There is no such thing as a female Marine – a Marine is a Marine – but it is important to respect how they got here.
Women were in the fight long before the first female Marine, Opha Mae Johnson, enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1918. Living legends like Lucy Brewer – who disguised herself as a man, threw on a uniform and fought alongside men on the USS Constitution – prove women truly are the first to fight for much more than the clash on the battlefield.
“They told me women don’t belong in the Marine Corps,” explained Shirley John, president of the Women Marine Association N.C. -1 Tarheel Chapter during their monthly meeting March 9.
“I said, ‘Well, they said I can go, and I’m going,’” she stated.
She enlisted at the time of the Korean War in January 1954.
The Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established by the 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, Feb. 13, 1943. Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act and made women a permanent part of the regular Marine Corps in 1948. Two years later the Women Reserves mobilized for the Korean War.
When John was in the Marines her uniform consisted of a skirt, blouse, seamed pantyhose and high-heels which females were expected wear at all times, including physical training sessions.
However, exercises were much different for women. They were required to perform calisthenics like jumping jacks but forbidden to participate in activities like push-ups which were considered unladylike.
June Mills, a veteran who also served at the time of the Korean War, had similar stories to include midnight cadences while walking over and under the beds and squad-bay inspections, displaying all their possessions, minus skivvies which females were not issued at the time. “It was just in boot camp,” said Mills referring to the squad-bay marches. “It was part of initiation.”
It wasn’t until 1976 pregnant women were allowed to remain in the military. Before then, women who chose to marry while serving faced the end of their career.
“The week I got married I had five sets of orders to five different locations,” said John.
Those were the days when even the men had to go to their commanding officer and request permission to get married.
Nearly 3,000 female Marines served at the climax of the Vietnam War, and by 1975 Congress approved all occupational fields except infantry, artillery, armor and pilot/air crew be open to women. However, there was a separate department for Women Marines at Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington, D.C., until 1977.
Margaret Brewer served as the last director of Women Marines from 1973 until 1977 and was presented the Legion of Merit for meritorious service while holding the billet.
She moved on to become the first female appointed as a general officer in the Marine Corps in 1978. Around this time the first female drill instructors graced the grounds of Parris Island, S.C., and women began serving in the Fleet Marine Forces.
Changes made in the 1980s finally allowed every Marine to be a rifleman.
Master Gunnery Sgt. Gail Horn (ret.) was a senior corporal before the Marine Corps mandated females learn to shoot in 1985.
“We carried (rifles) in boot camp, but I did not learn to drill with them until I went to Drill Instructor School,” she said.
Both Horn and Gunnery Sgt. Rose Noel (ret.) served as drill instructors at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.
Serving as a drill instructor was a two-year commitment, but Horn turned the two-year commitment into three while raising her newborn baby-girl. Noel was already a mother before she received orders to Parris Island.
Both ladies also served in Iraq. Horn served as the avionics chief for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit from July 2004 to Jan. 2005, and Noel held multiple billets, including the NCOIC of a work center in avionics, from Feb. 2005 to Jan. 2006.
Horn served 25 years and Noel served 21 years in the Marine Corps. In Noel’s last deployment to Iraq in 2005 she was injured in an explosion caused by a rocket-propelled grenade. Coincidentally, the piece of shrapnel that pierced her cheek was the same size as her guardian angel token which she kept in her pocket.
Noel became the first female gunnery sergeant to receive the Purple Heart. She proved herself undefeatable as she returned to her shop to finish out the rest of her tour.
Even though she is no longer on active-duty, she continues to give to the military through community engagements, veterans’ organizations and in the entrepreneurial world, where she offers a military discount at her antique store.
All these ladies made an impact not only through conversations at monthly meetings, but through the reality of what they accomplished and sacrificed as Marines, wives and mothers.
Today, females are integrating into units never open to them before. With the revocation on the ban on women in combat, serious research is being done to see how these changes can be implemented without taking away from the mission.
This is how history is made. There must be a first in order to make a difference.
At the Women Marines Association’s monthly meeting, veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars far outnumbered the active duty service members in attendance. Great stories escape through the humility of these women which build upon the heritage of future generations.
When boot camp training was cut short to get bodies to the battlefield during Vietnam, the customs and courtesy classes weren’t even considered for the chopping block.
Just because boot camp is over, doesn’t mean the story is.
For more information about the Women Marines Association e-mail GHORN1@ec.rr.com.