Women Marines: The Feminine Side

By Katherine A Towle – Originally Published November 1950

U.S. Marine Corps women reservists at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina - 1943 L-R: Minnie Spotted Wolf (Blackfeet), Celia Mix (Potawatomi), Viola Eastman (Ojibwa)
U.S. Marine Corps women reservists at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina – 1943 L-R: Minnie Spotted Wolf (Blackfeet), Celia Mix (Potawatomi), Viola Eastman (Ojibwa)

In the summer of 1946 when all but a handful of women reservists on duty at Marine Corps Headquarters had put their forest green uniforms and red scarves in mothballs, none but the most intrepid feminist could have gazed in her crystal ball and foretold that in the short space of two years the Congress would enact a law authorizing women in the regular peacetime Marine Corps. To be sure, long months of committee hearings, debate, persuasion, and compromise preceded the passage of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, but when, in June 1948, it became a fait accompli the various services took steps to implement the law-some, admittedly, more reluctantly than others. Since that day in November, 1948, when the first women were sworn in as “regulars.” the Marine Corps has, with varying degrees of enthusiasm but always in good grace, accepted the fact that women as potential “careerists” in the Marine Corps must be reckoned with and provided for.

Not that women in uniform are new to the Marine Corps. The records of 305 women reservists in World War I and of some 23,000 “WRs” in World War II attest Io the fact that the Marine Corps has had ample opportunity to get used to having women around. It is having them as part of the regular Corps which is new and which has required understandable adjustment of thinking in terms of their acceptance and ultimate usefulness. During the war years, the exigencies of war itself provided women with an acceptance as well as with an opportunity to undertake undreamt-of military tasks. That they performed well and faithfully in both world wars is a matter of common knowledge and official record.

The first division to utilize women in wartime came in August, 1918, when the MajGen Commandant George Barnett requested authorization of the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to enlist a limited number of women reservists in order to free men from clerical duties for combat in France. Altogether, 305 women answered the call and enlisted as privates. Subsequently many earned promotions to private first class, corporal, and sergeant, the highest permissible rating. On July 30, 1919, they received honorable discharges and the coveted “well done.” Today at Headquarters Marine Corps seven World War I women veterans continue to serve the Marine Corps in civil service positions of responsibility. They still maintain a lively interest and concern in all matters pertaining to women in the Corps.

Twenty-five years later, in February, 1943, the Marine Corps again sent out a call for women to release men for combat, this time not for a few hundred but for several thousands. The response was immediate. By June, 1944, the authorized quota of 18,000 enlisted women had been met and the majority of the total 821 officers had been trained and assigned.

Maj (later Col) Ruth Cheney Streeter of Morristown, New Jersey
Maj (later Col) Ruth Cheney Streeter of Morristown, New Jersey.

With the approval by Gen Thomas Holcomb, then Commandant, of the formation of a Marine Corps Women’s Reserve under the provision of the Naval Reserve Act of 1938 as amended, organization plans went forward swiftly. Maj (later Col) Ruth Cheney Streeter of Morristown, New Jersey, was chosen director and a small nucleus of women officers were commissioned direct from civilian life.

In order to assist the Marine Corps in getting its women’s reserve under way, the Navy made its training facilities for women, already established for several months, immediately available. The first class of 75 women Marine officer candidates reported on March 13, 1943, for training at the U. S. Naval Midshipmen School (WR), South Hadley, Massachusetts, and were commissioned May 4. The first class of enlisted women reservists, numbering 722, entered Hunter College, The Bronx, New York, or, as it was officially known, U. S. Naval Training School (WR), on March 26, and completed its training on April 25, 1943.By July of that year, the Marine Corps had had time to establish its own training center for women, and in that month both officer candidate’s school as well as “boot” training were transferred to the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Schools at Camp Lejeune. In addition, several specialists schools were set up. The schools remained in operation until V-J Day, when all training was discontinued.

Unlike their Marine Corps sisters in World War I who performed chiefly clerical duties, women reservists in World War II took over an ever increasing variety of military assignments. The original prediction of “more than thirty” kinds of jobs had by February, 1944, one year after the formation of the MCWR, grown into more than 200 assignments, including aviation skills ranging from parachute rigger to control tower operator, and women reservists were to be found on every major Marine Corps post and station in the continental United States as well as in all recruiting districts. By that time, too, their business-like performance of duty and their neat, trim military appearance had won the acclaim and appreciation of even the most hard-shelled, anti-women-in-the-Corps oldtimers. In January, 1945, following the passage of permissive legislation, the first contingent of approximately 1,000 women reservists set sail for Hawaii for duty with the Marine Garrison Forces at Pearl Harbor and at the Marine Corps Air Station at Ewa. Prior to sailing, all women selected for overseas duty were sent to a staging area at the then Marine Corps Base in San Diego for conditioning and outfitting. Had hostilities not ceased in August, 1945, women reservists would have served a two-year period in Hawaii, as this was a condition of service to which they agreed when they volunteered for overseas duty. As it was, all WR’s had been returned stateside by January, 1946, and reassigned. Many were frankly disappointed in having “wonderful duty” cut short.

Ninety per cent of the war-time women reservists were organized into battalions or squadrons, each with a woman commanding officer. Women took great pride in running their own outfits, including their mess halls, and in the appearance and upkeep of their own areas. Their comfortable red-brick barracks, with that certain “woman’s touch” about them despite typical GI accoutrements were admittedly an asset to any post or station, and male officers from commanding generals on down never missed an opportunity to “inspect” them or to show them off!

No account of the World War II women reservists would be complete without at least mention of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Band. Formed in 1943, its members were selected originally by Maj William F. Santelmann, and trained by the musicians of the U. S. Marine Band. Its home base was Camp Lejeune where it played at the weekly Saturday morning MCWR Recruit Depot reviews. It also traveled to other East Coast posts Cherry Point, Parris Island, and Henderson Hall-and at the request of the U. S. Treasury Department, it made two tours for war bond and victory loan drives. Whether at home or on tour its theme song was the “March of the Women Marines,” written especially for the MCWR by MSgt Louis Saverino and TSgt Emil Grasser, and it endeared itself to its audiences everywhere by its excellent performance and “sharp” appearance. Probably the red-letter day for the band itself was in October, 1945, when on tour in Washington, D. C. to take part in the Niniitz Day parade, it serenaded the Commandant, Gen A. A. Vandegrift, outside his office in the Navy Annex.

Shortly after V-J Day an adjusted service rating system was established to control demobilization. Separation centers for women were set up at Henderson Hall, Camp Lejeujie, El Toro, and the Marine Corps Base, San Diego. Except in hardship cases, most of the women were discharged at centers nearest their places of enlistment, and by September, 1946, all but about 200 women reservists on duty at Marine Corps Headquarters had returned to civilian life.

How effectively women reservists lived up to their wartime recruiting slogan, “Free a Man to Fight,” was expressed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the following message sent to them on the first anniversary of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, February 13, 1944:

“The nation is as proud of you as of your fellow Marines-for Marine women are upholding the brilliant traditions of the Corps with a spirit of loyalty and diligence worthy of the highest admiration of all Americans. You have quickly and efficiently taken over scores of different kinds of duties that not long ago were considered strictly masculine assignments; and in doing so, you have freed a large number of well-trained, battle-ready men of the Corps for action. . .”

No woman reservist who served in World War II will ever cease to be proud of the record of the MCWR or grateful for the opportunity of thus serving the Corps in those fateful years when so many new pages in the Marine Corps’ already illustrious history were being written in “blood, sweat, and tears.”

In the early months of 1946 when total demobilization was imminent, the Marine Corps, in common with other military services, became aware of the desirability of planning for a postwar women’s reserve in order to have available at least a small trained nucleus of women personnel so that never again in the event of mobilization would it be necessary to “start from scratch.” Accordingly, in April, 1946, the Commandant convened a postwar Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Policy Board composed of both men and women officers to consider the problem and make recommendations for the most effective way to keep such a nucleus alive. At that time no one, certainly least of all the women themselves, ever thought in terms of “regular” status. A small group of women officers, headed by Maj (now LtCol) Julia E. Hamblet, agreed to remain on duty at Headquarters Marine Corps and work out plans for keeping a small postwar reserve organization in a state of readiness, but no plans at that time envisaged anything more than organized and volunteer reserve status for women. As time went on, however, it became increasingly evident that no really effective and continuing nucleus of trained personnel could be counted on in the defense establishment as a whole unless some permanency were assured women who volunteered for training and assignment in peacetime. Agitation thus began to mount in various quarters for the inclusion of women in the regular services as the only fair and sensible solution. And so, a natural sequel to their excellent war-time record was the passage in 1948 of the Woman’s Armed Services Integration Act already alluded to.

At first, only those women who had served honorably in World War Il as reservists were appointed or enlisted in the regular Marine Corps. The first regular women officers were selected from among war-time reserve officers who applied for transfer. Twenty received such appointments, including the present Director of Women Marines, Col Katherine A. Towle, who had also served as second war-time director of the MCWR and held, at the time of her appointment in the regular Corps, a commission as colonel in the inactive reserve. She resigned as assistant dean of women at the University of California, Berkeley, to accept the appointment of first director of women in the regular Corps. She, and two other women officers, were sworn in to the regular Marine Corps by the Commandant on November 4, 1948.

After the initial selection of the 20 women officers under the so-called “transfer” program, the Marine Corps announced that from then on the only source of women officer procurement, both regular and reserve, would be by the commissioning of second lieutenants who completed successfully the Women Officers Training Class, or WOTC. This class, which is similar to the long-established Platoon Leaders Class for male Marine officer candidates, is conducted during the summer months at the Marine Corps Schools in Quantico, Virginia. Lt Herman C. Bainder’s excellent article in the September 1950, issue of the Gazette covers admirably this phase of training proffered by the Marine Corps to women officer candidates.

Enlistment of women “regulars” was confined to former enlisted war-time reservists until January, 1949, when recruiting was opened to civilian women without prior military service. Basic or “boot” training of women recruits is conducted at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island. The course is six weeks in length and follows, as far as practicable, the same type of basic instruction given the men. The women’s recruit battalion, designated as the 3d Recruit Training Battalion, is staffed by qualified women officers and noncommissioned officers, and is housed in the World War II “WR” area. Upon completion of their recruit training, women Marines are assigned to duty or sent to specialists schools for further training.

An enlisted woman may make the Marine Corps her career by renewing her enlistment contract or by qualifying for appointment to commissioned rank. She, too, is assured of regular promotions with advance in pay and prestige, and will, if she serves the required length of time, be eligible for retirement benefits.

Women officers and enlisted women may marry and continue their Marine Corps careers, or they may, in normal peacetime, withdraw from the service upon request, provided they have already served the minimum length of time required by the Marine Corps.

Although the number of women in the peace-time Marine Corps will always be relatively small (its legal limit is two per cent of the overall strength of the Corps itself), their selection and training should provide the Marine Corps with a growing and continuing nucleus of well-trained, professionally-minded women ready to meet mobilization needs, this being their primary mission implicit in the law itself.

The aim of every woman “regular” is to be truly “integrated” in the Corps. She is able and willing to undertake any assignment consonant with Marine Corps needs, and is proudest of all that she has no nickname. She is a “Marine, USMC”!

Women “regulars” are, however, only one component of Marine women. The Marine Corps Reserve provides for civilian women as it does for men an opportunity to be “citizen Marines” by joining either the organized or volunteer reserve.

Early in 1949, authorization was given for the establishment of thirteen women’s reserve platoons, each to be an integral part of a male organized reserve unit. The 13 cities selected for these platoons were Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D. C., Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis, Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Although the WR platoon is under the direct command of the commanding officer of the organized reserve battalion, each is authorized two women reserve officers as platoon leader and assistant platoon leader and fifty enlisted reservists. Most of the officers and many of the enlisted women are World War II veterans, although an increasing number of young civilian women without prior military experience are seeking enlistment. Emphasis in the training program of the WR platoon is placed on individual training for mobilization assignment.

Little did anyone think when the first platoon was activated in Kansas City a little more than a year and a half ago, that this need would so soon be evident and the women reservists would for a third time be freeing Marine Corps men for combat, or that once again Marine Corps posts and stations would be enlivened by the advent of both WR’s and women “regulars.” All 13 women’s platoons were mobilized recently along with their brothers-in-arms, the first time in history so far as is known that American women have inarched off with their men to answer their country’s call to colors. That they did so cheerfully and proudly is axiomatic, at least to anyone acquainted with their past performance and achievement. And if, as seems likely at this writing, inactive volunteer reservists will also be called to duly in the near future, the same spirit of patriotic unselfishness and devotion to duty which characterized the wartime service of women reservists everywhere, will again prevail.

Women Marines, regular and reservists, have contributed their own chapter to the history of the Marine Corps, and find it worthy.