Alumna among first to command Women's Army Corps troops overseas during WWII

Laura Waldhier and Ret. Col. Thomas Fosnacht
November 14, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For a special military appreciation Throwback Thursday, we take a look at the life of Penn State alumna and veteran Cora Marie Foster, who was one of the first women to command Women’s Army Corps troops overseas during World War II.

Born March 6, 1906, in State College, Pennsylvania, Foster graduated from Penn State in 1927 with a degree in mathematics, and in 1937 earned a master's degree in education from Columbia University. Foster was working as a high school teacher when, in December 1941, the United States entered the Second World War.

The Women’s Army Corps

In June 1942, at the age of 36, Foster enlisted in the U.S. Army, intending to be a part of the aviation cadet program — and instead was transferred to the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). Foster attended WAAC’s first officers’ training course at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, and commissioned later that year.

In July 1943, the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was created and made an active-duty branch of the U.S. Army. As the first contingents of WAC troops were deployed overseas, Foster was assigned to the 5th Army in Casablanca, Morocco, North Africa, in August of 1943.

Just four months later, when Lt. Gen. Mark Clark moved his 5th Army headquarters to the Italian mainland, his WAC component — the 6669th W.A.C. Headquarters Platoon — was commanded by none other than 1st Lt. Cora M. Foster.

A successful ‘experiment’

As the official history of the Women's Army Corps states, "this unit became the Army's 'experiment' in the use of female units in the field,” and under Foster's leadership the 6669th performed in an extraordinarily outstanding manner, so much so that it received the Meritorious Service Unit Commendation.

Further proof of the unit's unequaled performance of duty is reflected in the fact that 27 enlisted members of Foster’s platoon were awarded individual Bronze Star Medals for "meritorious service in a combat zone." As Lt. Gen. Mark Clark himself stated in an article appearing in the June 1944 Penn State Alumni News, in referring to Cora's platoon, "we honestly couldn't and wouldn't do without them.”

After the War

Ret. Lt. Col. Cora. M. Foster, Penn State Class of 1927

Ret. Lt. Col. Cora. M. Foster, Penn State Class of 1927

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

The general regarded Foster so highly that he kept her on his staff when he became the post-war Commander of U.S. Forces in Austria, during which she served on his headquarters staff in Vienna as the G-1 personnel officer for all enlisted assignments. Her overseas postings continued during the Korean War to include classified assignments in Tokyo and Okinawa, Japan.

Throughout Foster’s Army career her expertise and foresight were sought out to serve on numerous Pentagon panels determining DOD and Army policy concerning utilization of female military personnel. By the time of her retirement in May 1959, she had risen to be one of the four most senior lieutenant colonels in the Women's Army Corps, and had been on the short list to become director of the WAC, a position held by the only female full colonel in the Army at that time.

Foster’s many decorations included the Bronze Star Medal, Army Commendation Medal, European-African-Mediterranean Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Army of Occupation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Service Medal, and the United Nations Service Medal.

“To Cora M. Foster, for her unswerving devotion to the University from which she was graduated; for her deep and abiding dedication to the teaching profession; for her signal sense of duty during a period of national emergency; and for her distinguished record as an officer of the Women’s Army Corps.”

— Citation for Foster as Penn State's 1960 "Woman of the Year"

Return to teaching

She returned to education following her military career and taught mathematics at Bellaire High School, in Houston, Texas. In 1960 she was named "Penn State Woman of the Year” by the Board of Trustees. Foster passed away on Jan. 26, 1975.

In the “Woman of the Year” program, Foster’s citation reads: “To Cora M. Foster, for her unswerving devotion to the University from which she was graduated; for her deep and abiding dedication to the teaching profession; for her signal sense of duty during a period of national emergency; and for her distinguished record as an officer of the Women’s Army Corps.”

Penn State celebrates Military Appreciation Week each fall. More than 5,600 students at University Park, Penn State campuses across the Commonwealth and through the Penn State World Campus, have direct military ties as either an active-duty service member, a reservist, veteran or military dependent. Visit militaryappreciation.psu.edu for information about military appreciation events at the University, as well as resources for Penn State service members and veterans.

Last Updated November 19, 2018