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)

Early Training: Holyoke and Hunter

Thanks to the Navy, officer training began when the MCWR was only one month old. Sharing training facilities saved time and precious manpower in getting the women out and on the job. Moreover, Marines benefitted from the Navy's close relationship with a group of prominent women college presidents, deans, and civic leaders who gave sound advice based on years of experience with women's programs. Just as important they offered several prestigious college campuses for WAVE and subsequently, MCWR training.

The Navy's Midshipmen School for women officers, established at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, later branched out to nearby Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. Enlisted women were trained at Hunter College in New York City, and without question, the distinguished reputations of these two institutions enhanced the public image of the WAVES and the women Marines.

The first group of 71 Marine officer candidates arrived at the U.S. Midshipmen School (Women's Reserve) at Mount Holyoke on 13 March 1943. The women Marines were formed into companies under the command of a male officer, Major E. Hunter Hurst, but, similar to Marine detachments on board ships, the WR unit was part of the WAVES school complement, under final authority of the commanding officer of the Midshipmen School.

last class of WRs from Hunter College
The last class of WRs to graduate from boot camp at Hunter College, The Bronx, are at the far end of the formation of Marines and WAVES held on the grounds of Columbia University. Between 27 March and 10 July 1943, more than 3,000 women Marines were fully trained at Hunter before all MCWR schools were moved to Camp Lejeune later that year. Photo courtesy of Evelyn Wallman Gins

Officer candidates joined as privates and after four weeks, if successful, were promoted to officer cadet, earning the right to wear the coveted silver OC pins. At that point women who failed to meet the standards were given two options: transfer to Hunter College to complete basic enlisted training or go home to await eventual discharge. Cadets who completed the eight-week course but were not recommended for a commission were asked to submit their resignations to the Commandant. In time, they were discharged, but permitted to reenlist as privates unless they were over age.

A disappointment shared by members of the first Officer Candidates' Class (OCC) and recruit class was the scarcity of uniforms. Both trained for several weeks in civilian clothes because uniform deliveries were so slow. In fact, the official photo of the first platoon to graduate from boot camp at Hunter College is a masterful bit of innocent deceit because as Audrey L. Bennington tells it, "Only the girls in the first row — and a few in the second row — had skirts on. We in the other rows had jackets, shirts, ties and caps, but — NO skirts. Lord and Taylor was a bit late in getting skirts to you.

Recruits received very precise and clear instructions before leaving home. They were told to bring rain coat and rain hat (no umbrellas), lightweight dresses or suits, plain bathrobe, soft-soled bedroom slippers, easily laundered underwear, play suit or shorts for physical education (no slacks), and comfortable dark brown, laced oxfords because, ". . . experience has proven that drilling tends to enlarge the feet." They were also warned not to leave home without orders, not to arrive before the exact time and date stamped on the orders, and not to forget their ration cards.

During the first four weeks the MCWR curriculum was identical to that of the WAVES, except for drill which was taught by reluctant male drill instructors transferred to Mount Holyoke from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. Officer candidates studied naval organization and administration, naval personnel, naval history and strategy, naval law and justice, and ships and aircraft. The second phase of training was devoted to Marine Corps subjects taught by male Marines and later, as they, themselves became trained, WR officers. This portion of training was conducted apart from the WAVES and included subjects such as Marine Corps administration and courtesies, map reading, interior guard, safeguarding military information, and physical conditioning.

On 6 April, members of the first officer class received their OC pins and on 4 May history was made as the first women ever became commissioned officers in the Marine Corps. Retired Colonel Julia E. Hamblet, who twice served as a Director of Women Marines, recalled the comical reactions she and other women of the first officers class received: "That first weekend, we were also mistaken for Western Union girls."

The Marine Corps section of the Midshipmen School operated on a two-part overlapping schedule, with a new class arriving each month. The first three classes each received seven-and-a-half weeks of training. In all, 214 women officers completed OCC training at Mount Holyoke.

1st Platoon
The 1st Platoon, U.S. Naval Training School (Women's Reserve), gathered at Hunter College in New York City, April 1943. Because uniform shipments were delayed, only the women in the first row and a few in the second wore uniform skirts. Photo courtesy of Audrey L. Bennington

Meanwhile, Headquarters, Marine Corps, was making plans to consolidate all MCWR training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, by 30 June. The women of the fourth Officer Candidates' Class reported to Mount Holyoke on 5 June, were promoted to cadet on the 29th, boarded troop trains for the two-day trip to Camp Lejeune on 1 July, and finally graduated on 7 August.

Two weeks after the first officer class reported to Mount Holyoke, enlisted women were ordered to the U.S. Naval Training School (Women's Reserve), at Hunter College in The Bronx, New York City. Seven hundred twenty-two "boots" arrived in three increments between 24 and 26 March and were billeted in nearby apartment houses. On the 26th, 21 platoons of women Marines began training with the WAVES and on 25 April they graduated. Since the school was designed for WAVE indoctrination, the curriculum was largely geared for the Navy. Some subjects were clearly not pertinent for Marines, so modifications were made and once again reluctant male Marines were pulled from Parris Island to be instructors. Training sessions varied from three and a half to five weeks and besides the dreaded physical examinations, time was allotted for uniforming, drill, physical training, and lectures on customs and courtesies, history and organization, administration, naval law, map reading, interior guard, defense against chemical attack, defense against air attack, identification of aircraft, and safeguarding military information.

Between 26 March and 10 July 1943, six classes of recruits, of approximately 525 each, arrived incrementally every two weeks. Of the 3,346 women who began recruit training at Hunter, 3,280 graduated.

Col Towle
Col Katherine A. Towle, second director of the Women's Reserve and first post war Director of Women Marines, was a dean at the University of California, Berkeley, before entering the Marine Corps. Department of Defense (USMC) 310463

And again, as at Mount Holyoke, separate Marine companies were formed into a battalion under the command of a regular officer, Major William W. Buchanan, who reported to Navy Captain William F. Amsden, commanding officer of the school. Captain Katharine A. Towle, who had been specifically recruited from the University of California at Berkeley and commissioned directly from civilian life without any Marine training, was Major Buchanan's senior woman staff officer. Actually, she was the only woman Marine officer at Hunter until the first officers' candidate class was commissioned. The rest of the Marine Corps staff included 33 male instructors — 10 officers and 23 enlisted men — to teach classroom subjects to the Marine women and 15 to 20 male drill instructors to supervise the close order drill of all "boots," WAVES and Marines.

Captain Towle, destined to be the second director of the MCWR and the first Director of Women Marines after passage of the Women's Armed Forces Integration Act of 1948, described her indoctrination into the Corps in a 1969 interview:

No one could have been greener or less military than I in those early days. I even came aboard the school in my civilian clothes. My uniforms were still in the process of being tailored for me in New York. I could tie the four-in-hand uniform tie for my uniform khaki shirt, but that was about all. I was soon, however, to learn basic procedures under the kind and watchful tutelage of the Marine Corps detachment's sergeant major, a Marine of some thirty years' service. He really must have had some bad moments.

What you will do when you're a good Marine, is really something. Every day for the first week he would escort me to a quiet room away from curious eyes (which was just as well) and give me instructions in how to salute properly, as well as other helpful lessons on what was expected of a Marine Corps officer. And I shall certainly always be grateful to Sergeant Major [Halbert A.] McElroy . . . for helping to make a proper officer out of me. He really personified the pride of being a Marine and he soon indoctrinated me with this same feeling. I was determined, no matter what happened, not to let him down after he had spent so much time on me, and I don't believe I really ever did.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division