The Marine Corps was strictly male until World War II except for 305 Marine Reservists (F), popularly termed “Marinettes,” who served during World War I. By late 1942, the unprecedented manpower demands of the two-front war led to personnel shortages. Although Corps Commandant GEN Thomas Holcomb had intially opposed recruiting women, he followed the example of the Army, Navy and Coast Guard and began a drive to “replace men by women in all possible positions.” The Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established in early 1943.
The public anticipated a catchy nickname for the women and bombarded headquarters with suggestions such as Femarines, Glamarines, and even, Sub-Marines, but GEN Holcomb ruled out the cute titles. In a March 1944 issue of Life magazine, he announced, “They are Marines. They don’t have a nickname and they don’t need one. They get their basic training in a Marine atmosphere at a Marine post. They inherit the traditions of Marines. They are Marines.” In practice, they were usually called Women Reservists, shortened to WRs.
Ruth Cheney Streeter became their first director. Wife of a prominent businessman, mother of four—including three sons in the service—and a leader for 20 years in New Jersey health and welfare work, MAJ Streeter had never before held a paying job. Her matronly, dignified demeanor allayed the fears of parents hesitant to entrust their daughters to the Marine Corps.
In the beginning, some of the volunteers may have longed for home. Training for the WRs took place at Camp Lejeune, NC, but the change from civilians to Marines began long before their arrival. Recruits traveled to Wilmington, NC, on troop trains of about 500. At the depot, they were lined up, issued paper armbands identifying them as “boots” (trainees), and ordered to pick up luggage–anybody’s luggage–and marched aboard another train. At the other end, shouting drill instructors herded them to austere barracks with large, open squadbays, group shower rooms, male urinals, and toilet stalls without doors. No time was allowed for adjustment. A few wondered what they had done and why they had done it.
Nonetheless, WRs were protected according to the customs of the day. The Marine Corps, renowned for excellent discipline and morale, had no history to help them bridge the gender gap. Women Marines were not pliant teenagers, but rather, adults at least twenty years old; most with work experience, some married; some had children; and a few had grandchildren. Since women were expected to adhere to near-Victorian standards, military leaders assumed a paternalistic attitude and the inevitable occurred—grown women were often treated like school girls. To prevent loneliness and avoid unfavorable comments, no fewer than two WRs were assigned to a station; enlisted women were not assigned to a post unless there was a woman officer in the vicinity; and it was customary to assign women officers to units of twenty-five or more WRs. Further evidence of that paternalistic attitude, women, unlike men of equal rank, could not have an automobile aboard base!
Yet the Marine Corps desperately needed their skills and gradually found out how far traditional job limits could be stretched. Five hundred WRs arrived at boot camp every two weeks and matching them to job openings was challenging. In 1943, Marine recruiting brochures promised women openings in thirty-four job assignments; but final statistics at the end of the war recorded WRs in over 225 different specialties, filling 85 percent of the enlisted jobs at Headquarters Marine Corps and comprising one-half to two-thirds of the permanent personnel at major Marine Corps posts.
Among all the beautifully worded accolades bestowed on women Marines of World War II, is a simple statement from GEN Holcomb: “Like most Marines, when the matter first came up, I didn’t believe women could serve any useful purpose in the Marine Corps. … Since then, I’ve changed my mind.”
The information in this article is excerpted from “Marine Corps Women’s Reserve: Free A Man To Fight,” by Colonel Mary V. Stremlow USMCR (Ret.). Colonel Stremlow’s essay appears in In Defense of a Nation: Servicewomen in World War II, edited by Major General Jeanne M. Holm, USAF (Ret.) and Judith Bellafaire, Ph.D., Chief Historian of the Women’s Memorial Foundation (Arlington, Virginia: Vandamere Press, 1998).