From the VETERANS series:
(Ret.) U.S. Air Force, Brigadier-General
Years of Service: 1957 - 1985
"I am President of the Women in Military Service Memorial Foundation."
In my quarters which was a hotel in downtown Saigon, about a block and a half from the I was in college during the Korean War and I graduated in 1952. I went into the military service – it just happened that it was the air force -- because at that time it was very difficult for women to get a job in a supervisory position, and I wanted to manage and supervise. I had worked for a large company and I could see there was just no opportunity for women in this very male oriented company. I received a letter from a recruiter saying that I could get a direct commission as a lieutenant in the Army. I talked to several people and concluded that I should find out if the Air Force had a similar program, which it did. I entered the Air Force as a Second Lieutenant in 1957.
This was after Korea and before the Vietnam War. When I went through training, we didn’t learn how to fire weapons, women didn’t do that. We went through a course on how to put on lipstick and powder, how to get in and out of a car, tastefully. I was always one of very few military women. I was stationed in Spain from 1959-1963 and that was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I was one of about six military women at the base where I was stationed. And it was quite a novelty to the Spanish because needless to say they didn’t at that time have any women in their armed forces. For a long time I was the only officer.
I always felt it was one of those things, that when I did good, I got more credit probably than I deserved, and if I had not done well, it would have been bad. That was very much on my mind that I had to succeed so that other women would have an opportunity to be assigned to the places I was assigned and do some of the things I had done. The biggest barrier had to do with limits put in the Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 that said that women could not be Generals or Admirals, and limited the number who could be appointed as colonels or captains. This remained until 1967 when that law was changed during the Vietnam war so that they could recruit more, and this could relieve some of the pressure on the draft. Language in that act said that women could not serve in combat, so we were very limited to being assigned to jobs in the medical field or in the administrative field. I think the biggest antagonism that we encountered was probably when they opened the flight line to women. There was real opposition to that, and the men did everything they could to make it difficult for those first women. It was tough.
The wing commander asked me to accompany the bomb wing when it deployed to Guam in support of the bombing of northern Vietnam. I went over on a KC-135 that was loaded with equipment. In fact it was one of the last tankers taking equipment, and I spent six months there working for the wing commander as a management analyst. And I was the first woman ever to deploy on a strategic air command deployment, so there were three thousand and some men in the unit and me. I thought that was about the right mix. I spent the year in Saigon. I was assigned to the MacV headquarters, and I worked in management analysis there. I just had that feeling “you’re not going to come back alive” and it was an interesting feeling because I didn’t share that feeling with anybody. A couple times rockets came within a block and a half. I remember the first time, I was central market which was a frequent target.
I found out that I would be assigned to the comptroller office in management analysis at the pentagon. I ended up there for four and half years. And then I spent four and a half years at Andrews Air Force Base and that was when I was selected for Brigadier General and I moved from being the director of budget to becoming the comptroller of air force systems command. And then from there I went to becoming the Commander of the US Military Entrance Processing Command. We were responsible for processing all the recruits coming in to all the services. Giving them their ASVAB [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] tests, giving them their physicals, sending them to where they were going for training, and administering the oath of enlistment. I gave countless oaths of enlistment during my time. All through my career, even through my last assignment, I’d arrive, and within two or three months people would come up to me and say I heard you were coming, I wanted to be reassigned because I didn’t want to work for a woman. But I just want to let you know I don’t feel that way anymore, I would work for you anyplace. When I got assigned as a commander of the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command, one of the first things I learned was that the secretary was either going to retire or leave government service because she didn’t want to work for a woman. So I talked to her and I said “Tina, give me one week and if you want to leave at the end of the week I’ll help you find another job.” And at the end of the week she decided that she would stay and work for me. And she became a close friend.
Somebody knew that I’d retired and was back in the Washington DC area and asked me to serve on the board of directors of the Women in Military Service Memorial Foundation and I didn’t intend to do anything besides sitting on the board of directors. I missed a meeting and was elected president. And that’s when I got very interested in this thing. But I went through a period of time of wondering whether this was the right thing to do because we had worked so hard to be integrated, to be accepted, as full fledged military members and here were taking a step to set women apart. Was that the right thing to do? But as I traveled around the country and talked particularly to women who’d served in WW2 it became obvious to me that this is something we should do. This is a part of our history as being women. These are the things that women have done, that they’ve accomplished, here are barriers that we have overcome, these are women who had certain aspirations that they were able to realize. Like the women who were in the women air force service pilots in WW2 who just were so inspired not only to serve their country, because they were certainly patriots, but they wanted to fly and this was a great opportunity for them. And for other women, its other things. It may be working in communications. It may be working in ordinance. And of course for years the primary role of women was as nurses. Its just a history that needs to be recorded and told and it wasn’t being recorded, the memorabilia wasn’t being collected, and now it is. And it’ll be here hopefully for all time.
“Stories of Service: Brigadier – General Wilma Vaught.” Video.