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Americans at War

Americans at War


Women have played important roles in all of America’s wars. However, World War I marked the first time women directly participated in the war effort on a wide scale. Their contributions helped win the war, and also helped them make major strides towards equality.

Women in uniform

World War One was the first war in which women formally served in the U.S. military. The largest group was the Army Nurse Corps: over 20,000 served, and 10,000 went overseas. Nurses were often close to the front lines, and experienced artillery and gas attacks. They provided medical care to over 200,000 wounded men. During the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918-19, over 200 nurses died caring for sick service members.

In addition, over 400 women served under the U.S. Army Signal Corps as telephone operators in France. These “Hello Girls” spoke English and French, and played a vital role in connecting Allied communications. Although they served with the Army, they were considered civilians, and did not receive government recognition as military veterans until 60 years after the war.

Due to the Army’s manpower needs, the Navy was short of key personnel. It recruited over 11,000 women as “Yeomanettes”, who served as clerical staff, electricians, drivers, mechanics, and more. The Marine Corps and Coast Guard also recruited women for the first time.

Volunteer organizations

American women had been a part of European relief efforts since the beginning of the war. Once the United States entered the fighting, thousands more joined efforts at home and overseas. Tens of thousands of Red Cross volunteers provided numerous services for troops overseas, and Red Cross nurses worked alongside their Army counterparts. The YMCA helped the Army provide welfare and comfort services. The Salvation Army’s contingent was smaller, but beloved for its “Donut Dollies.” Wealthy women established hospitals and aid programs, and in some cases traveled to Europe to run them personally.

Wartime Work

The expansion of the military in 1917-18 pulled 16 percent of the U.S. male workforce into uniform. Women were called upon to fill jobs as factory workers, clerical staff, drivers, technicians, researchers... virtually every position in every field or industry. These women were released from their jobs as men returned home after the war. However, they had proved that females could handle “masculine” work, and set the example for the “Rosie the Riveters” of World War II and future generations of working women.


The contributions of women in WWI allowed the U.S. military to focus all its available men and resources on fighting the war. These women not only led the way for today’s military women, but also enhanced the position and influence of women in American society in general.

In particular, their service provided momentum for the Women’s Suffrage movement, aimed at winning voting rights for women. President Woodrow Wilson resisted the effort for years, but he finally endorsed it in 1918, saying: “we have made partners of the women in this war... Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Wilson’s words reflected a wartime change in attitudes shared by many American men. Two years later, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote.

The Doughboys

Historical accounts show that U.S. infantry (foot) soldiers had been called “Doughboys” as early as the Mexican-American War (1846-48). During World War I, the term was universally adopted as the nickname for all American troops who went overseas to fight.

They came from every part of the country, and represented nearly every segment of America’s large and diverse population: Ivy League blue bloods and immigrants fresh off the boat. Country boys and city dwellers. Grandsons of Civil War veterans and grandsons of slaves. Sons of settlers and cowboys from the West, and Native American warriors carrying on their tribal traditions.

The following figures help paint a broad picture of the men who fought for America in World War I:

  • 25% of men between the ages of 18 and 31 were in military service
  • The average height was 5 feet 7 1/2 inches tall; the average weight was 141.5 pounds - about the same as a Civil War soldier, but an inch shorter and ten pounds lighter than those who served in World War II.
  • 37% were unable to read or write
  • 39% were immigrants or sons of immigrants
  • 10% were African American
  • 7 out of 10 soldiers were draftees
  • 53,402 were killed in combat; 63,114 died from other causes; 204,000 were wounded

Native Americans

Despite poor treatment by the U.S. government, many Native Americans contributed to the war effort, in uniform and on the homefront.

When the U.S. began drafting men into the military, most American Indians were not considered to be citizens, and were therefore not subject to conscription. However, they were required to register for the draft, which caused confusion, resentment and even outright rebellion.

Despite these issues, 6,500 Native men were drafted, and about 5,000 more enlisted, eager to carry on the warrior traditions of their tribes. The Onondaga and Onieda Nations even declared war against Germany. Fourteen American Indian women served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.

In combat, Native Americans often volunteered for dangerous positions, such as snipers and scouts, and won praise for their bravery and skill. The cost of this courage was high: about five percent of Native soldiers were killed in combat, compared to one percent for U.S. troops overall.

Although speaking native languages was discouraged or even punished in the U.S., many American Indians were fluent in their native tongue. Cherokee and Choctaw troops used their language to securely transmit communications that the Germans could not understand. These soldiers were the precursors to the better-known Code Talkers of World War II.

Native Americans supported the war on the homefront as well. They purchased $25 million in war bonds, equal to $75 for every American Indian. Others supported the Red Cross and other relief organizations.

However, during the war, the loss of Native land increased, as cattle and sugar beet companies convinced the federal government that they needed more land to support the war effort.

Nonetheless, Native American contributions to the war helped win them greater rights as Americans. Congress granted citizenship to all Native veterans in 1919, and to all American Indians in 1924.


During World War I, nearly forty percent of U.S. soldiers were immigrants or children of immigrants. Their service not only helped win the war, but accelerated the assimilation and acceptance of an entire generation of new Americans.

Between 1880 and 1910, 17 million immigrants arrived in the United States. By 1910, almost 15 percent of the population was foreign born. While earlier arrivals were largely British, Irish or German, most of these recent immigrants were from Eastern, Central and Southern Europe. A smaller number came from Asian countries. Their arrival increased the U.S. population while introducing unfamiliar languages and cultures into American society.

The outbreak of World War I in July 1914 led to concerns about how the immigrant population would react to the war, since most recent arrivals had direct ties to countries involved in the fighting. These concerns deepened when the United States entered the war in April 1917. Many native-born Americans were prejudiced against mmigrants, seeing them as lazy, backwards, and cowardly. Some questioned whether immigrant recruits who spoke little English and held old-world values could be trained to be effective soldiers.

Initially, it appeared that the skeptics were right. When the first foreign-born recruits and draftees began military training, many struggled to understand simple orders. Some had trouble keeping up physically, due to years of poor nutrition and hard labor. Misunderstandings and prejudices flared up into arguments and fights, some of them serious.

The army moved quickly to address these problems. Foreign recruits were organized into training units by language, led by multilingual officers. Resources were provided for traditional celebrations and religious services, and ethnic foods were served at mealtime. At the same time, immigrants received intensive classes in English, American history and civics.

These measures improved the morale and performance of foreign-born recruits, which helped them earn the respect of their native-born comrades. By the time their units were sent overseas, immigrant soldiers had begun to develop deeper ties to their fellow soldiers and to their adopted nation.

On the battlefield, immigrant and native-born troops toiled, fought, bled and died alongside each other. Under fire, prejudices and stereotypes were irrelevant; all that mattered was whether a man was a good soldier. The shared hardship and sacrifice forged bonds between troops of all backgrounds and reinforced their pride in serving under the stars and stripes.

Back home, the families of foreign-born soldiers were deeply invested in the war. They bought war bonds and proudly hung blue star service flags in their front windows to show that they had a loved one in uniform.

During and after the war, the U.S. government enacted new restrictions on immigration. However, by sending their young men overseas and demonstrating their support for the war effort, immigrant communities in the U.S. were better able to connect to mainstream American society.

More than 350,000 African Americans served during World War I. Many were assigned menial support roles, due to American society’s deep fears and prejudices. Despite facing racism at home and in uniform, tens of thousands of black soldiers served courageously and capably in combat.

When war broke out, black Americans debated whether or not to support the war effort if the U.S. joined the fighting. Some questioned why they should help the U.S. defend democracy overseas, when they were denied its full benefits at home.

When war came, many African-Americans chose to prove their right to equality by serving their country. African American troops were organized into segregated units, mostly led by white officers. In response to protests, the Army eventually trained over 1,300 black officers.

200,000 black troops shipped overseas. Many white commanders believed black soldiers would perform poorly under fire. Others feared that black combat veterans would be emboldened to resist racism when they returned home. As a result, most African Americans were assigned to labor duties in the rear areas.

General Pershing intended to train and raise an independent American army, and resisted British and French requests for U.S. troops. However, he agreed to send the French several African-American regiments from the 93rd Division.

Under French command, black troops experienced far less racism. They were given combat assignments like any other French unit, and fought with courage and skill.

The most famous of these was the 369th Infantry Regiment. Although it was also known for its famed regimental band, which brought jazz to Europe, it was first and foremost a fighting unit. During the Meuse-Argonne offensive at the end of the war, the 92nd “Buffalo Soldiers” Division joined the fighting, serving under U.S. command. In addition, a small number of African-American women served as nurses and in the Navy.

Unfortunately, the service of black Americans had little impact on racism in the United States. Many African-American veterans faced discrimination and violence, despite their service. However, their record provided undeniable proof of the willingness and ability of African Americans to serve their nation, and further inspired the black community in its fight to achieve social and political equality.

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