JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas – Shortly thereafter the official formation of the U.S. Air Force as a distinct force, then-President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act in 1948 that established the Women in the Air Force program, allowing women to become service members in the military.
In spite of this unprecedented legislation, women were not exempt from gender disparity in the military. There were only 300 officer and 4,000 enlisted slots open to women – 2% of the force – and the women who were able to serve were limited to clerical and medical duties.
Located in a single exhibit area of the Airman Heritage Museum at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, is a WAF gallery that invites us to remember these unique plights – and inevitable triumphs – of the first women who were afforded the opportunity to serve.
“As a heritage museum, it falls upon us to tell that story, no matter how painful the memory,” said William Manchester, the director of the Airman Heritage Training Complex. “We focus on the success of these women, while also ensuring our visitors know the difficult struggles of various eras, and how our Air Force has worked to overcome them.”
The WAF gallery consists of mannequins adorned in various WAF uniforms from the 1940s–1980s, including the Wool Winter Service Dress and Green-and-White sere sucker fatigues carried over from the Women’s Army Corp personnel, and 50s-era uniforms that showcase the transition from Army green to Air Force blue.
Other uniforms displayed are those first worn by the WAFs, which were adaptations of men’s uniforms with standard neckties. As the need grew for more practical wear for women, the Air Force developed uniforms that mirrored clothing worn by commercial flight attendants, highlighting the impact WAFs had on shaping our modern Air Force, according to Manchester.
The gallery also includes a patch, stripes and insignia pin regalia of the WAF Band, subsequently known as the 543rd Air Force Band, an all-women band that formed in 1951 at JBSA-Lackland, Texas.
Among additional artifacts on display is the pen used by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 to sign legislation eliminating the 2% limit on female officers – a symbol of emerging equality.
“The display showcases another milestone in our diverse Air Force heritage,” said Senior Master Sgt. Sonjia Rodriguez, the superintendent of the museum. “It honors the women who actually lived and served prior to and during the Air Force’s full integration of women into the service.”
Nine years later, the WAF program ended in 1976 when women were integrated into the Air Force on many of the same conditions as men, but its rich history still echoes in the halls of the Airmen Heritage Museum, inspiring future generations of female Airmen.
“We want to pass on to our young female trainees that not only are they part of a rich Air Force tradition, but that they are the newest in a long line of women who have answered our nation’s call to service,” said Manchester.
With over 55,000 visitors last year, the primary mission of the museum is to educate Airmen on the history of the Air Force, and to educate, train, inspire and serve as a recruiting tool for civilian visitors.
For more information on the USAF Airman Heritage Museum, visit https://myairmanmuseum.org/.