If you stop by UTSA’s Downtown Campus on Wednesday, you’ll get an in-depth look at the world of women veterans in America, a history that few people know exists.

Many people assume that women began serving the U.S. military during World War II in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), but UTSA Libraries’ Special Collections department shows their services began during World War I. UTSA’s  Special Collections is the sole repository of archives from the Women’s Overseas Service League (WOSL), an organization founded in 1921 by women who had served during World War I. The archives feature select organizational records, scrapbooks made by servicewomen and their oral histories, plus much more. While the UTSA library includes over 20 military collections, this collection is unique in its exclusive emphasis on women veterans, and the nearly 250 boxes of archived materials that document their history from 1910 through 2014.

Both the UTSA main and downtown campuses will host “Celebrate America’s Military” resource fairs on Wednesday. The downtown event is 11 a.m.-1 p.m, in room BV 1.338 in the Buena Vista building. The main campus event starts at 10 a.m. in The Sombrilla. The events are free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served, and guest parking for the downtown event will be available in lot D-3. Click here for a map of the main campus.

The downtown fair will include elements from the WOSL collection as part of a larger, special Veterans Day display. Several hours worth of festivities and panel discussions are planned, including a panel discussion about veterans transitioning back to campus hosted by UTSA’s Department of Social Work. For more information about UTSA’s celebration on both campuses, click here.

The display will be featured in the downtown library until mid-December.

WOSL began as local units before coming together to form a national organization in 1921, and publishing “Carry On,” a quarterly magazine. WOSL is notable as one of the first organizations to be an accredited observer at the United Nations, and served as the first women’s organization to contribute to UNICEF. The organization has held an annual convention since 1921, except during the World War II years of 1942-1945.

Special WOSL Edition
A special edition of an Omaha, Nebraska newspaper devoted to the work of the Women’s Overseas Service League.

“The collection is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the firsthand experiences of women in the military from World War I to the present day, as well as the operations of the Women’s overseas Service League,” said Amy Rushing, head of special collections for UTSA’s library system. “The stories that can be uncovered in this collection illustrate the many roles women have played in the military. The personal accounts and documents convey the personal sacrifices and courage from the early volunteers who were almost never recognized for their contributions and accomplishments — to the WOSL’s advocacy efforts for federal recognition of women in military service.”

“In keeping the history of women in the military alive, Texas has several gems – and this collection is one of them,” said Edith Disler, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and the director of external relations for the Texas Veterans Commission.  “UTSA’s collection gives texture and visage to the strangely opaque history of women in the military. Women have served well, but served quietly.

“Even today, women in the military don’t really know their own history. Yet in 2016, 100 years after these WWI women served, women will only finally have a measure of equality in the U.S. military with the new default: Women can serve anywhere in the military, unless the service branch has gotten an exception from the Secretary of Defense. That is huge. This history of women serving in WWI is huge. I would urge people to view this collection and take a moment to imagine the stories behind the faces, and learn more about an organization for women veterans that came directly out of ‘the war to end all wars.’  It’s a great opportunity to give a new voice to the legacy of patriotic American women in uniform.”

The Women’s Overseas Service League website gives a little more history on the organization, as well as the pressing need for it at a time when soldiers’ benefits were accorded only to men, leaving out women who served in supportive roles at the front.

WOSL Ribbon
WOSL Ribbon

During World War I, women volunteered for overseas service with the U.S. Army Expeditionary Forces. More than 11,000 served as Red Cross nurses with the Army and the Navy Nurse Corps. Others worked in various military support capacities, including for the Ordnance, Quartermaster and Signal Corps. The women served in Europe (France, Belgium and Italy) and also in the Balkans. By the time that Armistice was declared, almost 100,000 women had served, and 348 had given their lives.

When the women veterans came home they were scattered throughout the country in their various communities, and lacked an organization to support their quest for benefits or assistance, or to continue the camaraderie they had experienced abroad. So the League was formed, calling itself on its website “a women’s self-help group” for military women.

One of its major achievements was to help ex-servicewomen gain admittance to veterans’ hospitals by working with Congress. Later, it lobbied Congress to grant veteran status to the civilians who served as Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs).

Although the WOSL was initially created by and for World War I-era women, but by 1946, membership extended to World War II women veterans as well. WOSL membership has since expanded to include several eras women who have served overseas with the United States Armed Forces. Membership was later extended to include women who had served in Korea and Vietnam, and then to those who service eras included Grenada, Panama, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf.

A scrapbook page of clippings from the Women's Overseas Service League collection, San Antonio Unit, part of the UTSA's Special Collection.
A scrapbook page of clippings from the Women’s Overseas Service League collection, San Antonio Unit, part of the UTSA’s Special Collections.

Last week, I scheduled a visit to view a few select boxes from the Women’s Overseas Service League archives in UTSA Libraries’ Special Collections, and the materials were captivating. Sturdy green hard-backed files, legal sized, frequently opened to reveal a description of the woman veteran’s service, as well as a selection of photos in uniform and more contemporaneously in retirement. The women veterans in the files I viewed served in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. Their files also frequently contained audio cassette tapes capturing the oral histories of their service years. Some of the tapes have been transcribed or digitized, forming part of the Veterans History Project at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

A National Archives grant, in conjunction with Michigan State University, which also holds some of the collection of WOSL oral histories, should help finish digitizing the collection of women veterans’ histories. This project was started during Women’s History Week in 1983, Rushing said, and over the next five years nearly 200 women from across the U.S. were interviewed.

“(These interviews) provide insights into the recollections, reflections, and ruminations on the dangers and hardships of serving overseas as well as the pride and patriotism that prompted women to join or volunteer for service,” Rushing said.

Betty Anne Vogel, who served in the Army Nurse Corps in World War II.

Separately, oral histories — mostly of male veterans but some women — were collected by students in UTSA’s history department as part of a Veterans History Project from 2004 through 2008.

San Antonio played a large part in the organization’s history, with at least one of its national conventions held here in 1992, and a number of women veterans who were members of the group interviewed as part of a large-scale oral history project. There are 36 women veterans from the WOSL’s San Antonio unit whose oral histories were taken, and the Library of Congress includes a number of them in their digital collection, here.

Lt. Mary Tener Davidson Hall, Komaki Air Base, F-86
Air Force Lt. Mary Tener Davidson Hall, Komaki Air Base, F-86. Part of the UTSA’s Special Collections.

Mary Tener Davidson Hall is one such veteran. She served in the Air Force in the Korean War, as part of the 6101st Supply Squadron, and was stationed for a time at Lackland Air Force Base, as well as bases in Pennsylvania, Japan, Florida and Alabama. There are links to her biographical information; her audio interview along with a transcript; and a set of captivating photos from her service and travels abroad.

Other organizations participating in the resource fair include the American GI Forum/National Vet Outreach; Family Endeavors Inc., which provides support services for veteran families; PTSD Foundation of America – San Antonio; Soldiers’ Angels; Spurs Sports & Entertainment’s military liaison; Student Veterans Association at UTSA; UTHSC’s Strong Star PTSD Research team; UTSA Center for Civic Engagement; UTSA Small Business Development Center/Veteran Business Development; UTSA Vet Success; and the Wounded Warrior Project.

Note: Anyone wanting to conduct research within the military archives should contact UTSA Special Collections here.

*Top image: Women’s Overseas Service League members celebrating the 20th Armistice Day breakfast at the Carlton Hotel, November, 1938. Historic image courtesy of UTSA.

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Lily Casura

Lily Casura, MSW, is the Director of Equity and Impact at YWCA San Antonio. An independent researcher as well as a current graduate student in applied demography at UTSA, she co-authored the "Status of...