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Women Marines in World War II

 

“What? Women Marines? You’ve got to be kidding.”

That was the first reaction from a group of male Marines freed from a prison camp in the Philippines in February 1945.  These men could hardly believe that women were in the Marine Corps.

American women in military uniform were rare at the beginning of World War II.  On 30 July 1942, the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established as part of the Marine Corps Reserve.  The mission of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was to provide qualified women for duty at shore establishments of the Marine Corps, releasing men for combat duty.

By February 1943, American forces wiped out all enemy opposition on Guadalcanal.  The bitter fighting there made it apparent that many more Marines would be needed to continue the war in the Pacific.  The Marine Corps would soon learn that there were no differences between men and women with respect to their fierce pride in the Marine Corps and that special “Once a Marine, Always a Marine” brand of loyalty.

The first group of women officers was given direct commissions based on ability and civilian expertise.  These women were given no formal indoctrination or schooling, but went on active duty immediately.  Women Marines were assigned to over 200 different jobs, including radio operator, photographer, parachute rigger, driver, aerial gunnery instructor, cook, baker, quartermaster, control tower operator, motion picture operator, auto mechanic, telegraph operator, cryptographer, laundry operator, post exchange (store) manager, stenographer and agriculturist.  By the end of World War II, 85 percent of the enlisted personnel assigned to Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps were women.

On 7 June 1946, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen Alexander A. Vandegrift approved the retention of a small number of women on active duty.  They would serve as a trained nucleus for possible mobilization emergencies.  The demobilization of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, 17,460 enlisted women and 820 officers, was to be completed by 1 September 1946.  Of the 20,000 women who joined the Marine Corps during World War II, only 1,000 remained in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve by 1 July 1946.

Colonel Ruth Cheney Streeter, the first director of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, recommended the position be strengthened and placed directly under the office of the Commandant of the Marine Corps.  On 12 June 1948, Congress passed legislation giving women regular military status, placing them on par with their male counterparts in the U.S. armed forces.

NOTES

The first commissioned officer in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was Capt Anne Lentz, a civilian clothing designer who began work on the women Marines’ uniforms.  The first commissioned officer class of 71 women reported to Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, in March 1943.

The first enlisted woman Marine was Lucille McClarren from Nemahcolin, Pennsylvania.  The first enlisted class of 722 women reported to Hunter College, in New York, New York, in March 1943.

Eighty percent of the total enrollment in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve came from only 17 states.  The average age of women Marines was 20-25 years.

In January 1945, the first detachment of women Marines arrived in Hawaii for duty.  By war’s end, approximately 1,000 female Marines were serving in Hawaii.

Only one woman Marine ever served with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in World War II.  Capt Charlotte Day Gower served in Washington, D.C.  She was formerly dean of women at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.  When the Japanese attacked, she became a prisoner in a Japanese internment camp for five months, where she taught Chinese to fellow inmates.  After repatriation, she joined the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve and later became its director of training.

On 10 November 1943, a statue nicknamed “Molly Marine” was dedicated in New Orleans, Louisiana, to honor all women Marines.  Because of building material restrictions during the war, the statue was made of marble chips and granite.

Nineteen women from the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) volunteered for the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve and became the first women Marine recruiters.

 

Taken from the WWII 50th Anniversary Fact Sheet Researched by
Alexander Molnar, Jr.

SOURCES: 

Meid, Pat, LtCol, USMCR. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in World War II. Washington D.C.: History and Museums Division, Headquarters Marine Corps, revised 1968.

Stremlow, Mary V., Col, USMCR. A History of the Women Marines, 1946-1977.   Washington D.C.: History and Museums Division, Headquarters Marine Corps, 1986.

Smith, S.E., The U.S. Marine Corps in World War II. New York: Random House, 1969.

Marine Corps History Division