Discipline of WR’s in the 40’s

FREE A MARINE TO FIGHT: Women Marines in World War II
by Colonel Mary V Stremlow, USMCR (Ret)


Discipline of WR’s in the 40’s

As early as November 1942, Headquarters wisely considered a disciplinary plan for the Women’s Reserve. The other services were no help since the WAACs still served with the Army but were not part of it and the Navy had no predetermined policy except to say they would treat problems according to principles generally used for men with whatever modifications might be necessary for special instances such as sex offenses.

Not knowing what to expect and unwilling to leave it to chance, Marines wisely established discipline policies for Women Reservists:

1. Distinctions between officers and enlisted personnel would, in general, be the same as made between officers and enlisted men of the regular Marine Corps.

2. Officers would exercise normal disciplinary functions and MCWR officers would have similar responsibility when they attained appropriate rank and command.

3. Establishment of brigs or post prisons for the confinement of women was not contemplated, but confinement to quarters was deemed appropriate.

4. Exclusive of sentences involving confinement, punishment would be awarded as it was for officers and men of the regular Marine Corps.

5. Trial by court-martial would be recommended only in serious cases, particularly when confinement seemed a possibility.

6. For offenses not warranting trial, separation from service would be by the most expeditious means in accordance with policies applicable to men.

Little time was wasted on female offenders, and fortunately, there were relatively few problems. Because of their communal, intense desire to be accepted by Marines and approved by the general public, women Marines were their own severest critics and peer pressure to walk a tight line proved very effective. The records show only 36 enlisted women separated out of the total of 18,000 as a result of general and summary courts-martial. When officers resigned to escape a general court martial, their discharge was “under other than honorable conditions.”

Unauthorized absences — usually less than 10 days — accounted for the most common infractions; violations of regulations (uniform, fraternization, etc.) followed. Unlike earlier policies governing female military nurses, marriage was a cause for neither discharge nor punishment, and pregnancy was considered a medical rather than disciplinary case.

Much as with the men, punishment included confinement to quarters, loss of pay, reduction in rank, extra police duties, and in extreme cases, disciplinary discharges. However, the severity of punishment meted out to men and women accused of sex offenses differed markedly and the female officers balked at the harsh treatment of WRs in these instances.

Marines are the acknowledged masters in matters of discipline and morale, but there was no history to help them bridge the gender gap when the women landed. These women were not pliant teenagers, but rather adults, all 20 years old or older. Some were married, some had children, and a few had grandchildren. Since it was a time when females were expected to adhere to near-Victorian standards, military leaders assumed a paternalistic attitude and the inevitable occurred — grown, mature women were often treated like school girls. The senior women officers, many with roots in academia, were often more guilty than the men.

A galling but unchallenged rule was that women on board a base, unlike men of equal rank, could not have an automobile. It added to the allure of assignment to the motor pool that the drivers of trucks, jeeps, and buses were more mobile than their sisters.

Irene and Madelene Spencer
Twin sisters Irene and Madelene Spencer toured New England with the War Bond drive show, “Direct Hit,” which starred boxing champion Jack Dempsey, who was a Coast Guard officer, cowboy star Gene Autry, and comedian Frank Fontaine. Photo courtesy of Irene and Madelene Spencer

Luckily, Colonel Streeter was able to balance high standards of behavior with an earthy understanding of human nature and she seemed to know just when to tighten the reins and when to turn her head. She was pragmatic about discreet instances of fraternization and she recognized that when dealing with men and women, some things could not be strictly regulated. She was a gifted leader who subscribed to the theory that “. . . the most able commanders, be they men or women, are those who take care of their people and who keep them out of trouble by anticipating the problems that may confront them.”

She expected women officers, regardless of their assignment, to share responsibility for the morale and welfare of enlisted women and this policy was sacred until separate women’s units were abolished in the 1970s. Colonel Streeter was rightfully proud that the Women’s Reserve organized a recreation and education service long before the Special Services Division was formed, and she credited it with the high morale of the women Marines. Yet, in the end, it was her own good sense, concern for her women, pride in the Marine Corps, and determination that sustained the wartime WRs.

Women Marines on bond tour
Following the devastation visited upon the carrier Franklin in operations off Japan, as seen in the picture held by these Women Marines, they were sent on a bond tour in 1945, which took them to Dallas, Texas, where this picture was taken. Photo courtesy of Evelyn Wallman Gins

Excerpted from the Book:  FREE A MARINE TO FIGHT: Women Marines in World War II
by Colonel Mary V Stremlow, USMCR (Ret)