Living History: Quantico docent shares the legacy of women Marines

By Master Sgt. Sal Cardella

TRIANGLE, Va. (March 14) — Her still-dazzling baby blue eyes and brilliant smile seemed even brighter as she talked about joining the Marine Corps during World War II.

Patricia A. O’Malley Kelly points herself out in a photo displayed in the World War II section of the National Museum of the Marine Corps where she volunteers as a docent. She is holding a photo of herself as a staff sergeant in what she says is her favorite uniform, the Service Alphas. Photographer: Master Sgt. Sal Cardella
A thick New England accent flavored the quick pace of her speech, emphasizing her point with laughter, sometimes a hushed tone and the frequent use of the word wicked, something Bostonians like herself did.

Patricia A. O’Malley Kelly, a resident of Springfield, wore her Marine and Irish pride in the confident way she carried and dressed her 5-foot-6-inch frame Monday at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. An eagle, globe and anchor pin decorated her green sweater and a scarf with green shamrocks hung from her purse.

“I wanted to do something special and thought I’d join the Navy like my twin brother, Charlie,” she confessed, making sure to add that her older brother, John, joined the Army. “(Charlie) told me to join the Marines because they had better looking uniforms.”

So the 20-year-old girl from the Savin Hill section of Boston signed up to be one of the few and proud May 23, 1944, just one year after the creation of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve.

“I had to wait to be called though,” she explained. “It was sometime in August or September I took the train to Camp Lejeune for boot camp.”

Kelly admitted she was deathly afraid of the male drill instructor and wasn’t too thrilled about the gas chamber, but did enjoy the physical training, drill and especially learning to shoot at the rifle range.

“We didn’t get to qualify, but we did get to shoot,” she said proudly. Marines were the only women in the military to receive combat training during boot camp at that time.

“They must have thought I was pretty good because they graduated me as a Pfc. (Private First Class),” she said, which meant another $4 a month.

Kelly shipped out to Henderson Hall in Arlington. The installation billeted the members of the Marine Women’s Reserve from 1943 to 1946.

“We lived in a squad bay with about 90 other Marines, had one dresser with two drawers, a footlocker and hung our uniforms on open racks and shared an open shower if you can believe that,”she said with a smirk. “None of us owned any civilian clothes and there was only one telephone in the whole squad bay.”

The Marines woke to reveille, went to the mess hall for chow and formed for inspection at 8 a.m., before marching in formation to Navy Annex for duty, she said.

“I was put to work at the switchboard since I had worked at the telephone company before joining,” she said. “I did have 30 days of mess duty, and I remember we had to be back to barracks by midnight.”

Kelly also played on the women’s softball team and sang in the glee club.

By the end of World War II about 18,000 women Marines were on duty and, soon after, an aggressive demobilization of the Women’s Reserve began.

Staff Sgt. Pat Kelly became one of the very few authorized to stay, and in 1948 the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act granted women permanent status in the regular and reserve forces of the military.

“I went to disbursing and became an auditor, and was sent to the Pentagon,” she remembered. “I eventually worked for the undersecretary of the Navy as a receptionist where I got to go TAD (temporary assigned duty) a lot.”

Seems 1949 proved a busy year for Kelly. She marched in President Truman’s inauguration parade, modeled the winter uniform for female Marines and went to New York to be in a recruiting film for women in the service.

In 1950, she toured Europe, which she said was great because she got to wear civilian attire again.

“I was actually in Rome when the Korean War started,” she recalled, hesitating for a moment then reconfirming with a smile. “Yep, it was Rome.”

That same year she met the love of her life, Ed Kelly, a 1st Marine Division leatherneck who she said received the Silver Star from Marine Corps legend “Chesty” Puller for actions on Cape Gloucester during World War II. They eventually married in1952, the year she separated from the Corps as a technical sergeant (The rank of gunnery sergeant was established in 1899. It was supplanted in 1946 by the technical sergeant rank before being reintroduced in 1958).

“I had to get out,” she said of her more than eight years in the Marine Corps. “You weren’t allowed to stay in back then once you got pregnant.”

So Kelly settled down into civilian life, followed her New Jersey-born husband around the Corps until his retirement in 1974, all the while raising their two boys, Michael and John, and, as she put it, “keeping busy.”

Keeping busy for her meant lots of volunteering. “I love helping people,” she beamed.

She served from 1978 to 1988 as the assistant secretary of the Women’s Marine Association and remains active in that organization.

“Pat Kelly is vivacious and into everything,” Mary Sue League, retired Marine lieutenant colonel and fellow volunteer at the museum. “We have both been docents for the National Museum of the Marine Corps since it opened in 2006.”

Along with staying connected and sharing the Corps she loves, this energetic two-war Marine still moves with the urgency of a recruit even though she is well into her eighth decade.

Besides the Marine associations and the museum, Kelly has been a volunteer at the White House since 1989.

“Working for Barbara Bush is one of my favorite memories working there,” she said. “I still work there every week and at the museum two to three times a month; whenever I’m needed.”

Kelly’s military decorations include the National Defense Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal and the Good Conduct Medal with a bronze star.

Anyone who meets Patricia A. O’Malley Kelly will believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that Irish eyes truly smile. And, yes, she admits St. Patrick’s Day is her favorite holiday.

Selected highlights of the history of women in the Marine Corps

  • Legend has it that the first woman actually served in the Marine Corps during the War of 1812. As the story goes, Lucy Brewer disguised herself as a man named George Baker and served as a Marine aboard the USS Constitution where she saw action during some of the bloodiest sea fights of the war.
  • The first women officially served in the Marine Corps during World War I. Pvt. Opha Mae Johnson became the first woman to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserve Aug. 13, 1918. A total of 305 women served in the Marine CorpsReserve during World War I. Most of these women Marines, referred to as Marinettes, freed male Marines from clerical billets at Headquarters Marine Corps, enabling them to fight in France.
  • The Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established in 1943. The 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Thomas Holcomb said, ‘‘They’re real Marines. They don’t have a nickname, and they don’t need one. They get their basic training in a Marine atmosphere, at a Marine post. They inherit the traditions of the Marines. They are Marines.”
  • Approximately 23,145 officer and enlisted women served in the Corps during World War II as part of the Women’sReserve. At the war’s end, Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, 18th Commandant of the Marine Corps, said these women could ‘‘feel responsible for putting the 6th Marine Division in the field; for without the women filling jobs throughout the Marine Corps, there would not have been sufficient men available to form that division.”
  • Of the more than 20,000 who joined the Marine Corps during the war, only 1,000 remained in the reserve by July 1946.
  • On June 12, 1948, Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which authorized the acceptance of women into the regular component of the Marine Corps and other Armed Services, placing them on par with their male counterparts. Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., was designated as the location for training women recruits.
  • The Women’s Reserve was mobilized for the first time in August 1950 for the Korean War, reaching peak strength of 2,787 active-duty women Marines.
  • By the height of the Vietnam War, about 2,700 active-duty women Marines served stateside and overseas.
  • Col. Margaret A. Brewer’s appointment to brigadier general in 1978 made her the Corps’ first woman general officer.
  • The 1990s saw additional changes and increased responsibilities for women in the Marine Corps, including flying combat aircraft. Approximately 1,000 women Marines were deployed to Southwest Asia for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-1991.
  • Brig. Gen. Carol A. Mutter became the first woman to assume command of a Fleet Marine Force unit at the flag level when she assumed command of the 3rd Force Service Support Group in Okinawa in 1992.
  • 2nd Lt. Sarah Deal became the first woman Marine selected for Naval aviation training in 1993.
  • In 1994, Brig. Gen. Mutter became the first woman major general in the Corps and the senior woman on active duty in the Armed Forces.
  • Lt. Gen. Mutter made history again when she became the first woman Marine to wear three stars in 1996.

Note: This story originally appeared the Quantico Sentry on Mar 17, 2011.