Female Black Officers Train in Des Moines in World War II

Women were not subject to the military draft in World War II, but women as well as men volunteered to fight for their country. This included African-American women. Until 1948, three years after the end of the war, the armed forces were segregated (divided by race). White and black soldiers served in separate units.

Camp in Des Moines

In 1942 the Army opened an officer training school for women at Fort Des Moines. The camp on the south side of Des Moines had been the home of the first facility to train African-American male officers in World War I. The women who came to Fort Des Moines in 1942 were part of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC, later shortened to WAC). At first only white women were accepted as candidates for WAC officer training. But because of political pressure, the camp was opened to black women as well. The army reserved 40 of the first 440 candidate positions for black women.

At first white, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Japanese and Native-American women slept, ate and trained together while African-American women had separate facilities and training. This was at a time when much of the United States, especially the South, had laws requiring separate facilities for whites and blacks.

The army insisted that WAC training should be the same for blacks and whites. An army order stated: “There will be no discrimination in the type of duties to which Negro women in the WAC may be assigned….Every effort will be made through intensive recruiting to obtain the class of colored women desired, in order that there many be no lowering of the standard in order to meet ratio requirements.”

At the request of the federal government a Des Moines attorney, Charles P. Howard, was directed to interview the black WAC candidates and find out if there was any evidence of discrimination on the Army post. He reported that none was related to him. A reporter from a black newspaper in Pittsburgh traveled to Des Moines and wrote the same thing. Neither heard any evidence of jokes or insulting remarks or discrimination in training against black officer candidates.

Change Comes

But black WACs were required to use separate dormitories, lunch rooms and swimming pools. And the women reported that when they left the training camp and went into Des Moines, they faced discrimination and sometimes hostile comments. Black organizations like the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the YMCA protested the segregated facilities. In November 1942 the use of separate eating and sleeping arrangements ended.

A black woman from Georgia, Sarah Murphy Palmore, graduated from the officer training program in 1942 with 35 other black women. She remembered that black families in Des Moines welcomed the black women at the camp and sometimes invited them home for dinner.

Altogether 65,000 women of all races were trained at Fort Des Moines during World War II. They learned military sanitation, first aid, map reading and camp management. Still, racial and gender stereotypes kept black women from many opportunities. A history of African-Americans in Iowa claims that World War II had a great impact on all women, black and white. “Many of the obstacles and stereotypes confronting black WACs obstructed their white sisters as well. The WAC was an overall success in coming to the aid of the nation in time of war in a conflict that demanded hard sacrifices from all Americans, male and female, black and white.”

In 1948 President Harry Truman ended segregation in the armed forces. He signed Executive Order 9981 that forbade the military from discrimination on the basis of race.


  • Morris, William, "Black Iowans in Defense of the Nation, 1863-1991” in Outside In: African American History in Iowa, 1838-2000.Silag, Bill, Ed. Outside In: African-American History in Iowa, 1838-2000. Des Moines, Iowa: State Historical Society of Iowa, 2001.


Written for Iowa Pathways by Tom Morain.