Glory in their Spirit

GLORY IN THEIR SPIRIT: How Four Black Women Took on the Army During World War II.

By Sandra M. Bolzenius. University of Illinois Press, 256 pages. $19.95.

Mutiny. The very sound of the word sends a quiver to the heart of a military commander who may have been overbearing in his treatment of those under his authority. There exists no more dire threat to order and discipline than that of a work stoppage, brought on by perceived command tyranny, issuance of impossible orders or even repeated injustices.

In the case of four young black women, members of a detachment of Women’s Army Corps at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, in October 1944, the enforced segregation by sex and race, coupled with duties deemed demeaning and unfair, as compared with those afforded white WACs, had reached such a point, and resulted in a mass refusal to obey. In wartime, the ultimate penalty for mutiny is death.

The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps — later reorganized and redesignated as WAC, with its own branch insignia — had been established by law in May 1942, with the announced purpose of “freeing a man to fight.” Thousands of young women, eager to serve, flocked to the colors, among them many of non-white races, only to find, for the latter, that they were relegated to menial tasks under then-current Army regulations. And under white career officers not especially sympathetic to volunteers who were female and black.

The author, Sandra Bolzenius, in achieving her doctorate as an instructor at Ohio State University, has produced a remarkable study of the trials of this unfortunate group of doubly isolated soldiers, separated by race and sex from the U.S. Army’s great mass of troops engaged in worldwide combat against the Axis powers. Having served as an enlisted specialist in the Transportation Corps, she knows firsthand some of the trials of being in a minority status.

The content shows a great deal of care. There are 27 pages of chapter notes, a seven-page bibliography and 14 pages of photos, illustrating in a small degree the life of a black WAC.

The editing, publishing and printing is exemplary, save for the use of small (10-point) type, but larger type would have increased the book size by perhaps 25%. Only a few minor typos were observed.

The theme and purpose of the entire work is the tale of four WACs — Mary Green, Anna Morrison, Johnnie Murphy and Alice Young — who so bitterly resented their treatment by insensitive superiors that they participated in a strike, in violation of the most stringent Army regulations.

As a detachment assigned to the First Service Command, headed by Maj. Gen. Sherman Miles, the black WACs found themselves assigned as hospital orderlies, performing routine cleaning and KP chores, contrary to attractive promises made during recruitment, of training as medical technicians, leading to promotions and better pay. The fact that the larger contingent of white WACs on post were exempt from these restrictions added fuel to the smoldering sense of injustice.

Under the immediate command of an inexperienced young second lieutenant, their protests of discrimination and unfair practices went unanswered by the hospital’s commander, which led to the strike. This brought swift action by Miles, a West Pointer who tolerated no nonsense, and the four were placed in arrest and committed to court-martial. Reaction by black civil rights advocates was equally quick, and the incident generated heated public discussion nationwide.

A large part of the book deals with the trial and its outcome, which may surprise the reader. At that critical juncture of the war effort, few events could have been more damaging than to have sent four black female soldiers to Leavenworth, for insisting on the rights for which, supposedly, the male troops were fighting. How it was resolved — or rather, how the furor was eventually damped down and faded at last from the lurid headlines — makes for fascinating reading.

But the cover picture really tells the tale. It shows Capt. Charity Adams, marching proudly at the head of her company on parade at Fort Des Moines, on her uniform lapels the golden “head of Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom,” and the “US” that marked her and every smart-stepping woman in that company as soldiers, one and all.

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