FREE A MARINE TO FIGHT: Women Marines in World War II
by Colonel Mary V Stremlow, USMCR (Ret)
The First WRs
The decision to organize the Women's Reserve in the
Division of Reserve was natural because the division was already
responsible for recruiting all reserve personnel. Up to this point it
had nothing to do with training, but now, it inherited all matters
pertaining to the Women's Reserve, including training, uniforming, and
administering. An organization created within the Division, the Women's
Reserve Section, Officer Procurement Division, was staffed to handle the
new activity. It very capably accomplished its first mission, the
selection of a suitable woman for the position of Director of the MCWR
when the eminently qualified Mrs. Ruth Cheney Streeter was commissioned
a major and sworn in by the Secretary of the Navy on 29 January
Major Streeter was not, however, the first woman on
active duty in the World War II Marine Corps. A few weeks earlier, Mrs.
Anne A. Lentz, a civilian clothing expert who had helped design the
uniforms for the embryonic MCWR, was quietly commissioned with the rank
of captain. She had come to Marine Headquarters on a 30-day assignment
from the WAAC and stayed.
By all accounts, the selection of Mrs. Streeter to
head the MCWR was inspired. It fell to this woman who had never before
held a paying job, to facilitate recruiting, training, administration,
and uniforming of the new Women's Reserve.
Mrs. Streeter, 47, president of her class at Byrn
Mawr despite completing only two years of college, wife of a prominent
lawyer and businessman, mother of four including three sons in service
and a 15-year-old daughter, and actively involved for 20 years in New
Jersey health and welfare work, was selected from a field of 12
outstanding women recommended by Dean Virginia C. Gildersleeve of
Barnard College, Columbia University. Dean Gildersleeve chaired the
Advisory Educational Council which had earlier recommended to the Navy
the selection of Lieutenant Commander Mildred McAfee, Director of the
Streeter poses with two other women's reserve directors: Capt Dorothy
Stratton, head of the Coast Guard SPARS, left, and Capt Mildred McAfee,
of the WAVEs. Photo courtesy of Mary R. Rich
Colonel Littleton W. T. Waller, Jr., Director of
Reserve, and his assistant, Major C. Brewster Rhoads, travelled across
the country to interview all candidates personally, and discreet
inquiries also were made about the nominees. The Commandant firmly
believed the success of the MCWR would depend largely on the character
and capabilities of its director. Mrs. Streeter must have seemed an
obvious choice. She was confident, spirited, fiercely patriotic, and
high-principled. Discussing the interview in later life, she said:
As nearly as I can make out, General Holcomb said,
"If I've got to have women, I've got to have somebody in charge in whom
I've got complete confidence." So he called on General Waller. General
Waller said, "If I've got to be responsible for the women, I've got to
have some body in whom I have complete confidence." And he called on
Major Rhoads. So then the two of them came out to see me.
Having passed muster with both Colonel Waller and
Major Rhoads, Mrs. Streeter was scheduled for an interview with General
Holcomb. In the course of the first meeting, he asked repeatedly whether
she knew any Marines. Dismayed, and convinced she would be disqualified
because she did not know the right people, she answered honestly that
she knew no Marines. In fact, this was exactly what the Commandant
wanted to hear because he worried that if she had high-ranking friends
in the Corps, she might circumvent the chain of command when she
couldn't get her way. After the interview, Colonel Waller said he
thought it went well, but the appointment still had to be approved by
the Secretary of the Navy. That was good news for Mrs. Streeter since
Secretary Knox was a close friend of her mother and her in-laws, and her
husband had been the Secretary's personal counsel.
Throughout her long life, Ruth Streeter remained a
devoted Marine, but the Corps had not been her first choice. After the
fall of France in 1940, Mrs. Streeter believed the United States would
be drawn into war. In interviews she spoke of German submarines sinking
American ships a mile or two off the New Jersey shore, in plain sight of
Atlantic City. So, fully intending to be part of the war effort, she
learned to fly, earned a commercial pilot's license, and eventually,
bought her own small plane. In the summer of 1941 Streeter joined the
Civil Air Patrol, and although her plane was used to fly missions aimed
at keeping the enemy subs down, to her enormous frustration, she was
relegated to the position of adjutant, organizing schedules and doing ".
. . all the dirty work."
In later years, retired Colonel Streeter reminisced
that British women were flying planes in England early in the war and
she expected American women to be organized to ferry planes to Europe.
When, at last, the quasi-military Women Air Service Pilots (WASPs) was
formed under the leadership of the legendary aviatrix, Jackie Cochran,
Mrs. Streeter was 47 years old, 12 years beyond the age limit.
Nevertheless, she tried to enlist four times and was rejected four times
before she asked to meet Jackie Cochran personally, and then she was
rejected the fifth time.
In January 1943, before the public knew about the
Marine Corps plan to enlist women, Mrs. Streeter inquired about service
in the WAVES. She asked about flying in the Navy but was told she could
be a ground instructor. She declined and a month later found herself in
Washington, the first director of the MCWR.
After Major Streeter and Captain Lentz were on board,
six additional women were recruited for positions considered critical to
the success of the Women's Reserve. They were handpicked because of
their special abilities, civilian training and experience, and then,
with neither military training nor indoctrination, they were
commissioned and assigned as follows: Women's Reserve representative for
public relations, First Lieutenant E. Louise Stewart; Women's Reserve
representative for training program, Captain Charlotte D. Gower; Women's
Reserve representative for classification and detail, Captain Cornelia
D. T. Williams; Women's Reserve representative for West Coast
activities, Captain Lillian O'Malley Daly (who had been a Marinette in
World War I and personal secretary to the Commandants from that time);
Women's Reserve representative for recruit depot, Captain Katherine A.
Towle; and Assistant to the Director, MCWR, Captain Helen C.
Henry W. Bransom speaks to a group of WAVES who volunteered to transfer
to the Marine Corps and work in recruiting offices, such as this one in
Washington, D.C. They wore WAVE uniforms until USMC uniforms were
ready. Photo courtesy of Marine Corps Gazette
The somewhat dubious distinction of being last to
take women had its benefits. The missteps and problems of the WAACs,
WAVES, and SPARS were duly noted and carefully avoided by the Marines,
but more significantly, the other services were generous in sharing
advice and resources. Right from the beginning, the Navy was a full
partner in getting the fledgling MCWR off to a good start.
There was widespread skepticism about whether men
could properly select female applicants, so women were sought
immediately for recruiting duty. The Navy sounded a call among WAVE
officer candidates and 19 volunteers were selected for transfer and
assigned to Marine procurement offices where, still dressed in their
Navy uniforms, they set to work recruiting the first Marine women.
By agreement between the Navy Bureau of Personnel and
Headquarters, Marine Corps, and to avoid competition in the recruiting
of women for either naval service, Naval procurement offices were used
by Marine procurement sections. Women interested in joining the WAVES or
the Marines went to one office to enlist and receive physical
examinations. In time, however, the Marine Corps developed its own
network of recruiting offices. The official announcement finally came on
Saturday, 13 February 1943, and women enthusiastically answered the call
to "Be a Marine . . . Free a Man to Fight!" Although enlistments were
scheduled to begin on the following Monday, the record shows that at
least one woman, Lucille E. McClarren of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, signed
up earlier, on 13 February.
first WR recruits to be shipped to New York for training at Hunter
College receive instructions from 1stLt Helen Perrell at Philadelphia's
30th Street Station. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 147-81
Women who aspired to serve as a WR had to meet rather
stringent qualifications which prescribed not only their age, education,
and state of health, but their marital status as well. At the start, the
eligibility requirements were similar for both officers and enlisted
women: United States citizenship; not married to a Marine; either single
or married but with no children under 18; height not less than 60
inches; weight not less than 95 pounds; good vision and teeth.
For enlisted or "general service," as it was called,
the age limits were from 20 to 35, and an applicant was required to have
at least two years of high school. For officer candidates, requirements
were the same as for WAVES and SPARS: age from 20 to 49; either a
college graduate, or a combination of two years of college and two years
of work experience.
In time, regulations were relaxed so that the wives
of enlisted Marines were allowed to join, and enlisted women could marry
after boot camp. Black women were not specifically barred from the
segregated Marine Corps, but on the other hand, they were not knowingly
enlisted. While it is rumored that several black women "passed" as white
and served in the MCWR, none have been recorded. Officially, the first
black women Marines, Annie E. Graham and Ann E. Lamb, arrived at Parris
Island for boot training on 10 September 1949.
Early recruiting was so hectic that in some
instances, women were sworn in and put directly to work in the
procurement offices, delaying military training until later. American
women were determined to do their part even if it meant defying the
objections of parents, brothers, and boyfriends who tried to keep them
from joining up.
Marian Bauer's parents were so shaken at her decision
to enlist that they refused to see her off. But then there were the
lucky ones like Jane Taylor, who remembers the wise advice from her
father, a World War I sailor, "Don't ever complain to me. You're doing
this of your own free will. You weren't drafted or forced. Now, go
learn, travel, and do your job to the best of your ability."
Zetta Little, the daughter of Salvation Army officers, joined because,
". . . someone waved a flag and said my brother would come home from the
war sooner if I did."
The Marines were serious about the weight limits and
just as underweight male enlistees have always done, underweight women
devoured bananas washed down with water to bring their weight up to the
required 95 pounds. Audrey Bennington, after being rejected by a Navy
doctor because she was underweight, left the induction center to gorge
herself, and when she returned, the corpsman turned accomplice, looked
away as she climbed on the scale clutching her fur coat and shoes. An
equally accommodating corpsman rested his foot on the scale and wrote
down 95 pounds when diminutive Danelia Wedge was weighed the second
time. "Wedgie" got as far as Camp Lejeune but was afraid her military
career was over when a doctor asked what had caused her to lose so much
weight since enlistment. He accepted her quick response, 'Well, sir,
long train rides don't agree with me."
Throughout the war the minimum age, set by law,
remained unchanged even though it was sometimes difficult to defend.
After all, some teenagers argued, 18-year-old girls were able to enlist
in World War I, and even some 17-year-olds joined with their parents'
consent. Others wondered why 18-year-old boys could be sent to combat,
yet 18-year-old girls could not serve at all.
While some parents fought to keep their girls home,
others asked special consideration for daughters who were too young to
enlist. One of the most poignant letters came from a World War I holder
of the Distinguished Service Cross who wrote to the Commandant in
January 1943, even before news of the Women's Reserve was announced:
I know this is no time to reminisce, but I do want to
bring this to your attention. I am the Marine from 96th Company, Sixth
Regiment, who was with Lieutenant [Clifton B.] Cates and a few other
Marines that captured Bouresches, France, and I turned over the first
German prisoner and machine gun to you that our battalion captured on
the night of 6 June 1918. I have a big request to ask . . . . As I have
no sons to give to the Marines, I would be more than happy if you . . .
would recommend my daughter to the newly-formed Marines Women Reserve
Corps. While I appreciate that her age may be a little young, she will
be 18 this June . . . I feel sure she could fit into your program . . .
surely this is not too much for a D.S.C. ex-Marine to ask of you . . .
LtCol Streeter welcomes national officers of the Marine
Corps League Auxiliary to the WR barracks at Henderson Hall. From left
are Mrs. Mabel Murry, LtCol Streeter, Auxiliary President Mrs. Louise
Jacobsen, and Mrs. Olyse Marchi. LtCol Streeter never missed an
opportunity to reassure civilians that a motherly figure was watching
over her women Marines. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 12270
Recruiting for the MCWR was almost too successful and
one procurement officer, cautioning that the number of applicants so far
exceeded the quotas that he feared a backlash of ill will, suggested
that publicity be curtailed. Within one month of MCWR existence, while
Marine forces regrouped after the campaign for Guadalcanal, and prepared
for the move to New Georgia and the advance up the Solomons chain,
Colonel Waller reported: "The women of the country have responded in
just the manner we expected . . . . Thousands of women have volunteered
to serve in the Women's Reserve and from them we have already selected
more than 1,000 for the enlisted ranks and over 100 as officers."
Naturally, each service wanted to recruit the very
best candidates, and the women directors, joined in a singleness of
purpose, set aside inter-Service rivalry to get the job done. Typically,
the four leaders, Major Streeter; Major Oveta Culp Hobby, WAAC and WAC;
Lieutenant Commander Mildred H. McAfee, WAVES; and Lieutenant Commander
Dorothy C. Stratton, SPARS, ironed out their differences on recruiting
women from the war industries, civil service, and agriculture, and
submit ted a recommendation to the Joint Army-Navy Personnel Board which
eventually became an all-Service policy.
Women working in war industries were discouraged from
enlisting, but some were persistent and in the end were required to go
to the local office of the United States Employment Service for
approval. Civil Service employees needed a written release "without
prejudice" from their agency and when a reluctant employer released the
employee "with prejudice," none of the Armed Services would consider her
application for 90 days. Marines went a step further and barred their
own civilian women employees who enlisted from working in their original
jobs even if classified to a similar military occupational
Almost immediately, Major Streeter and the public
relations officer, Lieutenant Stewart, toured the United States,
speaking at many gatherings such as women's clubs and Chambers of
Commerce, to explain the purpose of the MCWR and to win public support.
A more subtle but equally important reason for the tour and indeed for
having a Director of Women's Reserve at all, according to Colonel
Streeter, ". . . was because the parents were not going to let their
little darlings go in among all these wolves unless they thought that
somebody was keeping a motherly eye on them."
Families had good reason to be apprehensive; the
early months were difficult for the Women Reservists. Of all the
problems, ranging from barracks obviously designed only for male
occupancy to the scarcity of uniforms, the most trying were the stares
and jeers of the men which in the words of Colonel Katherine A. Towle,
second Director of the MCWR, ". . . somehow had to be brazened out."
From the start, the directors of the WACS, WAVES,
SPARS, and MCWR focused their energy on the war effort, but it was
difficult not to be distracted by the change in attitude of the fickle
public whose early enthusiasm for women in uniform gave way to a nasty,
demeaning smear campaign that started as a whisper and grew to a roar.
The WAAC took the brunt of the abuse and never really recovered. It was
so bad that some suggested it might be part of an enemy plot to sabotage
the nation's morale. Sadly, a military intelligence investigation showed
Nevertheless, the MCWR met its goal on schedule and
reached strength of 18,000 by 1 June 1944. Then, all recruiting stopped
for nearly four months and when it was resumed on 20 September 1944, it
was on a very limited basis.
Everyone agreed that the MCWR's recruiting success
was directly tied to the Marine Corps' reputation the toughest,
the bravest, the most selective. Women like Inga Frederiksen did not
hesitate to accept the challenge of joining the best. When a SPAR
recruiter told her she was smart not to join the Marines because they
were a lot rougher, Inga knew she had to be a Marine.