Once Upon A Time in the Marine Corps

By Clarence Nelson

On December 7, 1941 the lives of the young men and women of what has been called the greatest generation of Americans were forever changed.

At the time of the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, the idea of women in the Marine Corps had not even been considered since WW-I.  But, soon after Pearl Harbor, and the advent of total war, attitudes changed, and the greatest generation of Women Marines emerged.

In July of 1943, in Ventura, California a young woman was employed as assistant to the Dean of Men at Ventura College.  One of her duties involved going to the post office to pick up the mail.  One day she spotted a poster in the post office that read “BE A MARINE AND FREE A MARINE TO FIGHT.”  She knew immediately the poster was talking to her, and not only that, but she could probably free at least two Marines to fight.  Next stop: Recruiting station!

She received specific instructions to pack lightly for the trip to Camp Lejeune, but when she boarded the train she observed that many of the young women had packed large suitcases, were wearing hats and gloves and looked as if they were going to a party.   Five days later, as the train pulled into a siding in Camp Lejeune, she learned she had been well advised to follow orders.  As the train came to stop, a very large and obviously annoyed Private First Class boarded the train and shouted, “FALL OUT.”  Chaos followed as the recruits with their large heavy luggage and their hats and high-heeled shoes stumbled from the train onto the graveled right of way to the absolute disgust of the Drill Instructors. What followed was the standard procedure followed since 1775 whereby highly skilled and impatient Drill Instructors convert a raw civilian into a Marine. In November 1943 these newly trained young women Marines were transferred to Cherry Point, North Carolina and placed in a casual barracks awaiting assignment.  Christmas was coming up, Bing Crosby had introduced “I’ll be home for Christmas” and our heroine from Ventura, CA came down with a disease known then as “Cat Fever.” Not only was she sick physically, but also she was homesick.  The “Cat Fever” cleared up in about ten days, but the homesickness only got worse

As soon as she was able she decided to go to the Commanding Officer and ask her to do something.  She went to administrative office where she was greeted brusquely by a Sergeant who made it clear that the Commanding Officer was not to be bothered.  She left, but she was not giving up.  She stayed out of sight until the Sergeant went down the hall to the head whereupon she slipped into the office and knocked on the door of the Commanding Officer.  She was invited in and approached the Captain’s desk and stood at attention.  The Captain was a nice looking and courteous woman, and she bade the Private to stand at ease.  Her desk was absolutely bare except for a yellow sheet, obviously a telegram, lying in the center.  “What do you want, Private”?  “Well, Ma’am, replied our heroine, “I think I would be much happier in the Marine Corps if I could be sent to someplace near my home in Southern California.”  Nonplussed, the Captain pressed a button, and when a clerk appeared, she asked for the qualification card of our Private.  After studying the card and the telegram for a few moments, the Captain looked up at the Private and said, “It happens this telegram is from Colonel Gephart who is the Commanding Officer of Air Base Group-2  in San Diego, and you meet, exactly, the qualifications of a woman Marine he has requested.  So, you report to the quartermaster, and he will give you your orders, dismissed”!

After reporting to the quartermaster and receiving her orders she returned to the barracks and began to pack her sea bag.  The others began to inquire,” what are you doing”?  “ Packing, I have my orders to San Diego.” she replied.  “Oh sure you have.” scoffed her buddies.  “You’ll see,” she said.  Later when the jeep pulled up at the barracks door and she got aboard and waved good-bye, there were many jealous and wondering-eyed heads sticking out of the windows. The jeep driver delivered her and her sea bag to the train depot and she was off to San Diego and a new phase in her life as a Woman Reserve Marine. (WR’s, as they were known).

Fast forward to the train station at the foot of Broadway in San Diego, CA. She shouldered her bag and boarded the little ferryboat, affectionately known as the Nickel Snatcher, and headed for North Island and ABG-2.  By now she had been joined by nine other WR’s.  At headquarters of ABG-2 they were informed that they would be billeted in the WAVE’s barracks in Coronado, just outside the air station.  These quarters were very nice, well furnished and comfortable.  Unfortunately for our 10 WR’s they were only temporary, and soon, they were moved back aboard the air station into a standard squad bay with double decked cots and green metal wall lockers.

The mission of ABG-2 was to receive the F4U Corsair aircraft from the manufacturer and prepare them for the Fleet.  The ten WR’s took their places in the squadron and our girl, because of her secretarial skills, was assigned to the headquarters office where she worked directly for Colonel Gephart.  She and her nine fellow WR’s prepared the barracks and accommodations for 600 more WR’s who were on their way.  And finally, in early 1944 they arrived and took their places in all the various shops and facilities of ABG-2.  These included among others, the parachute loft, engine overhaul, machine shop, supply, radio shop, paint shop, engine installation, and the carpenter shop.  They were respectfully greeted and accepted by the male Marines, and they quickly were assimilated into the Group.   More importantly, they were making a great contribution by participating in the mission to provide outstanding fighter airplanes to the Marine Corps. They were classy, they were attractive, and they certainly were effective in releasing a Marine to fight.

In Boise, Idaho on the 7th of December a young 18-year-old man had a date with his girlfriend to go roller-skating at a local rink.  They had heard prior to coming to the skating rink that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, but they were not aware of where Pearl Harbor was or what the significance of this attack was.  While they were enjoying themselves an announcement came over the loud speaker ordering all soldiers from Gowen Field (Boise’s Army Air Corps Base) to return immediately to Base.  The skating rink emptied out.  Now the young couple remaining became more interested in the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and soon he returned his date to her home, and he went to the Marine Corps recruiting office.

Forward to San Diego, December 10, 1941.  Here the 18-year-old became known as “Mack,”  (“Mack” was a demeaning name drill instructors used on new recruits whose name they didn’t know.)  He was trained to be a Marine and sent to North Island Naval Air Station to an outfit known as Base Air Detachment-2 (BAD-2).  It was the first West Coast Installation for Marine Corps Aviation.  Here he was assigned to Special Services as a swimming instructor, archery instructor and all-around flunky.

By 1943 he had outlived his usefulness to what had now become Air Base Group-2 and was assigned to an aviation outfit headed for the South Pacific. The time came in May 1944 when he returned from the South Pacific where he had served at Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, Espirto Santos and Efate in the new Hebrides, and in New Caledonia before returning to ABG-2 and resuming his work in Special Services.  By this time he had been promoted to Staff Sergeant, and our Ventura WR had been promoted to Technical Sergeant.

During WW-II, the whole nation was at war, not just the military. Our great president, Franklin D. Roosevelt had seen to that. Gasoline, butter, nylons, meat and other things were all rationed.  People were saving grease, planting victory gardens, collecting aluminum, and buying war bonds.  It was no different for the Marines.  Not only did the nation expect them to fight and win the war, but also, they were expected to help pay for it.  And that’s where the plot thickens.  Our Staff Sergeant in Special Services could sing, and act as Master of Ceremonies, and he also had good organizational skills.  So, he was assigned to conduct bond rallies to coincide with payday.  He was looking for talent.  Our Technical Sergeant in the headquarters office could play the accordion.  She didn’t have an accordion.  Colonel Gephart sent her off to San Diego to buy one.   In the Engine Overhaul shop he found a Sergeant who played the guitar so well he had been invited to sit in with Kay Kyser’s band when it came to North Island to entertain the troops.  There were other talented Marines and WR’s, and several bond rallies were conducted in the succeeding months.  Our young Staff sergeant and our Technical sergeant WR became good friends.  But, he was already married.   She later married the guitar player.

In July 1944 the whole Group moved to the brand new Air Station at El Toro, California and again the WR’s made a significant contribution to the Marine Corps and World War II by participating in opening the great Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro.   Our two Marines continued their service until, at last, in August 1945, the Atomic Bomb made it clear that further resistance was futile, and the Japanese gave up.  The Axis had already thrown in the towel.

But, over the years that followed, our two Marines kept in touch.  For fifty years she was very active in organizing and holding reunions for the old Group from ABG-2.    And therein lies the rest of the story. In 1997 she invited him to come to a reunion at the Marine’s Memorial Club in San Francisco to sing at the memorial service for her husband of 50 years who had died the previous Spring.  His wife of 53 years had also passed away.  He accepted.  He subsequently took her to dinner on the 14th floor of the Marine’s Memorial Club.  On the same floor as the lounge.  After dinner, they went to the lounge and ordered a drink.  They sat beside a window that overlooked the beautiful city and bay of San Francisco.

The sun was shining on the tall buildings, there was a small dance floor, there was a lady playing a piano, they danced a little, but mostly, as old friends, they relived their lives and talked.  The piano lady eventually took up her music and left.  The shadows crept up the sides of the tall buildings. It got dark.   The lights began to go on in the tall buildings, and then, a beautiful white cotton-like blanket of fog rolled in over the city. It was below their level and the tall buildings were sticking up through the fog.  One by one the lights in the tall buildings began to go out, and then, the nice young waiter who had been aware that something magical was happening, and had therefore stayed away, finally came over to their table and said, “sorry folks, but we’re closing, you’ll have to leave.”

“ What time is it”?  They asked.  “It’s two AM, ” he said.

He later forgave her for “freeing him to fight” back in 1943.
They were married June 14, 1997.
And, they lived happily ever after.

* This essay was the first place winner in the 2010 WMA Essay contest.  “Women Marines of WWII: Then and Now” by Rita Eckels, was the 2010 WMA Essay contest runner-up.