by Karen Ray
Betty Somppi was enjoying a new career as a lab technician at a Cincinnati hospital “when the war came along…Most women wanted to do something and there weren’t that many choices for women. We were very interested and we wanted to be involved more than just going around the community. So I applied when we first heard about the Women’s Army Corps, which was WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) at that time. She recalls that the bill passed in March and by July the first class of officers were in training. “That shows how quickly Congress can work when they want to,” she laughs.
She served in the WAAC for about a year before it became the WAC (the women’s branch of the United States Army). “We had to apply all over again and had to have our physicals all over again and we didn’t know until the word came back from Washington, whether we had been accepted or not. That was very traumatic for some of the women who had been there for a year. Somppi remembers Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby of Killeen, Texas served as the first director of both the WAAC and then the WAC. “Mrs. Hobby” as she was called built the Corps to over 100,000 in under a year.
Somppi explains that this new organization had no officers or enlisted people. “They picked 1400 women from those who applied throughout the United States,” she says, “We went into officers training with the idea that if we did not complete OC (Officer Candidate) we would be enlisted. They were recruiting enlisted people at the same time…These 1400 women were put into the first nine officers classes.” She was in her early twenties when she entered the fifth OC class.
She arrived at Fort Des Moines Provisional Army Officer Training School in July, 1942 the day the first class graduated and heard Colonel Hobby speak. “I think if anybody thought this was going to be some sort of a glamour deal, they got a good shock. We got off the train and had our suitcases in hand and got piled into the back of a six by truck and taken to the base. Once we got to the base we were assigned to our quarters. We had all male officers for those nine classes because there were no WAC officers trained yet.”
After graduation she was assigned to the base. “I was in the training section doing the basic training. After they finished that they went either into motor transport or clerks or cooks and bakers. Those were the three fields that they were training for and had schools at Fort Des Moines.” Within a year the army had women in 274 fields in the military. Somppi says, “I really did love that and so I spent the whole war training women to do things that I would have loved to have gone and done.”
In December of ’42 she was one of the first to be sent to Chemical Warfare School for six weeks along with five other women at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland. “My job was to go back and teach chemical warfare to the people at Fort Des Moines.”She’s kept newspaper clippings from that time and says, “It (the school) was very very good. There were I think something like 180 army and a few marines and air force, all men and then us six women. We were all single and we had a great time. Everybody was curious about us, we were still pretty new and there were only a few out in the field. We were the equivalent of second lieutenants and wore gold bars. The general down there invited all six of us to all the fancy Christmas parties, he would send his car over to our quarters for us…they always had the general’s star on the car and the people on the ground always had to salute when it went by…it was interesting.”
Somppi says, “The old fort (Des Moines) looked a great deal like Ft. Bliss, big parade ground, big enough to play two horse polo teams. I walked to work every morning. My office was in Boomtown. The trainees came to us as a class, as a unit of a company and we trained them in military customs and courtesies and the history of the army; all those things that they still do today. Boomtown was just being finished, there were not streets yet and those companies waded to our classrooms through the mud. In fact, they used to come in with a shovel to get the mud off the floor before they swept it. It was a lot of fun.” She says the best food the army ever had was in those mess halls.
From there Somppi was stationed at For