A salute to women's history
Editor’s note: March is National Women’s History Month, and Stripes Kanto is honoring our courageous women in uniform – past and present – by sharing their historic stories each week. If you have such a story to share, send it to KANTO@STRIPES.COM and help us salute women in the military.
MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII – From the very first woman Marine to her modern-day sisters, each has contributed to the Marine Corps’ readiness to be “first to fight.” The Corps recruited its earliest female members in response to wartime needs to deploy men overseas from their clerical positions at military headquarters and offices.
“Be a Marine ... free a Marine to fight,” trumpeted posters during World War II, a recruiting strategy that echoed the Corps’ first campaign for women, launched in the summer of 1918 when the Corps faced ever-mounting demands to dispatch more Marines to the front lines in France during World War I.
Opha Mae Johnson, who had been working as a civilian employee at the Corps’ headquarters in Washington, D.C., became the first woman Marine on Aug. 13, 1918, the first day of sign-ups for women.
From among thousands of applicants, the Corps searched for exceptional clerical and office skills, outstanding character and a neat appearance. “The few and the proud,” to allude to the Marines’ current marketing slogan, numbered just 305 women, who were enrolled as reserve Marines.
“Something kept sticking in my throat all the time” as newly minted Pvt. Martha L. Wilchinski was being sworn in, she wrote in a letter to her boyfriend, who was fighting in France. “I don’t know whether it was my heart or my liver. I had to swallow it several times before I could say, ‘I do.’”
“I can’t sign myself as affectionately as I used to, Bill,” she said in closing. “You understand, I’m a soldier now and you wouldn’t want me doing anything that wasn’t in the (Marine Corps) Manual. Yours till the cows come home.”
Difficult situations sometimes arose in interactions with male Marines. “The other day the lieutenant and I were waiting to go down in the elevator,” Wilchinski said in another letter to Bill. “Now here’s the question. If I am a lady and he’s a gentleman, I go in first.
If he’s an officer and I’m a corporal, he goes in first. It all depends on how you look at it. I didn’t know how he’d take it, so I thought I’d wait and see what he’d do ... Then he stepped forward and I stepped back. Then he stepped back and I stepped forward. Then we both stepped back. I was getting pretty dizzy by that time. I guess he was too. Then we both squeezed in at the same time. I guess that’s what they mean by military tactics.”
Johnson, America’s first woman Marine, served as a clerk in the Quartermaster General’s Office, rising to sergeant in three months by the time the war ended Nov. 11, 1918. She and the other women reserve Marines were ordered to inactive status.
They got the same benefits as male veterans of the war, including a $60 bonus upon discharge and the right to a military burial in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. In the decades since Johnson became the first woman Marine, the Corps has opened up more and more jobs to females. Once limited to clerical work, women can now serve in the Corps as air crew and in armory, artillery and infantry.
On Jan. 24, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced that women in the military would no longer be banned from roles in direct ground combat. All branches are evaluating performance standards and developing plans to carry out this decision.
“I fundamentally believe that our military is more effective when success is based solely on ability, qualifications and on performance,” Panetta said. “Not everyone is going to be able to be a combat soldier. But everyone is entitled to a chance. By committing ourselves to that principle, we are renewing our commitment to American values our service members fight and die to defend.”