FREE A MARINE TO FIGHT: Women Marines in World War II
by Colonel Mary V Stremlow, USMCR (Ret)
As early as November 1942, Headquarters wisely
considered a disciplinary plan for the Women's Reserve. The other
services were no help since the WAACs still served with the Army but
were not part of it and the Navy had no predetermined policy except to
say they would treat problems according to principles generally used for
men with whatever modifications might be necessary for special instances
such as sex offenses.
Not knowing what to expect and unwilling to leave it
to chance, Marines wisely established discipline policies for Women
1. Distinctions between officers and enlisted
personnel would, in general, be the same as made between officers and
enlisted men of the regular Marine Corps.
2. Officers would exercise normal disciplinary
functions and MCWR officers would have similar responsibility when they
attained appropriate rank and command.
3. Establishment of brigs or post prisons for the
confinement of women was not contemplated, but confinement to quarters
was deemed appropriate.
4. Exclusive of sentences involving confinement,
punishment would be awarded as it was for officers and men of the
regular Marine Corps.
5. Trial by court-martial would be recommended only
in serious cases, particularly when confinement seemed a
6. For offenses not warranting trial, separation from
service would be by the most expeditious means in accordance with
policies applicable to men.
Little time was wasted on female offenders, and
fortunately, there were relatively few problems. Because of their
communal, intense desire to be accepted by Marines and approved by the
general public, women Marines were their own severest critics and peer
pressure to walk a tight line proved very effective. The records show
only 36 enlisted women separated out of the total of 18,000 as a result
of general and summary courts-martial. When officers resigned to escape
a general court martial, their discharge was "under other than honorable
Unauthorized absences usually less than 10
days accounted for the most common infractions; violations of
regulations (uniform, fraternization, etc.) followed. Unlike earlier
policies governing female military nurses, marriage was a cause for
neither discharge nor punishment, and pregnancy was considered a medical
rather than disciplinary case.
Much as with the men, punishment included confinement
to quarters, loss of pay, reduction in rank, extra police duties, and in
extreme cases, disciplinary discharges. However, the severity of
punishment meted out to men and women accused of sex offenses differed
markedly and the female officers balked at the harsh treatment of WRs in
Marines are the acknowledged masters in matters of
discipline and morale, but there was no history to help them bridge the
gender gap when the women landed. These women were not pliant teenagers,
but rather adults, all 20 years old or older. Some were married, some
had children, and a few had grandchildren. Since it was a time when
females were expected to adhere to near-Victorian standards, military
leaders assumed a paternalistic attitude and the inevitable occurred
grown, mature women were often treated like school girls. The
senior women officers, many with roots in academia, were often more
guilty than the men.
A galling but unchallenged rule was that women on
board a base, unlike men of equal rank, could not have an automobile. It
added to the allure of assignment to the motor pool that the drivers of
trucks, jeeps, and buses were more mobile than their sisters.
sisters Irene and Madelene Spencer toured New England with the War Bond
drive show, "Direct Hit," which starred boxing champion Jack Dempsey,
who was a Coast Guard officer, cowboy star Gene Autry, and comedian
Frank Fontaine. Photo courtesy of Irene and Madelene Spencer
Luckily, Colonel Streeter was able to balance high
standards of behavior with an earthy understanding of human nature and
she seemed to know just when to tighten the reins and when to turn her
head. She was pragmatic about discreet instances of fraternization and
she recognized that when dealing with men and women, some things could
not be strictly regulated. She was a gifted leader who subscribed to the
theory that ". . . the most able commanders, be they men or women, are
those who take care of their people and who keep them out of trouble by
anticipating the problems that may confront them."
She expected women officers, regardless of their
assignment, to share responsibility for the morale and welfare of
enlisted women and this policy was sacred until separate women's units
were abolished in the 1970s. Colonel Streeter was rightfully proud that
the Women's Reserve organized a recreation and education service long
before the Special Services Division was formed, and she credited it
with the high morale of the women Marines. Yet, in the end, it was her
own good sense, concern for her women, pride in the Marine Corps, and
determination that sustained the wartime WRs.
Following the devastation visited upon the carrier
Franklin in operations off Japan, as seen in the picture held by
these Women Marines, they were sent on a bond tour in 1945, which took
them to Dallas, Texas, where this picture was taken. Photo courtesy of
Evelyn Wallman Gins