The Curious Question of the Low-Grade Manpower

During my research into the WAC/WAAC, I ran across an interesting and potentially troubling research question that falls outside the scope of my story. I’m posting it here in case anyone is interested in exploring this topic further. All this information comes from The Women’s Army Corps by Mattie Treadwell, which is available online here. The relevant material is in chapter 10.

Initially, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was very selective in its recruits. WAACs were typically older and better educated than male soldiers and many possessed sought-after skills. The Army General Classification Test (AGCT), which sorts soldiers into five grades according to their perceived ability, initially placed 60% of WAACs into grades I and II and only 10% into grades IV and V, whereas 32% of male GIs fell into the two lowest grades. But when the US Army faced a severe manpower shortage in 1943 and WAAC recruiting simultaneously collapsed, the WAAC drastically lowered its standards in an attempt to meet quotas. As a result, the number of WAACs in the lowest two grades ballooned to 40%.

As Treadwell recounts, “the Army literally had no military assignment for unskilled and unintelligent women.” Men who classified poorly were assigned to manual labor or simply as riflemen in the infantry, with its bottomless need for manpower, but WAACs weren’t allowed in either of these positions. They languished at training centers and were shunted between various low-prestige assignments as cooks, drivers, and hospital orderlies, and most were declared unsuitable for any of them.

Treadwell, being a military historian, uncritically reports the Army’s evaluation of these WAACs. But I can’t read this section without asking: Who were these people who were supposedly unskilled, unintelligent, and untrainable? It’s theoretically possible that the women really were just that stupid, but Treadwell’s somewhat hyperbolic account of their abilities, behavior, and even hygiene strains credulity. WAAC work was often extremely simple and rote. It’s difficult to imagine that there were hundreds of women so useless that the Army, with its millions of employees and hundreds of positions, couldn’t find any use for them unless there was some other factor at work.

The question becomes even more muddled in chapter 19, when it turns out that the WAACs assigned to Army hospitals were actually overqualified. Hospitals had an acute need for unskilled orderlies who could scrub wards and perform other drudge work, and many medical technicians were malassigned as orderlies as a result. So the “low-grade” WAACs were simultaneously not skilled enough and too skilled, at least as far as the medical corps was concerned.

These women weren’t merely undereducated: Treadwell specifies that “the women’s deficiency was ordinarily mental and not educational,” and that attempts at training failed. It would also be easy to blame behavior and suggest that these women weren’t necessarily stupid, just recalcitrant. But while they did suffer from behavior problems, Treadwell pinpoints this issue as the result of the Army’s inability to place them, rather than the cause.

One part of the answer is dead obvious: The “low-grade” WAACs were 50% black, as compared with only 10% of the WAAC as a whole. Since the number of black WAACs was strictly capped even while WAAC recruiting failed to meet its quotas, logic would dictate that an average black WAAC should have been more qualified than an average white WAAC. Clearly there was a strong racial bias at work. It may have been as explicit as base commanders declaring black WAACs unfit for duty in order to get them reassigned or as implicit as AGCT questions unconsciously tailored to white audiences; without more information, it’s difficult to know.

That leaves the other half of the group. Some of them may have fallen victim to the same sort of bias. Of other racial minorities, Chinese-Americans and Mexican-Americans were present in the Army in small pluralities; no doubt there were also white WAACs whose accents, backgrounds, and mannerisms caused officers to dismiss them out of hand. Yet it seems unlikely that the phenomenon of WAAC underperformance was entirely due to bias, since the problem only existed at a certain point in WAAC history. It seems likely that they did indeed briefly recruit a significant number of women who struggled to succeed at their Army duties.

We have only the barest hints as to what other factors might have existed. The rate of disability discharge among “low-grade” WAACs was four times higher than among the other grades; the rate of psychiatric discharge, including the universal catch-all condition “psychoneurosis,” was higher as well. The bias factor was no doubt at work here too—psychoneurosis was often used as a convenient way to discharge undesirables with a minimum of fuss—but there were also well-documented cases of genuine mental illness. As in the rest of the Army, psychiatric screenings in the WAAC were woefully inadequate, often performed by doctors with no psychiatric training beyond a brief set of military guidelines.

Was the WAAC recruiting mentally ill, developmentally delayed, and neuroatypical women, failing to accommodate their needs, and then declaring them useless? Without hard data that probably doesn’t exist, it’s difficult to know. Since WAAC staff wasn’t trained to deal with these conditions, even the original documents probably wouldn’t provide a clear answer, and there are understandably few personal accounts from women whose time in the Army went so poorly. Certainly, if any such individuals were recruited, they would have found the Army a punishing and compassionless environment.

The question becomes even more disturbing when it’s expanded to the Army as a whole. After all, there were similar proportions of “low-grade” male soldiers, and many of them ended up in the infantry. The possibility that the Army drafted large numbers of disabled and mentally ill men, pronounced them fit for duty, and sent them to the front lines is an abhorrent one. Again, though, it’s difficult to judge whether this happened on a large scale based on the information available.

The experiences of disabled, mentally ill, and neuroatypical people during WWII remain largely unexplored. It would take a full-scale research project to completely unpack what intersection, if any, these groups had with the “low-grade” recruits and draftees who were treated so poorly by the Army. In the meantime, I urge caution when approaching official Army accounts that label nearly half their personnel “unskilled and unintelligent.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *