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Opha Mae Johnson: Semper Fi

Published: 8/13/2013

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 Mae 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 that name 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 Mae 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 Mae 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.

Johnson was only 18 when she enlisted and was given the category of F (for female) and the rank of private. 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.

Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."

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