The Women’s Air Raid Defense (WARD) was a civilian organization working alongside the U.S. military to protect the Hawaiian Islands from Japanese air attacks during World War II. It was staffed entirely by women who dedicated their lives to protecting their country after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Formation of the Women’s Air Raid Defense
The bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 instilled fear among those living in Hawaii, who worried another attack might be looming. With the U.S. officially in the war, men stationed on the islands were sent abroad, leaving important positions vacant.
To help fill the gap, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order #9063, giving the Signal Corps — more specifically, the 7th Fighter Wing — the power to recruit volunteer civil servants for positions within the federal government.
Several days after the attack, Army Air Corps Brigadier General Howard C. Davidson contacted Una Walker, a woman living on Oahu who often volunteered with the Red Cross. Without giving anything away, he asked her to pull together a list of 20 women she felt could be “the nucleus of a secretive Army job.”
On December 26, 1941, Walker, Davidson, and the 20 women met at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki. They were joined by Mrs. John Howard, the spouse of an active service member. Davidson couldn’t reveal much about the job, but was able to say they would be relieving “men ordered to forward combat areas.”
The call was for 100 women tasked with monitoring the skies over Hawaii for enemy aircraft. According to Davidson, the work “would be the most important done by any woman in the nation. It was, in fact, the first time in U.S. history that women officially replaced active duty combat soldiers without a mandate or approval from Congress.”
The women would be members of Company A, Signal Aircraft Warning Regiment. Before they could start, they needed to undergo training and pass a set of requirements. Those interested had to be between the ages of 20 and 34, without children, and had to pass both a physical examination and an Army intelligence test.
Once deemed fit to join, the women underwent a two-week training course, where they learned how to plot the positions of airplanes with radar, a tool that was still experimental at the time. They were also trained in how to locate friendly aircraft and aid in the recovery of lost planes.
Defending the skies
Once their training was complete, the women began their shifts at Fort Shafter, staffing the air defense center 24 hours a day. They worked in shifts — six hours on and six off for eight days straight, before being given 36 hours leave to refresh.
Each was under contract for a year, with the option to renew, and they were paid between $140 and $225 a month. They worked beneath chief supervisors, the first of whom were Mrs. R.T. Williams and Catherine Coonley. The supervisors worked closely with their own superior, Brigadier General Robert W. Douglas Jr.
Quarters were provided at Fort Shafter. The women were given their own uniforms, styled similarly to the fatigues worn by Red Cross volunteers, along with WWI-era helmets, gas masks, and armbands to show they were in non-combatant roles.
The women were known by the codename “Rascal,” while the radar operator was named “Oscar.” They relied on each other to ensure the right information and data points were being plotted so that Hawaii didn’t fall victim to another attack.
The success of the Oahu WARD allowed for others to be formed across the Hawaiian Islands, and by September 1942, Maui, Hilo, and Kauai had their own Air Raid Defense setups. In June 1943, the Women’s Air Raid Defense was transferred to the Army Air Forces, under the 17th Fighter Command. As the need for volunteers grew, women from the mainland began to fill positions.
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The Women’s Air Raid Defense was disbanded at the end of the war. While many returned to their pre-war lives, some members opted to stay on in civil service roles. Unfortunately, a fire in 1983 resulted in the loss of official records documenting the work these women provided, leaving a gap in that part of America’s war history.