Following the last of the female yeomen leaving active duty at the end of World War I, only a small number of Navy nurses represented their gender in naval service. But World War II would change all of that. In the early 1940s, the Navy prepared to accept not only a large number of enlisted women, but also the first female commissioned officers who would supervise them.
An undated photo from the personal collection of Alice Virginia Benzie, a Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) sailor stationed at WAVES standing in formation outside the hangars at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, MD in the 1940s. By the time recruiting ended in 1945, the WAVES boasted a force of 86,000 enlisted and more than 8,000 female officers ... around 2.5 percent of the Navy’s total strength at the time. (U.S. Navy courtesy photo)
On July 30, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Navy Women’s Reserve Act into law, creating what was commonly known as the WAVES -- Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service -- a division of the U.S. Navy created during World War II to free up male personnel for sea duty. Little did anyone know that the resulting influx of women in the U.S. Navy would last far beyond the World War II “emergency” for which they had been recruited.
In August 1942, Mildred McAfee, president of Wellesley College, was sworn in as a Navy Reserve lieutenant commander and became the first female officer in U.S. Navy history, as well as the first director of the WAVES.
One of those WAVES was Alice Virginia Benzie, originally from Brookville, New York, who served at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, then known as the U.S. Naval Air Test Center. She entered the service Nov. 4, 1943, at age 21 and was honorably discharged having achieved the rank of chief yeoman.
In 2014, a personal photo album of Benzie’s from her time at Pax River surfaced on eBay and was purchased by Mike Smolek, NAS Patuxent River’s cultural resources manager. The album was full of old photos showing her with other WAVES and some of the many sailors who once served here in the installation’s earliest years, when the nation was embroiled in World War II.
Alice Virginia Benzie Dowden died in Williamsburg, Virginia, Oct. 27, 2009. She had been a longtime employee of Long Island University, retiring as executive assistant to the president. She was married for over 61 years to John B. Dowden and had one son.
The photographs she collected while at Pax River help tell the tale of the many women who answered their nation’s call and paved the way for today’s modern woman sailor.
By Donna Cipolloni, Naval Air Station Patuxent River
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