Nevertheless, in 1943, Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall requested that Congress convert the WAAC from auxiliary status to a full military branch of the Army. The Women's Army Corps was created that year. Enlisted WACs would now have military grades from private through master sergeant, and officers from second lieutenant through lieutenant colonel. The Director of the WAC would be a full colonel. The women of the Corps served under Army regulations and the Articles of War.
During World War II, WACs were assigned to all theaters of operations, from Europe to China, from Australia to the islands of the South Pacific. By the end of the war, over 140,000 women had volunteered for Army duty; some had been wounded in action, and a few decorated for courage under fire.
WACs were allowed to marry if they received proper authorization. But if a WAC serving in the European Theater of Operations married an American military man, one of them was immediately transferred to a distant station. The transfer was meant to discourage romances resulting in pregnancy. In the Far East, a WAC could not marry unless she was pregnant. Any WAC who became pregnant was expected to announce her condition and quickly be processed for discharge on grounds of medical disability.
Remarkably, these stringent conditions, first imposed at the height of World War II, still prevailed in the Women's Army Corps in 1968. A WAC could marry with permission, but not become pregnant and remain in the service.
Nevertheless, I began to think that a few years in the Army would be just the kind of experience I wanted. Still in my early twenties, I expected to be married and a mother eventually, as did many of my peers. But I found the familiar and straightforward military institutions, the comforting certainty of the Army's values, and the unabashed patriotism of such traditions as pausing each afternoon at Retreat to salute the flag as the color guard lowered it for the day, to be more inspiring than the 1960s world of dissidence and negativity. The Army took a lot of guesswork out of life.
And I didn't harbor illusions that the Army was a tranquil refuge. Toward the end of that month, we were bused over to Fort Benning, Georgia, to observe a live-fire exercise at the Infantry School. This famous "Mad Minute" reminded me that the purpose of the Army was fighting and winning battles, and to do so soldiers had to kill the enemy. As we sat in the bleachers behind the sandbagged model battalion defensive position, however, the effect of U.S. Army firepower was overwhelming.
Helmeted soldiers filed into the trenches before us to occupy the bunkers. They began firing with crackling .223 caliber M-16 rifles, first on semiautomatic, then on rippling full-automatic bursts. Then the heavier blast of 7.62mm M-60 machine guns firing slashing orange tracers toward the distant sand hills joined in. Suddenly the cacophony was pounded by the deeper roar of .50 caliber heavy machine guns from the bunkers. Soldiers fired 40mm grenades and 60mm mortars that exploded louder than any Fourth of July fireworks. All the while, the rifle and machine gun fire continued. Then 105mm howitzers cut loose behind us, and the shells ripped by overhead with a metallic groan. Their distant explosions sent out shock waves that struck us like invisible boxing gloves.