First Female Marine, Opha Mae Johnson

by LtCol Lynn “Kim” Kimball, USMC (Ret)

Women first served in the Marine Corps during World War I, taking over clerical jobs to “free a Marine to fight,” and this phenomenon was repeated in World War ll for the same purpose. In November 1942 a much-needed increase in manpower resulted in the establishment of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserves (MCWR or WR), whose official birthday was 13 February 1943. When enrollment opened in February 1943, women (all of whom were white, as the WR did not accept black enrollments during the war) joined in sizeable numbers, and the WR easily met its quota ahead of schedule. Rates of enlistment and the Marines’ general acceptance of the WR made the new program a success, but the WR was never considered at the time anything but a “wartime expedient” and there was never any question that women Marines would be assigned only to non-combat support jobs.

Initially, the women, both officers and enlisted, received training with the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Hunter College in New York City, while more suitable training facilities were being prepared at the New River base that would become Camp Lejeune. Upon their arrival in early 1943, the WR were quartered in Regimental Area 1, the location of the barracks, classrooms, and administrative offices of the MCWR schools, and which was previously occupied by the “Paramarines.” Subsequently, Camp Lejeune’s own WR Battalion (women post troops) was quartered in a separate Women’s Reserve Area, which was placed adjacent to the Post Troops Area since it would involve the least amount of new site development. Brick buildings similar to those in Regimental Areas 1 through 5 were erected there along streets named Virginia Dare Drive, Molly Pitcher Drive, and Lucy Brewer Avenue, to commemorate famous women in American history. While the architectural style and layout of the permanent structures resembled those already erected at the base, special features, such as laundry rooms, ironing boards, extra outlets “for electric irons,” and comfortably equipped lounge rooms, were also provided for the women. Today, the street names are the only remaining clues to the area’s original function, other than a few minor architectural touches.

The advance echelon of 10 female officers arrived at Camp Lejeune in April 1943, followed by 145 enlisted personnel on 1 May. Little more than a month later, the MCWR Schools were organized. Boot camp, Officers’ Candidate School, a few specialized schools, and thereafter all WR training were centralized at Camp Lejeune. The first women officer candidates were commissioned at Camp Lejeune in August 1943. In November, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox arrived at the base to personally address the seventh WR officers’ class, which included Eugenia Lejeune, daughter of the famous general for whom the base was named, LtGen John A. Lejeune, the 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps. Another notable officer candidate was Mary Fordnoy, granddaughter of MajGen Ben H. Fuller, the 15th Commandant.

Women Reservists were expected to meet Marine Corps’ standards for appearance and discipline, and they learned to drill like their male counterparts. And, WR were the only military women to receive weapons training. After boot camp, they trained in the MCWR schools, the Quartermaster School, the Cooks and Bakers School, and the Motor Transport School, but later were permitted to enter other training courses at the base and various other schools throughout the country. During WW ll, the women continued to fill clerical positions but also served in a variety of other critical fields, nearly one-third serving in aviation-related positions. Approximately 23,000 women joined the Corps during the war, virtually all of them at Camp Lejeune, which is accounted by women Marines as their spiritual and traditional home.

Gen Thomas Holcomb, the 17th Commandant, succinctly described the character of their service: “There’s hardly any work at our Marine stations that women can’t do as well as men. They do some work far better than men…They are Marines.” Gen Alexander Vandergrift, the 18th Commandant, added a further tribute, crediting the presence of the WR in the Corps in “freeing a Marine to fight” to enable the formation of the 6th Marine Division. In 1948, the U.S. Congress passed the “Women’s Armed Service Integration Act,” making women a permanent part of the Marine Corps and allowing them regular status. Henceforth, they were no longer Women’s Reserves (WR), they were Women Marines (WM), and as their male counterparts, could now celebrate a birthday of 10 November 1775.

(Excerpted from: LtCol L.J. Kimball, USMC (Ret), Consulting Historian. “Marine Corps Women’s Reserves,” Semper Fidelis: A Brief History of Onslow County, NC, and MCB Camp Lejeune. U.S. Marine Corps, 2002.)

Posted on: February 24, 2020
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