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)


In 1943 the country desperately needed womanpower, but almost no one knew for certain just how far the limits of tradition could be stretched or, more likely, breached. By custom, working women were mainly employed in offices, classrooms, hospitals, retail stores, libraries, beauty shops, or in homes as domestics. Not many women drove trucks, or buses, and they certainly didn't fix them. Women did not work in the trades — plumbing, electricity, carpentry — and they rarely supervised men. Society had long since deemed certain jobs too dirty, too dangerous, too strenuous, or for unspecified reasons, just not suitable for women.

In this social climate, the Marine Corps set out to select, train, classify, and assign 18,000 newly recruited civilian women at the rate of more than 1,000 a month, and have them on the job and making a contribution in the shortest time possible. That it was done as magnificently as it was is a tribute both to the women who made it happen and to the men who allowed it to happen. Colonel Streeter's philosophy was ". . . anything except heavy lifting and combat. They could try."

One of the first WR officers, Captain Cornelia Williams, with a doctoral degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota and wide experience as a college administrator in student personnel work, reported to Headquarters on 19 February 1943 for duty in the Classification Division, Detail Branch. Her task seemed simple enough: come up with a plan that balanced the new Marines' skills and abilities against the needs of the Marine Corps. Initially, Marines studied the systems used by the WACs and the WAVES, but in the end, the answer was found closer to home and the preferred plan was based directly on the system already set up for male Marines.

On 1 January 1944, the original arrangement which involved three women officers working in various divisions of the Detail Branch was changed, and a separate Women's Reserve Section of the Detail Branch was organized. Beyond analyzing jobs and translating the duties into military occupational titles and compiling a directory of training courses, its mission was to design the Women's Reserve Qualification Card (NAVMC-940 C), write appropriate instructions for maintaining it, select classification tests to be given all Women Reservists, plan for selection and training of women classification specialists, and train people in the field in the basics of the classification process.

drivers and mechanics
Women drivers and mechanics comprised the Motor Transport Section at Parris Island in 1944. Photo courtesy of Sarah Thornton

sketch of women Marines working in office
Women Marines worked in the office of the Sergeant Major of the Schools Training Regiment at Camp Lejeune in August 1944. Pencil sketch by Marion A. Allen in Marine Corps Art Collection

For the most part, there was little difference in the methods and procedures used to classify officers and enlisted women: the same tests were used for both. In the case of officers, however, closer attention was paid to assessing personality traits and probability of success as leaders and supervisors. While male officers could reasonably expect to be assigned at the bottom rung of an organization, working under the watchful eye and care of experienced senior officers and non-commissioned officers, women officers had neither senior role models nor seasoned non-coms to guide them. It was a sink-or-swim situation where they faced the prospect of teaching and supervising women as green as themselves.

At first, the basic test battery chosen included the Army standardized tests to assess general learning, mechanical, and clerical ability. From September 1943 through May 1944, the Army Radio Operators Aptitude Test was given to all enlisted women. In June, a test of vocational and job interests was added, and finally in December 1944, when the decision was made to send selected women Marine volunteers to Hawaii, personality and adjustment tests were added.

Lucas, Ayers
Cpl Essie Lucas and PFC Betty J. Ayers, graduates of Motor Transport School, replace a reconditioned engine at Camp Lejeune's post garage in 1943. Lucas was commissioned six years later in the first postwar Women's Officer Training Class. Department or Defense Photo (USMC) 6265

Once again, just as had happened in the early phases of training, because this was a start-up operation with no women experienced in classification, male Marines ran the system until WRs were qualified to take over. With classes of about 500 boots each arriving at the recruit depot every two weeks, the challenge of matching the women to critical job openings was ambitious enough, but the novelty of using females to fill military titles caused more than a few miscues.

It just wasn't the same as it was with the men who were transferred from boot camp to their first duty station in large troop drafts, based on the theory that most military skills had to be learned by all. In contrast, women were transferred with their names linked to identified job vacancies because many possessed unique skills. The idea was sound, but its success depended upon a cooperative adjutant at the receiving station assigning the women as planned. If, for example, a woman was classified as a telephone operator and arrived at a post only to be assigned by the G-1 as a soda jerk in the post exchange, the process broke down.

The Marine recruiting brochures in 1943 promised women openings in 34 job assignments: the shortsightedness of the planners can be seen in the final statistics recording women in more than 200.

Cpl Russell
Cpl Ellen V Russell freed a Marine to fight when she served as a butcher in the post commissary at the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia, during the war. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 25224

Miscalculations led to bothersome reassignments when newly identified, high-priority jobs had to be filled but qualified women were no longer available. For example, the first calls for IBM tabulating machine operators, teletypewriter operators, sewing machine operators, draftsmen, utility repairmen, and even telephone operators came only after many women with this kind of civilian training and experience had been assigned to other duties.

Expensive errors in judgment were made because no one knew exactly how many women were needed and Marines underestimated their skills and efficiency. Marines requested far too many women, especially for office work at Headquarters, because they thought that half again as many women were needed to replace a given number of men. For clerical work, the reverse was generally true. Worse, in the time-honored tradition of the Corps, Marines often asked for twice as many women as were needed, expecting to receive half of what was requested.

Adding to the confusion, many men did not understand the duties involved in specific job titles, and people who could not dictate requested stenographers, and people needing file clerks asked for clerk typists. In the end, large numbers of women Marines felt let down and were bored by monotonous assignments that took only a fraction of their time and made scant demands on their skills. Colonel Streeter understood their frustration and made it a habit to visit women Marines in the field often to give regular pep talks on the vital importance of every job to the overall war effort.

Contradicting the adage that there is never too much of a good thing, the exceptionally high caliber of the women recruited in the early phases of the war resulted in too many underemployed WRs. In Colonel Streeter's opinion:

In test scores, educational level, civilian experience, and special skills, these women, as a group, were well above "average." Only a few of the jobs open to them in the Marine Corps were "above average" in responsibility and demands for skill, a great majority of the jobs were quite ordinary, and many more were actually extremely simple. Yet, somebody had to do these simple jobs. There were not enough women sufficiently lacking in intelligence, clerical ability, education and skill to be happy in these simple jobs. So, Women Reservists capable of more skilled work had to be misassigned — especially at first and especially at Headquarters Marine Corps.

One woman who was not bored with her job in Washington was Audrey Bennington, who summarized her tour from 23 March 1943 to 25 October 1945 and declared it one of the most important times of her life:

May 1st 1943 assigned to Headquarters Colonel Streeter's section, working with Colonel Cecil Rhoads, and Major Charlotte Gower. February 1944, first Woman Marine — oldest Marine Barracks, 8th & Eye Streets, Washington, secretary to the CO and his officers. Every 10 days taken to then Shangri La (Camp David now) to do ration records. That post was where the action was, believe me. I wish I were capable of writing a book — what material I have.

With time, the dilemma of too many, overqualified women resolved itself because as the war progressed there was ample work for everyone, male supervisors eventually gained confidence in the women and were more willing to release the men they had held back to train them, and the later recruit classes had fewer exceptionally skilled enlistees.

More than half of all Women Reservists were engaged in clerical work — about the same percentage as in civilian life. But new ground was broken as women went to work as radio operators, photographers, parachute riggers, motor transport drivers, aerial gunnery instructors, cooks, bakers, Link trainer instructors, control tower operators, motion picture technicians, automotive mechanics, teletype operators, cryptographers, laundry managers, post exchange salespersons and managers, auditors, audio-visual librarians, assembly and repair mechanics, metalsmiths, weather observers, artists, aerial photographers, photograph analysts, chemists, postal clerks, musicians, statisticians, stewardesses, and writers.

In a 1979 interview, Colonel Streeter confided she was greatly amused that WRs were in "secret and confidential files" because ". . . they always claim that women can't keep a confidence, you know." One WR second lieutenant assigned to secret and confidential files presumably had little trouble with the security clearance — Eugenia D. Lejeune, the youngest daughter of Major General Commandant John A. Lejeune.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division