Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground opened in 1917 and today is the military’s oldest weapons-testing facility in the United States. It’s a big operation. At its peak in World War II, Aberdeen had housing for more than 27,000, and today it still employs more then 12,000 people.
Through its first decades Aberdeen was a man’s world. But that changed during World War II. LIFE covered extensively the real-life Rosie the Riveters who moved into industrial jobs during that era, and the women who became weapons-testers for the first time in Aberdeen were part of that same phenomenon.
The story in LIFE’s Feb. 1, 1943 issue described how the soldiers who once worked the testing grounds but had been deployed overseas were at first replaced by male civilians. Then “as the draft hit hard, the civilians began to disappear and in their place came thousands of women.”
And who were these women?
The women come from everywhere. Many have husbands in the Army. Others have husbands who also work at Aberdeen. They wear bright-colored slacks, and their “firing fronts” are a rippling blend of pink. blue and orange, mixed with white and black powder from the guns. They serve on crews of all weapons up to the 90-mm A.A.’s. [anti-aircraft guns]. They handle highly technical instruments. They drive trucks, act as bicycle messengers, swab and clean vehicles. A few of them have even been tested as tank drivers, but that work, with its physical bruises, is still a little too tough for them.
The declaration of that last sentence reflected a time when women were making their first inroads to military service. In 1942 the WACs had just come into being (see LIFE’s coverage of the first WACs here) and the change in attitudes about what roles women could play was slow and incremental. It was not until 2015 that the Department of Defense opened all military occupations and positions to women.
The photographs by Myron Davis and Bernard Hoffman capture a world in transition. Some pictures indulge in the novelty of the moment—such as the photo of a woman who looks like a schoolmarm set up behind the sites of a machine gun with an ammunition belt being fed through it. But in other photos the women, such as Mrs. Ruby Barnett, a grandmother who had never fired a gun before coming to work at Aberdeen, look right at home in their new jobs. Those pictures seem to ask the question about the women taking on this new line of work: Well, why not?
The year was 1986, and I was getting my first taste of soldiering. My initial foray into the real Army was Northern Warfare School. Three weeks in the wilds of Alaska alongside 146 other ROTC cadets would be my first proper experience in uniform.
Northern Warfare School was divided into three 1-week phases. The first week was mountaineering, the next, river operations. The third week was spent on a glacier. That was about as comfortable as it sounds. At the end of those three weeks, I had learned how to run a rope, accumulated a proper quiver of survival skills, and come to appreciate some things that I had not previously appreciated. One of those things was river crossings.
They call it a rope bridge, but it’s really just a rope. One poor slob has to cross the river with the rope and then tie it to an anchor point on the far bank. The rest of the unit then tightens and secures the rope so everyone else can cross without getting wet. As burgeoning leaders, however, some rocket scientist figured we needed to appreciate the plight of that unfortunate sot who has to swim the river. As such we all got to check that box.
The river in question was comprised solely of glacial melt and was flowing at what I would conservatively estimate to be about 200 miles per hour. I have no recollection of how wide it was, but I distinctly recall there was ice floating in it. At the time I would have estimated several kilometers, but in reality, it might have been a bit shorter.
We rigged two ropes at angles. To cross the river you’d tie an anchor around your chest with a sling rope and hook into the safety rope with a snap link. You’d then cross using one rope that was arranged at a slight angle downstream. Once on the other side, you’d unhook, snap into the second rope, and cross back over by the same means. We had a massive bonfire cooking on the near side so we could warm up upon our return.
Just Embrace the Suck
One of my comrades had a great idea. He really, really, really didn’t want to get into that cold water, so he donned his wet weather gear underneath his uniform. That meant above his underwear went a pair of rubber pants that he duct-taped tightly around his ankles. He wore a pair of suspenders to help keep his plastic pants in place. With his uniform arrayed on top no one was the wiser. He was quite proud of himself.
This idiot was in the first few troops to cross. Taking hold of the safety rope he lowered himself gently into the cascading tumult. As soon as the water got above the top of his rubber pants it flowed in with great vigor. The immutable dicta of physics then inflated his snivel gear like a sea anchor, exploded his external uniform, and tore his hands from the rope. In moments he was spinning uncontrollably in the river like some kind of leviathan crank bait. He was unconscious in short order.
The instructors had anticipated such foolishness so they had a spare loose rope across the river. They hooked a snap link on the end of that rope and affixed it over the rope from which my buddy was now twirling madly. Half a dozen of us towed the poor guy’s limp form to shore where the medics went to work on him. Now it was time for the rest of us to take a turn.
So just how cold was it? By the time I got across the first time I could only feel a single solitary little spot in my chest about the size of a walnut. Everything else—hands, feet, head, butt — seemed to be missing. By the time I got back to the near bank, I could not have reliably identified my own gender. All 147 of us stripped down and climbed into the fire. As we thawed out, we peeled off to get into dry clothes. Of the 147 troops involved, fifteen were female. No kidding, we were so cold none of us noticed.
The miscreant in the snivel gear survived, barely, and I vowed never again to undertake an arctic river crossing. While that was not “THE” reason I branched Aviation it was indeed “A” reason I branched Aviation. Next time I figured I’d just fly across.
Not to mention also wearig your low quarteers too!