Capt. Mildred McAfee Horton

Circa 1943, Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Mildred H. McAfee and Coast Guard Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Dorothy Stratton watch 418 women take the oath to join the Navy and Coast Guard in front of New York City Hall. (U.S. Navy)
Circa 1943, Navy Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Mildred H. McAfee and Coast Guard Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Dorothy Stratton watch 418 women take the oath to join the Navy and Coast Guard in front of New York City Hall. (U.S. Navy)

A newsman's joke that WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) actually meant "Women Are Very Essential, Sometimes" might grate on some women, but Capt. Mildred H. McAfee took the jest with a grain of salt and adapted it as one of her own bon mots. Horton, the first director of the WAVES, was appointed the first female line officer in the Navy on Aug. 3, 1942.

Before World War II, Mildred Helen McAfee served as president of Wellesley College, a position she assumed in 1936 after a mere eight years in academia. So competent was she that when she took her leave of absence for naval duty in 1942, three women had to divide up the tasks she had done as president.

McAfee brought this formidable competence to her new military duties. The Navy wasn't at all sure it needed women. Most of the men "Capt. Mac" dealt with outranked her, yet she was "a brilliant, articulate person with a sense of humor and no phony affectations," wrote Maj. Gen. Jeanne Holm. "She could disarm everyone from the lowliest yardarm to the top brass of the Navy -- and did."

Under McAfee's guidance, the WAVES grew to 80,000 women, serving in occupations from flight instructors to cooks to metalworkers. She once said, "All we women wanted to do was to get the war over with and get back to our other lives," which is what she did, marrying the Rev. Douglas Horton in 1945. The new Mrs. Horton took up her former job as president of Wellesley, in which she would continue until 1949. In 1945, Capt. Mildred McAfee Horton was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

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