She's in the Army now
Well, 66 years ago that is. Eileen Lentz of Walton shares what everyday life was like serving in the Women’s Army Corps as one of the 150,000 WACs in World War II.
The year is 1943 and 23-year-old Eileen Lentz is serving as an auxiliary in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, created two years earlier to work with—although not as part of—the Army.
When Eileen Lentz joined, she was sent to a training center at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, issued a uniform, and given the rules and regulations—but not military status.
“I really wanted to get into the Army,” says the retired attorney who lives in Walton.
Just after World War II began, Lentz was working seven days a week at Wright Aeronautical Plant (now General Electric), which manufactured engines for American B-29s and RAF fighters, on the outskirts of Cincinnati. “I thought everyone had to do something. It was an all-out war and I felt duty-bound to do my part.”
Judith A. Bellafaire writes in The Women’s Army Corps: A Commemoration of World War II Service that the establishment of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was “for the purpose of making available to the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of the women of the nation.” The Army would provide food, uniforms, living quarters, pay, and medical care for up to 150,000 auxiliaries.
Then on July 1, 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt signs into law a bill to enlist and appoint women in the Army of the United States (the official name for the conscription force of the U.S. Army). Establishment of the Women’s Army Corps comes with pay, privileges, and protection equal to that accorded to men.
Taking effect 90 days later, the majority of the WAACs decided to enlist in the new Women’s Army Corps to become WACs, with only 25 percent leaving service. Lentz gladly transitioned and became part of the Army rather than merely serving with it.
Although there had been controversy over the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, and Americans found the concept of women in uniform difficult, the transition from auxiliary status to the Women’s Army Corps was de facto recognition of their valuable service.
Lentz became one of the 150,000-plus women who served as such during World War II, among the first women to serve in the Army ranks. Female Army nurses were members of the Army Medical Corps, a separate status within the Army.
Following basic training, Lentz is stationed at Pine Bluff Arsenal, located about 35 miles southeast of Little Rock, Arkansas. Here she is classified as a truck driver (“all the trucks have stick shifts and double clutches”) and she becomes a member of the motor pool, providing bus transportation for personnel assigned to the Arsenal.
“The place was eight or nine miles long,” she recalls. “They made poison gas at one end and munitions at the other. The people who worked there had to have a way to get around camp.”
Lentz notes that you couldn’t go into the poison gas facility without a gas mask, but having undergone gas mask drills during basic training, she felt prepared for her role at the Arsenal.
“During basic, you had to go into a building with a gas mask and take it off and go in without your mask and then put it on. That was no fun. We didn’t have poison gas but it sure stunk, even with a gas mask on.”
Still, life at the Arsenal is very pleasant, made especially so by new barracks equipped with gas heat.
“In those days, nobody had gas heat. At Fort Oglethorpe, we had coal stoves and we nearly froze to death. In Arkansas, we thought we were living in seventh heaven. We really lived it up.
“There was a tennis court and a swimming pool. There wasn’t much entertainment, but we had new movies—those in the service got them before civilians. The movies were good, but the old wooden seats were terrible. We had a PX—it was like going to a bar, although the only thing they sold was 3.2 beer (3.2% alcohol).”
Lentz says the food served in the mess hall is as good as her dinner companions—some 50 fellow WACs who make up her company. She developed strong friendships at the Arsenal, many lasting a lifetime.
“We were all in our early 20s. The Army made you work pretty hard, but we enjoyed it and had fun together.”
If there was one negative element to her experience, it was the laundry.
“It was terrible. The stuff came back so rough it looked like they took it and wadded it up after it came out of the dryer. You had to iron everything and that was a nuisance, but you wouldn’t dare wear your uniform after it came back from the laundry.”
The women’s dress uniform includes service jacket, shirt, skirt, and—because nylon was being used in the war effort—terrible rayon stockings. Those in the motor pool are permitted to wear slacks while on the job.
“Those terrible rayon stockings, they took some getting used to,” says Lentz.
Because of war shortages, metal buttons changed over to plastic during Lentz’s enlistment and all the buttons had to be removed from the uniform and replaced.
“There were 14 buttons on the overcoat alone,” she says.
Completing the uniform is the Hobby Hat, a WAC service hat named for Oveta Culp Hobby, the first director of the WAACs, which most of the women dislike because it is so uncomfortable.
Later, they switched to the more relaxed overseas cap, which was made of wool and trimmed in the distinctive gold and green WAC piping.
Almost immediately after V-E Day in Europe, much of the Women’s Army Corps was demobilized along with the rest of the Army. At the time of her discharge in January 1946, Lentz was a private first class who had served 28 months. Like other members of the military, she was entitled to the benefits of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more familiarly known as the GI Bill.
Returning home to Covington, she enrolled in college but with so many veterans swelling the classrooms, schools couldn’t accommodate the demand. The former WAC, a late registrant because of her discharge date, wound up in classes at the Cincinnati YMCA.
After earning an undergraduate degree in accounting—and with time and money still left on the GI Bill—she decided to continue her education at Salmon P. Chase College of Law (now Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University), then affiliated with the Cincinnati YMCA. Rather than sharing this experience with 50 or so girls, Lentz found herself the lone woman in her graduating class of 56. She became the second woman attorney in the Cincinnati area.
“It would have been nice to have some other women in class instead of all men,” she says. “But the men were nice; there were no problems.”
Lentz credited her service as a WAC for teaching her how to assimilate quickly to new circumstances and how to get along with all kinds of people.
“It’s surprising how short a time it takes to get used to the rules,” she says. “You were told what to do and you better do it. It’s a different life and they have some peculiar rules, but I’m glad I went in.
“I really liked being in the Army.” KL