13 February 2023 - 80th Anniversary of the Marine Corps Women Reserve Since World War II
It is not widely known why we celebrate 13 February as the Women Marines’ Anniversary. Eliminating the obvious, when women were officially authorized to serve in the Marine Corps Reserve, one might ask themself why we don’t celebrate the date Opha May Johnson enlisted, in World War I.
The word was out, women were to become part of the Marine Corps team. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Thomas Holcomb, was called upon to give them a name. He said, "They're Marines and we'll call them Marines.” Though women served briefly in the Corps as "Marinettes" in 1918, it wasn't until the middle of World War II that they appeared in strength as Reservists. After serving faithfully for five years, they became a permanent part of the Marine Corps.
“Marinettes” were in one day and out the next. Their strength was limited to 305; they could only be promoted to sergeant; and, they could only serve as clerks at Headquarters Marine Corps. As World War I ended, so too, did the “Marinettes”. Only a handful were permitted to serve out their four-year enlistments. The contributions of the “Marinettes” were well remembered two decades later when Congress authorized the Corps to accept 800 women officers and 18,000 enlisted women to serve in the Women's Marine Corps Reserve during World War II.
13 February 1943 was the day it all started. Two days after General Holcomb made the announcement, 100 women had already rushed to apply for enlistment. Prospective enlistees came from all walks of life. Schoolgirls, office workers, and even grandmothers wanted to do something patriotic.
"Free a Marine to Fight" was the recruiting slogan used. On 15 February 1943 all across the nation, young women were confronted with a billboard urging them to "Be a Marine! Free a Marine to Fight." Most did not even stop to see what kind of uniform they would be expected to wear, neither did they stop to ask many questions.
Women Marines were assigned as stateside air controllers, parachute riggers, cooks, artists, stenographers, truck drivers, and technical specialists. With women filling these roles, enough male Marines were released from stateside technical and administrative jobs to fill the entire Sixth Marine Division.
As directed by the 13th Commandant, General John A. Lejuene, that a reminder of the honorable service of the Corps be published by every command, to all Marines around the globe, on the birthday of the Corps, so it was directed via Letter of Instruction dated 18 July 1943, that there would be an official observance of the Women Marine Corps Reserve. It did not, however, indicate what the date of the observance would be.
The tradition began on 13 February 1944 when, at the first anniversary of women entering the Marine Corps, First Lady, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt; Acting Secretary of the Navy, Ralph A. Baird; the Commandant of the Martine Corps, General Vandegrift; and, Colonel Streeter headed the list of dignitaries at a ceremony conducted at Fort Myer, Virginia.
February 13, 1944, Women Marine Band, appear on NBC Radio Broadcast celebrating the first anniversary of women Marine Corps Reserves. Pictured are the Vocalists in the Women Marine Trio (L-R) Lorainne McKinnon, Bonnie Medin, Charlotte Plummer Owen.
Since then, the anniversary of the Women Marines has been the subject of some controversy; at times, celebrated with much encouragement, and at others, purposely neglected by the leadership at Headquarters Marine Corps in an effort to encourage all Marines to acknowledge one birthday, the 10th of November. To further complicate the issue, the women who served in World War I questioned the use of 1943 as a point of reference, to which Colonel Towle wrote a memorandum on the subject in 1951 stating:
“The formation of the Marine Corps Women's Reserve of World War II was officially announced by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Thomas Holcomb, on 13 February 1943, under the provisions of the Naval Reserve Act of 1938, as amended. It is that anniversary which is recognized each year by women who served in World War II; hence the Eighth Anniversary, 13 February 1951.”
During World War II and immediately after, the celebration of the occasion was an effective way to raise morale, keep up the interest of former Women Marines, and in general, to enhance the prestige of women in the service. Celebrations have varied according to local customs, but typically included a cake-cutting ceremony attended by the Commanding General, the Battalion Commander, and all Women Marines, officers, and enlisted.
13 February 1945, the second anniversary, Women Marines Reserves stationed in San Francisco celebrated with a birthday cake-cutting ceremony with Brigadier General Arnold W. Jacobsen, Commanding General, Depot of Supplies. The celebration continued that evening with all Marine Corps personnel celebrating at two dances, one for enlisted and escorts and another for officers and guests.
Pictured below Master Technical Sergeant Anita Fisher at a 2nd Anniversary Celebration.
At the end of World War II, demobilization almost terminated the presence of women in the Corps. In September 1946, less than 200 Women Marines were on active reserve duty.
By the 5th Anniversary (1948), tradition was established. In 1948, there was only one Women Reserve Company left and it was located at Henderson. It had been three years since the end of hostilities in August 1945 when, on 12 June 1948, legislation, Armed Forces Integration Act of 1948, giving women regular military status was finally passed and signed into law by President Harry S. Truman.
For many years, the Commandant sent a formal message to all Women Marines to mark the special day. On the eighth anniversary of the founding of the Women's Reserve, then Commandant, General Cates, wrote gallantly to Colonel Towle:
“It was a proud day in the annals of the Corps when the women joined us in 1943. Your record of achievement since then well merited the permanent recognition of Women Marines. The filling of your ranks by Regulars and Reserves since the outbreak in Korea has greatly aided our Corps to attain new glories. All ranks in the Corps join me today in a fond salute to our "lady Marines."
Below, 13 February 1946, the third anniversary, Marine Sergeant Elvera Clark gets ready to out the first slice of cake as San Francisco women Marines celebrate their third anniversary. Onlookers at the cake-cutting ceremony are PFC Barbars Dondero, Sgt Alma McVey, and Cpl Harriet Howe.
By the 10th Anniversary (1953), Headquarters Marine Corps encouraged all commands to promote, celebrate, and publicize the observance, but in 1954, the Chief of Staff directed that nothing should ". . . emanate from this Headquarters in connection with the 11th anniversary of the Women Marines, 13 February 1954.” Two years later, the Commandant, General Pate sent a similar message to the Director.
On 13 February 1958, at a 15th Anniversary luncheon in Los Angeles, CA, the idea for a reunion of Women Marines was conceptualized. In July 1960, the Women Marine Association was established. From then on, the Association continued to celebrate the anniversary of the Women Marines through chapter luncheons.
Today, there is a huge misconception that the celebration of the anniversary of the Women Marines is only an “Association” event. Although the Women Marine Association has continued the tradition of celebrating the anniversary, it is up to all of us, women and men alike to honor the history of the Women Marines and continue the tradition of celebrating the anniversary. It is not just the Women Marines’ history, it’s Marine Corps history.