For a very long time, at the beginning of the United States military history, seeing a woman in the military would be a rare occurrence. Until WWI, the only time women could be found near a battlefield was in the capacity of a nurse or caretaker. But when WWII rolled around, that began to change. In 1942, the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established, ushering in a new era of women in the military and changing how the U.S. military operated forever.
Why Was the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Established?
The United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was authorized by Congress and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 30th, 1942. The goal was to create a branch of the US Marine Corps Reserve in order to free up men serving in the Reserve to be freed up for combat.
This ended up being a wise decision, not only because those in authority realized that both men and women could live up to the slogan of “Once a Marine, Always a Marine” in equal fashion, but because the intense fighting in the Pacific Theater had only gotten worse as 1943 rolled around. The fighting in Guadalcanal, specifically, made it clear that more marines would be needed in the Pacific. As more women joined the Reserve, more men were able to be deployed to the Pacific Theater.
Who Were the First Women to Serve in the Marines?
Rumor has it that the first woman to ever serve in the Marines was Lucy Brewer, who supposedly dressed as a man in order to serve alongside her fellow countrymen on the USS Constitution during the war of 1812.
While proving the validity of that rumor would be difficult, we do know that the first woman ever knowingly to be admitted to the Marine Corps Reserve was Opha May Johnson on August 13th, 1918. This was after the Secretary of the Navy allowed women to be enrolled for clerical duty as part of the Marine Corps.
Once the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was formed, Ruth Cheney Streeter became the first director. Streeter had years of experience in active civic work and had even earned her commercial pilot’s license and purchased her own plane in order to assist the war efforts. However, after being deemed too old to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots, Streeter took over the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve with the goal of encouraging others to join as well.
In an open letter to female recruits, Streeter wrote, “It is not easy to Free a Marine to Fight (a recruiting slogan of the Reserve). It takes courage – the courage to embark on a new and alien way of life… Your spirit is a source of constant inspiration to all who work with you.”
The formation of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve also resulted in Capt. Anne Lentz became the first commissioned officer, and Lucille McClarren became the first enlisted woman Marine.
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What Role Did Women Play in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve during WWII?
By the time the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established during the middle of WWII, there were nearly 19,000 enlisted women in the Reserve, 1,000 of which were officers. However, even though they were recognized as a crucial part of military operations, women still weren’t likely to be found on the battlefield.
Instead, WWII-era female Marines could be found across every base in the United States in positions classified as professional, semi-professional, clerical, skilled trades, services, and sales. These included jobs like radio operator, photographer, parachute rigger, driver, aerial gunnery instructor, cook, baker, quartermaster, control tower operator, motion picture operator, auto mechanic, telegraph operator, cryptographer, laundry operator, post exchange (store) manager, stenographer, and agriculturist.
How Were Women in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve Trained?
During the first few years of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, officer candidates were trained at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Candidates trained for about four weeks to become officer cadets, Those who did not pass their training were given the option to enlist in basic training or await discharge.
Prospective female officers were trained exclusively by men, some of whom were openly hostile to the idea of women joining a previously all-male organization. Nevertheless, female office candidates were trained in a variety of basic subjects, like administration, strategy, and ships and aircraft, as well as Marine Corps subjects, like map reading, safeguarding military information, and physical conditioning.
By contrast, enlisted women in the Reserve were trained at Hunter College in NYC. Their training was built on the back of what Naval recruits were trained in but was later customized to include more Marine-based information and male Marine drill instructors as part of the training staff.
Later, in July 1943, the Marine Corps decided to consolidate all training and moved their operations to Camp Lejeune, NC. It was during this time that reserve personnel were allowed to watch observations involving a variety of weapons, including mortars, bazookas, and guns, in addition to their classroom lectures. That said, female enlistees were not permitted to learn how to use the weapons themselves.
Demobilization of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve
As WWII finally drew to a close, the second director of the Reserve, Colonel Katherin A. Towle, was put in charge of the demobilization plan, which called for the mandatory resignation or discharge of all Reserve members by September 1st, 1946. By August 1946, Julia E. Hamblet was leading the last steps of the demobilization plan as director, and there were about 300 women left who’d been asked to stay on with the Marine Corps in an “undetermined” status.
The Women’s Armed Services Act
On June 12th, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Act into law, changing the role women were able to play in the military forever. The law allowed women to serve as permanent, regular members of the armed forces, not only during times of war but at any time.
The 350,000 women who served during WWII in the Marine Corps Reserve, along with the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, paved the way for women to have the right to serve their country. What started as a way to free up more male troops for battle resulted in an act of equality that would allow women to fight right alongside their male counterparts on the battlefield.
If there’s a woman in your life who has served, we’ve got hundreds of patches to help them commemorate their time serving their country. Take a look at our marine corp patch inventory for countless patches including patches from all branches of the armed forces and pick out your favorites today.
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