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When World War II came and the men of the Tennessee Valley answered their country’s call to service in the armed forces, a select corps of women stepped up to serve TVA.

Women today are accepted in every occupation, including that of armed security officers. But things were different 75 years ago. In the early 1940s, most people in the Tennessee Valley had never even seen a uniformed woman with a gun.

When they did see one during the war years, chances were good that she worked for TVA and that she was a member of an all-but-forgotten corps of guards called WOOPS—the Women Officers of Public Safety.

woman with dog

An all-male security force known as the Public Safety Service (PSS) had protected TVA’s reservoirs and other installations since the agency’s founding in 1933. But when the war came along in 1941, the pool of PSS officers and potential recruits happened to be the same group Uncle Sam was tapping to fight the Germans and the Japanese.

As one PSS officer went off to war, TVA would hire another, only to watch him go out the door before long. The frightening thing was that the ranks of TVA’s security officers were dwindling just as the need for them was becoming more urgent.

The wartime production of aluminum—which was used to make aircraft—demanded large amounts of electricity. TVA’s hydroelectric dams were meeting that demand, as well as the needs of the top-secret atom-bomb-development project in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

So TVA might well be a target of Axis spies and saboteurs. And there was no room for mistakes. In 1942, German operatives were apprehended on Long Island, N.Y.; among their targets were American aluminum factories. Although they didn’t get close to the Alcoa plants sustained by TVA, the threat was very real.

TVA’s response to that danger was outlined in a statement issued April 1, 1943. Despite its loss of employees to Uncle Sam, the agency would expand its PSS force to nearly 1,000, and it would do so by creating a new corps of security guards: the Women Officers of Public Safety. In the spirit of the WACs and WAVES, these officers would be known as the WOOPS.

TVA accepted applications from women between the ages of 21 and 39. The erstwhile saleswomen, teachers, theater cashiers and stenographers who were accepted—and in the early days, not quite half of all applicants were—went through a course of intense combat training, including practice with riot guns and courses in judo.

The fact that the TVA’s women officers were issued .38-caliber pistols distinguished them from the WACs and WAVES, who weren’t generally permitted to carry weapons. Many of the WOOPS had never fired a gun before. Winnie Wade, of Madison, Ga., was a junior payroll clerk who was happy with her new occupation. “It’s more interesting,” she told the Knoxville News-Sentinel at the time. “I want to learn to work with the dogs and to shoot.”

It was a tough, often lonely job patrolling the perimeters around dams and power plants or guarding TVA’s offices in Knoxville and Chattanooga. Some officers worked with German shepherd dogs, which helped them keep installations like the agency’s new Watts Bar Dam secure.

Although many of the women were single, a few were the wives of PSS officers who were away at war. Kathleen Brown’s husband had been a safety officer at Chickamauga Dam. “He is overseas,” she told the respected national newsmagazine the Christian Science Monitor, which ran a story on the WOOPS. “I released him to the Army, as bad as I hated to, so I'm going to replace him.”

Some newspaper reporters seemed to have a little trouble taking the women officers seriously, and used the label “pistol-packin’ mamas.” They expressed surprise that many turned out to be good shots. One reporter observed that when the officers encountered a mouse while on patrol, “they didn’t say ‘Eek!’”

But the people who mattered did respect the WOOPs. In 1944, a little over a year after the program began, the armed forces awarded the corps the coveted Army-Navy E for Excellence award.

Colonel Stacy Knopf, in presenting the award to WOOPS officer Rosemary Cross, commended the corps and noted, “So far as I know not one incident of sabotage has occurred” at a TVA installation.

When the men returned home from the war in 1945, the WOOPS also went home. By the 1950s, TVA’s security force was once again the province of men. But over time that changed too, and today female security officers are common at TVA.

The Women Officers of Public Safety helped their country get through the century’s biggest national emergency, and were recognized for their contribution. But maybe, by the force of their example, they also helped open doors for generations of American women yet to come.