WAVES Trailblazers: Lt. j.g. Harriet Ida Pickens and Ensign Frances Wills, the first African-American WAVES officers

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Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Ensign Frances Wills photographed after graduation from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (WR) at Northampton, Massachusetts, in December 1944. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

With this blog post, I’ll be taking us back, once again, to World War II. You may already be familiar with the WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, which functioned as the women’s reserve branch of the Navy during WWII. While we did have a previous blog post on the WAVES and what some of their members did when serving at the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation (HRPE), with this blog I’d like to delve a little deeper, and talk about two specific WAVES: Lt j.g. Harriet Ida Pickens and Ensign Frances Wills, the first African American women to join the WAVES, and the first African American officers in the WAVES. 

We often think of WWII as being a general call to arms, an “all hands on deck” time in our history. Despite this sentiment and the genuine need for troops,  the military often barred or refused to enlist African Americans. While the Women’s Army Corps (or the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps until 1943) and Army Nurse Corps allowed African American to enlist in 1942, they were both segregated institutions. The Navy’s WAVES, the Coast Guard’s SPARS, and Navy Nurse Corps did not integrate for several more years. Despite the racist policies and practices put in place by the military, many African Americans (and BIPOC) continued to fight against these bigoted policies and attempted to enlist.    Read more