In 1960, Chief Master Sgt. Grace Peterson became the first female chief master sergeant. She was not only the first female chief master sergeant; she was part of the original group of senior NCOs to be selected for the rank of E-9.
At the time of promotion, Peterson was the first sergeant of a 400-person Women in the Air Force, or WAF, squadron at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J.
Chief Peterson entered military service in New York City soon after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack that thrust America into World War II and joined what was then called the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1942.
During an interview at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., in 2010, Peterson said, “I joined because of the horrors of Pearl Harbor and I felt I had to do something about it.”
Peterson recalled the first momentous day she entered WAAC as a boot trainee. She was sent to the first WAAC training center, which she called hastily established, at Fort Des Moines, Iowa.
The “genius” who prepared these facilities to receive the first females into the military will forever command her admiration, she said.
“Male OD coats were issued and trailed in the snow for the shorter girls. None of us needed mittens for the sleeves completely enveloped our arms,” she said.
Four weeks later, she was assigned as company clerk to the second WAAC training center at Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., and in less than one year the “boot trainee” had risen to the rank of first sergeant.
To this date, Peterson maintains the “boot” expression derived from the heavy brogan shoes she and her charges wore in those days. After experiencing the rigors of basic training and a tight academic schedule – first as a pupil and later as an instructor- the precedent establishing experience of the veteran of six months was considered too valuable to relinquish.
She had, so to speak, found her niche in the Army…to greet and train the women volunteers who had followed her in steadily increasing numbers.
At this point in her career, Peterson said, “I was not only proud of my personal good fortune, but I felt an immense pride of my sex. Many of the volunteers we received – some a great deal older than myself- were college graduates and had established civilian careers but chose, instead, to serve with the armed forces. And I think the record points out the caliber of service women performed during the war.”
Throughout the war years, Peterson remained in the United States except for a period of duty at Ladd Field, Alaska.
She served during both Victory over Europe (May, 7 1945) and Victory over Japan (Aug. 14, 1945) days.
(Courtesy of the Air Force Enlisted Heritage Research Institute. Staff Sgt. Zachary Wilson contributed to this article.)