his history-making memo to Daniels, the Bureau of Navigation notified the commandants of all naval districts to enroll women “in the ratings of Yeoman, Electrician (radio), or in such other ratings as the Commandant may consider essential to the District organization.” By the time the official U.S. entry into World War I took place on April 6 with a declaration of war on Germany, a large number of women had already joined the ranks of the Navy as yeomen. These women – popularly known as “yeomanettes” – were formally designated as yeomen ( F), with the F standing for female and added to distinguish them from their male counterparts performing similar duties.

Ultimately, more than 11,000 women served in the role of yeoman (F) during World War I. As part of their military service, they each had to study the Bluejacket’s Manual (the basic handbook for Navy personnel) and Naval Regulations. They were also expected to familiarize themselves with the nomenclature of Navy ships. Beyond fulfilling these requirements, a considerable number of the yeomen (F) took on duties directly involving the maintenance and welfare of Navy vessels. Many of these women worked on a daily basis at navy shipyards, for example. At least one yeoman (F) routinely received and double-checked bills sent to the Navy Department for ship repair costs, while another yeoman (F) worked in the vicinity of Norfolk, Virginia, with patrol boat crews of the Fifth Naval District.

Yeoman (F) Marion Porter Taylor’s responsibilities included receiving and processing classified ship movement reports transmitted from vessels in the Atlantic Ocean. Yeoman (F) Lillian Budd, for her part, wrote down messages from naval ships and commands in shorthand and then delivered these messages directly to President Woodrow Wilson.

The transportation-oriented work done by yeomen (F) during the war was not restricted to only seafaring means of mobility, as confirmed by the experience of Yeoman (F) Estelle Kemper. She was assigned to the supply section of the Division of Aeronautics of the Navy Department’s Bureau of Steam Engineering. “The Bureau of Steam Engineering had charge of building ships’ engines, so a Division of Aeronautics had been added which supervised building gasoline engines, propellers and incidental equipment for the ships of the air,” she explained. Her job, she recalled, “was to keep aeroplane parts flowing to the factories where planes were being assembled, and to our naval air stations and bases at home and abroad as spare parts to keep our planes flying.”

In these ways and others, yeomen (F) made vital contributions to the U.S. victory during World War I and helped pave the way for increased military service opportunities for American women in the time since. Daniels proclaimed, “When the Navy Department asked for recruits . . . it was only a question of which ones to choose, so many responded – clear-eyed, eager, wonderful women, ready for any task allotted them . . . They worked unceasingly, untiringly.”

The last known Yeoman (F) was Charlotte Louise Berry Winters, who died in 2007 at the age of 109.  “She and her shipmates answered the call when the nation needed them most,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, chief of naval operations, at the time of her death. “They worked hard. They struggled. They persevered, and they set a shining example.”

For more information on the women who served as yeomen (F) during World War I, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yeoman_(F) and https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/wars-conflicts-and-operations/world-war-i/people/historical-overview-of-yeoman-f.html.

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