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Opha May Johnson: Semper Fi

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Opha May Johnson: Semper Fi

If someone asked you when the first woman was enlisted in the Marine Corps, what would be your best guess?

Would you go back as far as August 13, 1918? That was 95 years ago today – during World War I. Many people would not imagine that women were allowed to join the Marines even before they earned the right to vote, two years later.

The first enlistee, Opha May Johnson, was actually the first of 305 women who signed up that day. She just happened to be at the head of the line so her name has endured and is still revered.

Though her name (sometimes spelled "Opha Mae" though the correct spelling of her middle name is "May" according to a Marine Corps historian) might not be widely recognized, she has not been forgotten. In fact, there is a Facebook page bearing her name – with 96 friends – and even a You Tube video featuring a young donkey mascot some soldiers rescued and endearingly named Opha May Johnson.

Wonder what she would think of that now!

There was a woman who served in the Marine Corps much earlier: Lucy Brewer, disguised as a man, was aboard the USS Constitution during the War of 1812 (though some doubt the veracity of her story later published in a book). But a woman wasn’t officially enlisted until more than 100 years later.

The women who served during WWI were hired to take over office, clerical and secretarial duties to “free a man to fight” where they were needed in overseas combat.

According to Women Marines in World War I by Linda L. Hewitt, released earlier this year, “Mrs. Opha May Johnson, who was working at Headquarters Marine Corps as a civil service employee, was assigned as a clerk in the office of the Quartermaster General, Brigadier Gen. Charles McCawley and by war’s end was the senior enlisted woman with the rank of sergeant.”

Hewitt’s book goes on to say, “Recruiting officers were instructed to enlist only women of excellent character, neat appearance and with business or office experience.”

By World War II, much had changed – women were voting! – and there were almost 20,000 women Marines, definitely a considerable increase in less than 30 years. Their duties included parachute rigger, mechanic and cryptographer.

Though some sources list her birth year as 1900 and her age at time of enlistment as 18, Johnson was actually born in 1879 according to Marine Corps historians, making her nearly 40 when she enlisted. She was given the category of F (for female) and the rank of private, and her first duties were as a clerk at Marine Corps headquarters, managing the records of other female reservists who joined after she did. Johnson was skilled in shorthand and typing, having graduated from a technical school in 1895. At the end of the war, women including Johnson were disenrolled from active service. 

Today women serve in many capacities throughout the military. In 2011 Brig. General Loretta E. Reynolds became the first female Marine commander of Parris Island, S.C. Last year, the first female Marines took the Combat Leadership test. Today, women make up 6.2 percent of the Marine Corps and serve in 93 percent of all occupations – including officers.

Originally published Aug. 13, 2013. Written by Susan Soper, author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life, and journalist who has written for Newsday and CNN, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."