Shakedown Cruise

Shakedown Cruise

By Lieutenant E. Louise Stewart, USMCWR

Transcribed by Sabrina Messenger

(Blogger’s note: A firsthand account of an historic nationwide multi-city recruitment tour by the first Women Marine commissioned officers. Their mission? To find and persuade a “few good women” to enlist in the Corps in order to free a Marine to Fight. Reprinting is “Courtesy of the Marine Corps Gazette. Originally published in the May/June 1943 Gazette.” Apart from a few spelling and grammar corrections, the article is as originally written)

Marine Corps Gazette 1943 05-06 Original cover for this story
Marine Corps Gazette 1943 05-06 Original cover for this story

On the night of February 18th [1943] at exactly 2340-service time-a small band of Marines set out from New York’s Pennsylvania Station. There were three of us, neatly labeled “Major Ruth Cheney Streeter‘s party,” consisting of the Major, Director of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, Captain Ward W. Hubbard, Public Relations Officer and self-termed “accompanist,” and myself-another P.R.O. and acting aide to Major Streeter.

We were an advance guard in every sense of the word, sent out to soften up the public for the newly organized “lady Marines,” to see for ourselves how and where men Marines live, work, and train, and to investigate the work, quarters, and reception in store for our women in uniform.

Technically we ourselves were Marines. Our newly inked commissions-two of the first four given women in the history of the Corps-announced as much, referring both to Major Streeter and me as “he,” “him,” or “his.” We wore the traditional forestry green uniform with pointed cuffs and curved back seams. We boasted the traditional globe and anchor ornaments. And in our suitcases we carried the traditional First Sergeant’s Handbook. But we were untraditionally unindoctrinated.


It is a great honor to be the first of anything-especially something as important as the Women’s Reserve expects to be. But it’s also a source of grey hairs. There we were, claiming that women of the Corps would be well trained in military rules and courtesies, when we ourselves were so recently civilians that we didn’t even know who should get in and out of cars first. But the Marines we were to meet would expect us to know. It was like tossing raw recruits into the first wave of an invasion force. And-we admit it-we were nervous (no more nervous, we discovered later, than the Marines were about meeting us).

Fortunately the first part of our trip was devoted to publicity and recruiting, often in cities where Marine green was a strange sight. In Pittsburgh the entire town was turned over to us. Not only did Major Streeter receive the key to the city, but February 19th was designated by the Mayor’s proclamation as “Marine Corps Day.” Flags were flown on all public buildings, our pictures were in all the newspapers, and at 8:25 A.M. we were greeted at the station by the president of the women’s clubs, twenty uniformed representatives of service organizations, a movie star, reporters, and the recruiting officer with eight sideboys.

Postcard of the Penn Hotel 1943
Postcard of the Penn Hotel 1943

We were whisked-with motorcycle escort-to the William Penn Hotel, where we breakfasted with 75 people and where Major Streeter spoke a few words. After breakfast there was a press conference, a radio broadcast and a very successful Victory Luncheon at the Duquesne Club, where Major Streeter spoke a few more words, this time to about 200. After lunch came another broadcast, and a speech and reception at the University of Pittsburgh, with a quick visit to the Officer Procurement Office tucked in between. From 5:45 to 6:15 we “rested.” A dinner at the Twentieth Century Club preceded the main event, “Free a Man to Fight Night” at the William Penn, where nearly a thousand young business women were entertained from eight to eleven P.M. by an orchestra, movie stars, and variety acts. The evening reached its climax when Major Streeter swore in thirty-three enlistees of outstandingly high caliber. Then, Cinderella-like, and still with motorcycle escort and farewell committee, we were whisked back to the train, already held up for ten minutes.

'Be A Marine...Free A Marine To Fight'

By the time we left Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh was aware of the Marine women’s uniform. And fully 50% of the women in that uniform (the Major and I) were aware of why Marines have to be tough.

Everywhere we went-Chicago, Omaha, Denver, and Seattle-our reception was the same. Everywhere we were greeted with enthusiasm and kindness, never for ourselves-they knew little about us-always because we bore the name and insignia of the Marines, because the Marines themselves had made us a part of their Corps. Travelling with civilians, seeing their pride in our name, we began to develop the well-known Marine esprit de corps.

Not everyone, of course, knew who we were. People on trains stared at us, asked questions, settled bets about us. We were called everything: WAACS, WAVES, SPARS and Western Union messengers. But the Marines knew what we were. We spoke to all of them, naturally. We wanted their opinions, we wanted them to like us, and we wanted them to be glad that we were going to take over their homework. One Corporal I chatted with hit the nail on the head. Wounded at Guadalcanal, then on his way home from the hospital, he said, “Well, I’ll tell you. I was kinda sore about it at first. Then it began to make sense-though only if the girls are gonna be tops, understand.”

His friend, a sergeant, broke in. “Hell,” he said, “they’re gonna be Marines, aren’t they? They gotta be tops!”

E. Louise Stewart as she appeared in Colliers Magazine in 1943
E. Louise Stewart as she appeared in Colliers Magazine in 1943

“Then you don’t mind that we’re called Marines?” I asked. ‘Wouldn’t you rather have us called something like WAMS?”

“Sir, uh, Ma’am, uh, Lieutenant,” said the Corporal, “if you’d been called WAMS we’d have never spoken to you.”

ABOUT that time Marine fever really struck us. Every time we spotted a forestry green uniform on the street we’d say, “Look, there’s a Marine.” We read our handbooks, practiced saluting, and plied Captain Hubbard with questions.

In San Francisco we had our first chance to meet officers who would one day command women Marines. Major General William P. Upshur invited all commanding officers from the surrounding territory to a meeting in his office, where Major Streeter told them something about the work and training plans for the young women. After her talk the officers discussed their problems and ideas with Lieutenant Colonel John B. Hill, executive officer of the Division of Reserves, who had travelled ahead of us across the country.

In San Francisco we also had our first chance to meet a large group of officers’ wives-at a luncheon given by Mrs. Upshur. They told us a lot of things about the Corps we never knew before, and most of them had the same feeling of “belonging” that we had. We decided it must be catching.

San Diego opened the second phase of our trip. For the first time we were to meet Marines in their own back yard. Brigadier General Underbill took us on a tour of the Marine base, Major General Holland Smith and Brigadier General Kingman arranged for us to see Camp Elliott, and Major General Fegan escorted us around Camp Pendleton. We visited classes indoors and out. We tried our skill on the rifle range, we jumped from the parachute tower, flew with paratroopers making their first jump, rode in jeeps, tanks, and anything else around. We got plenty dirty and we loved it. This was what the men we were to replace would do. It was visual proof that the job for women would be an important one. Everything looked exciting to us, but we knew it wasn’t exciting to the men. To them it was hard work-and the difference between life and death on some battlefield.

By this time Captain Lillian O’Malley Daly had joined us. A Marinette in the last war, she had been newly commissioned and assigned to Camp Pendleton. One morning Captain Daly and I said goodbye to friends on a troop ship. It was early morning, the ship was crowded, the docks empty and the stillness eerie. We walked to the single gangplank in silence. We knew that the men aboard ship had talked for months about seeing action. We knew that they wanted to go, and that this was what they had been trained for. But that last minute before sailing seemed very empty and lonely, and we couldn’t help feeling depressed.

We found our friends, gave them a few odds and ends and wished we could have brought something better. “Forget it,” they told us, not sharing our depression. “We’ve got everything.” “Yes, Ma’am,” a voice called down from the main deck, “we’ve sure got everything!”

We felt better then. There’s not much you can do to beat people like that.

In Los Angeles we switched back to our old routine with radio broadcasts, press conferences, and speeches. We visited a great many colleges where we told the young women about the Women’s Reserve. But now we had something more to speak of than requirements for admission and details of training. We told them about our experiences. We explained that their hours would be long, their work hard and sometimes boring. We didn’t try to paint a picture of glamour and a fancy uniform. But we did point out that we didn’t know of a bigger job than to “free a Marine to fight.”

1943 LA
Aug. 21, 1943: Two women from the LAPD are joining the Marines: Lucy White, 26, who works in the fingerprinting department, and Margaret Davis, 22, of the record bureau.

After touring Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and Georgia-all sold solid on the Marine Corps-we went to New River and saw more Marines in training. Plans were discussed for women’s barracks and schools, and Major General Julian Smith arranged to have us all taken out in amphibious tractors and landing boats, from which we climbed to the nets on the mock-ups. New River surprised us. We flew in, landed at Peterfield Point, and went by Tent City which looked the way we had expected the entire camp to look. The red brick buildings and green lawns were a great and pleasant surprise.

It was hard to come back to Washington after being with the men and watching them work. But somewhere on the trip something had happened to us. We didn’t look any different. We still weren’t completely used to military customs. But we weren’t women in uniform any more. We were Marines. We knew other Marines. And we had tried to discover what kind of women they wanted in the Corps-by stacking ourselves beside the men. We got our answer that day the troopship sailed from San Diego. The same day, after the ship pulled out, we went with Mrs. Underbill to visit the San Diego Naval Hospital. A great many Marines from Guadalcanal were there, and we figured they might have heard about us and be interested in what we looked like. We walked up and down the wards, joked with the men, let them try on our hats (they all thought they looked like Hirohito in them) and asked if we could take any messages to their families back east.

The others had seen wounded men before. Personally I had not. I was not curious, though I didn’t know quite what to expect. One thing I did expect to feel was pity, and it struck me a little odd at the time that I didn’t pity the men once I saw them. We all felt sick inside that they had suffered so much, but they were men, and you don’t pity men, even when they’re very young and very sick and very gay.

When we left the hospital that day we were angry that Marines had been shoved around as they had been. They weren’t a censored number of wounded any more. They were Marines we’d seen training at the parachute tower, the ones we’d watched qualify on the rifle range, the ones we’d waved goodbye to only a few hours earlier. And we felt with more intensity the purpose of our presence in the Corps.

When you came right down to it, the kind of women the men wanted were the kind the old sergeant spoke of that day on the train. “Hell,” he’d said, “they’re gonna be Marines, aren’t they? They gotta be tops.”

Well, hell, that’s how we feel about it too.