Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Early Planning
The First WRs
Early Training: Holyoke and Hunter
Training: Camp Lejeune
Reserve Officer's Class
Specialist Schools
Director, MCWR
Assignment and Housing
Women's Reserve Band
Epilogue: War's End
Special Subjects
Women's Reserve Employment

FREE A MARINE TO FIGHT: Women Marines in World War II
by Colonel Mary V Stremlow, USMCR (Ret)

Some stories sound too contrived to be true, yet are repeated too often to be dismissed as mere folklore. One such tale was rescued and restored to its rightful place in history when Mary Eddy Furman confirmed that, yes, the portrait of Archibald Henderson, 5th Commandant of the Marine Corps, crashed from the wall to the buffet the evening that Major General Commandant Thomas Holcomb announced his decision to recruit women into the Corps. Mrs. Furman, then a child, was a dinner guest at a bon voyage dinner party given for her father, Colonel William A. Eddy, and the Commandant's son, Marine Lieutenant Franklin Holcomb, on 12 October 1942 when the Commandant was asked, "General Holcomb, what do you think about having women in the Marine Corps?" Before he could reply, the painting of Archibald Henderson fell.

We can only surmise how Archibald Henderson would have reacted to the notion of using women to relieve male Marines "for essential combat duty." On the other hand, General Holcomb's opposition was well-known. He, as many other Marines, was not happy at the prospect. But, in the fall of 1942, faced with the losses suffered during the campaign for Guadalcanal — and potential future losses in upcoming operations — added to mounting manpower demands, he ran out of options.

WR color guard
A WR color guard is photographed at Headquarters, Marine Corps, summer 1944. Photo courtesy of Mary R. Rich

With 143,388 Marines on board and tasked by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to add 164,273 within a year, the Marine Corps had already lowered its recruiting standards and raised the age ceiling to 36. At the same time, President Roosevelt's plan to impose a draft threatened the elite image earned by the selective, hard-fighting, disciplined Marines, and so, the Commandant did what he had to do. In furtherance of the war effort, he recommended that as many women as possible should be used in non combatant billets.

The idea was unpopular, but neither original nor unprecedented; women were already serving with the Army and in the Navy and Coast Guard Reserves. In fact, during World War I, 300 "Marinettes" had freed male Marines from their desks and typewriters at Headquarters, Marine Corps, to go to France.

Periodically, between World War I and World War II, prodded by people like Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers, military and elected leaders gave fleeting thought to the idea of a womens corps. Marshall knew that General John J. Pershing had specifically asked for, but not received, uniformed female troops. Rogers, a Red Cross volunteer in France in 1917, was angry that women who had been wounded and disabled during the war were not entitled to health care or veterans' benefits. She promised that ". . . women would not again serve with the Army without the protection the men got."

Yet, until 1941, not many people took the available studies seriously and even advocates could not agree on whether the women should be enlisted directly into the military or be kept separate, in an auxiliary, where they would work as hostesses, librarians, canteen workers, cooks, waitresses, chauffeurs, messengers, and strolling minstrels.

Congresswoman Rogers eventually compromised and settled for a small auxiliary and in May 1941 she introduced H.R. 4906, a bill to establish the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) to make available ". . . to the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of the women of the nation." The legislators argued and stalled. Even the brazen Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was not enough to move them to pass the bill until 15 May 1942.

Unfortunately, the notion was doomed from the start and the WAAC, an auxiliary of women who were neither military nor civilian, ultimately was reorganized and converted to full military status as the Women's Army Corps (WAC) in late summer 1943. Meanwhile the Navy watched the unraveling of the WAAC very closely as it struggled with its own version of a plan for women.

Some say there were naval officers who preferred to enlist ducks, dogs, or monkeys to solve the manpower shortage, but the decision was made at the highest level to use women and furthermore, recognizing the fate of the failed WAAC, the women would be "in" the Navy. With sideline help from Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Navy bill, Public Law 689, was signed on 30 July 1942, establishing the Navy Women's Reserve (WAVES). The same law authorized a Marine Corps Women's Reserve (MCWR), but the Marines weren't ready to concede just yet. In the meantime, the Coast Guard formed a women's reserve, the SPARS.

Bowing to increasing pressure from the Congress, the Secretary of the Navy, and the public, the M-1 section of Plans and Policies at Headquarters, Marine Corps, proposed a women's reserve to be placed in the Division of Reserve of the then-Adjutant-Inspector's Department. The Commandant, in the absence of reasonable alternatives, sent the recommendation to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, and, in the end, the matter was finally settled for the Corps on 7 November 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his assent.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division