Soon after our country became immersed in World War II, Congress decided to allow women in the military. The decision changed thousands of lives, and it placed Des Moines at the center of that groundbreaking movement. A gathering back in 2000 presented an opportunity to salute members of the Women's Army Corps whose military strengths helped win a war.
Hoisington: Every woman in the country wanted to do something for the war effort. Well, every person in our country wanted to do something, and I think that's what motivated them to begin with.
Narrator: It was the first enlistment of women in the Army. In 1942 the very first boot camps and officers' training camps for women were held in Iowa, Fort Des Moines, to be specific. First called Auxiliary and then just plain Women's Army Corps, the WACs came to Iowa in waves. They wanted to help win a war.
Morden: There was such a great feeling of patriotism throughout the whole country after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Meh: It was an exciting time. We were unique in what we were doing.
Dozier: Well, it was special because we were working all for the same thing, that was to get the war over, get the men back, and begin our life again.
Narrator: Boot camp for the first women was just like boot camp for men. In fact, the first groups of women were trained by the men.
Courbat: And it was hard. I was training at Fort Des Moines when there was four feet of snow on the ground. We had to get up in the morning and get out and march. It was cold.
Narrator: So many women enlisted that Fort Des Moines didn't have enough room to house them. Horse stables became barracks and a quickly built boomtown grew on the army grounds. But even then local hotels and college dorms were commandeered. Soon it was a common sight to see cadets in army brown skirts marching to class through downtown streets.
Mcgary: Well, they just stopped the traffic just like you would for a parade, and we marched at Fort Des Moines and downtown. Whenever anyone came through, we were kind of a novelty, and so we got out and we marched and paraded and this was it.
Johnson: Someone got the bright idea that we take calisthenics. So we marched down towards the state capitol to a vacant lot down there, a parking lot or something, and did calisthenics. The first morning we had a little audience from the warehouses across the way. The second morning the audience grew. The third morning the audience grew even larger. So we finally decided we were not there to entertain those men in those warehouses or whatever they were, so we put up a little protest. And then they said no more, we didn't have to march down there and do calisthenics. But we did them on the sixth floor of the Savery Hotel.
Narrator: The Savery was one of five local hotels that became a military barracks, but it's the only one still standing. It was the hotel's 125th anniversary that spawned this celebration of WAC history. Many of the 50 guests had not been back to Iowa since 1942. Back then the lobby was the mess hall and the food was army food, not flambé. Back then the women were marching, not saluting the colors from the sidelines. And back then, in between training courses and K.P., the thousands of off-duty servicewomen brought vitality back to a downtown still weary from the depression years. Restaurants like babes were swinging.
Bisignano: Well, I’ll tell you, there's an old saying, you know, if the women are there, the men will follow. The whole town was mostly people in the service. And the officers even recommended our place. They'd say, "I can't tell you where to go but I’ll tell you where we go." so, you know --
Narrator: But mostly the women were in Des Moines to learn army life. After their coursework, they took noncombatant jobs, priding themselves in helping send more men to the front. While this wasn't universally appreciated by those men, it was understood. WACs started out as secretaries, switchboard operators, and office workers, but soon women were stepping into almost all areas of army life.
Bozac: That's my picture. This is the first company that went overseas.
Narrator: Carmen Bozak's unit was assigned to work with General Eisenhower, and one woman in her unit drove his jeep.
Glenn: We were stationed in a manor house, and we were working on a very secret -- top secret British camp. See, we were over there for the buzz bombs, the B-2s and all. It was very -- it wasn't a holiday but it was interesting.
Narrator: The women attending this celebration can look back almost sixty years and see how their trip through the Army via Des Moines changed their lives. Most of them say it was one of the most important experiences they've had.
Morden: I never knew I was a leader or had any leadership abilities, you know.
Mcgary: Well, I learned I could give people orders. I suppose I wasn't very confident about that before. But you could contribute. You could do something.
Narrator: While the acceptance of women into the Army had been a breakthrough, there was still more work to be done. In 1942 the military still segregated all black women and men, so for some WACs, the lessons they learned while serving their country were hard won and lessons learned despite their treatment in the army.
Dozier: Well, really, like I said, if anyone insulted you or talked down to you, you'd take it in stride, you'd walk away. Sometimes you would correct them or say something back. Most of the time you just overlook it. You learn how to live that way.
Narrator: Besides desegregation, perhaps one of the biggest changes since the 1940s is that the nation is not unified behind the military as it once was. So the women welcomed words of praise that rose up during the celebration, words that included letters of praise from journalists Tom Brokaw and Walter Cronkite, politicians, and military leaders.
We finally say thank you to the members of America’s great generation who during the war did nothing less than help save the world.
Narrator: Miss America 2000, Heather French, delivered her message in person.
French: And so today I thank you not only as soldiers but for being strong women and for being great role models for young women like myself.
Narrator: For Hilda Johnson, the tribute to the WACs at the Hotel Savery meant that a subtle, unspoken barrier had finally been crossed.
Johnson: I felt like we finally had closure when we went to the dedication of the Women's Memorial in Washington, D.C., a couple of years ago. And I decided that now it brings closure. Now we are accepted after fifty years. And then coming here was not only acceptance but icing on the cake.