Free A Man to Fight
The Footfalls of History
She was 5 foot tall and 100 pounds on a wet day. And she was a Marine. Not a WAVE or a WAAC or a SPARS or a CWAC. “They are Marines. They don’t have a nickname and don’t need one,”[i] said General Thomas Holcomb, Commandant of the US Marine Corp. The General wasn’t happy about having women in the Marines, but the losses at Guadalcanal left him with no choice. The portrait of Archibald Henderson, 5th Commandant of the Marine Corp, crashed from the wall onto the buffet table when he made the announcement that women could join the Marines. Many saw the incident as an omen at the dinner party he was attending.[ii]
The thought of war in America had never entered the minds of many; some college campuses barely mentioned the war in Europe in their newsletters. Nothing much had changed in Minnesota while Hitler marched across Europe. There was an occasional swastika painted on someone’s door because the occupant was of German heritage, but that was about it. Women, especially, couldn’t imagine how the news would affect their future plans. Girls now went to universities, a rare privilege in those days when only 3.8% of woman and 5.5 % of men in the United States graduated from college. It all changed on 8 December 1941, when the United States declared war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Men went to fight in droves, and some women, who could no longer afford college, went to medical schools. Being a nurse wasn’t for everyone. As one freshman said, she hated sticking needles in people.”[iii] So from there, she went to the University of Minnesota, to study Art. But “what good was that going to do?”[iv] A recruiting poster supplied her answer— “Free A Man to Fight.” A dark-eyed beauty in a smart green uniform gazed at the sky from the paper picture. It could have been her.
The push for women to replace men holding down support positions in the services was on. Women would step into the shoes of clerks, bakers, janitors, mess men, laundrymen, radio operators, truck drivers, maintenance crews, and even pilots to name a few. It made more sense than an art degree for a young woman eager to do her part in the war effort. For others, a job in the military paid a heck of a lot more than they could get in civilian life. So off to the recruiter’s office they went.
One hopeful, who did not meet the weight requirements, was told by the recruiter to go drink a ton of water and step back on the scale. She just tipped the scale at 100 pounds before she ran to the toilet. She was 5 foot tall, 100 pounds and then she was Marine. Within days she was on a troop train— a black armband identified her as a ‘boot.’ She had one suitcase, her purse and a pass to Lejeune, North Caroline. It was the first time she’d been out of Minnesota. It was the first time she’d seen Chicago. It was the first time she’d seen the south. And it was the first time women went to boot camp at Camp Lejeune.
When the train reached Lejeune, the women were hustled into a group, told to grab a suitcase—any suitcase— and march to the quartermaster’s office to receive their uniform. It was a hot and muggy July day. They were issued the forest-green wintertime wool uniform seen in the poster. They had to buy their seersucker summer green and white uniform and their dress whites. The cost would be docked from their uniform pay. Even their undergarments were regulated. Full-length white slips had to be worn under every skirt no matter how hot it was outside. The only makeup allowed was lipstick and fingernail polish in the same shade of red as the braid on their cap. They were free to style their hair any way they wanted as long as it did not cover their collar. There were a lot of haircuts that day.
Men’s dungarees and work jackets were provided for the “rough work.”[v] Later the women were issued “dungalls,” modest halter tops to help them cope with the heat. There were no shoes small enough for some, so they had to be back ordered. Now fitted, inspected and herded like cattle, the recruits crowded onto a bus for the tour of the post on the way to their living quarters.
The two-story brick building with white framed windows— all the same size, all perfectly spaced like a drill squad—had been the men’s barrack in Area One; the women’s barracks was still under construction. Six windows in the middle of the building on the lower floor had an awning with two screened doors at either end. Perfectly straight sidewalks lead to each entry[vi], bisected by a perimeter sidewalk that enclosed a large flat, featureless lawn. There were no trees around the barracks, no shade from the unrelenting southern sun. This was the ‘boots’ new home. Walking through the screen door into a common area, she was assigned her bunk and locker, each room large enough to hold a platoon. The bath was down the hall complete with urinals, group shower stalls, and toilets without doors. There was no glass in the windows, just shutters. They were not allowed to have a car. And they could not leave the post.
“Left, left, left, right, left,” their male drill sergeant sang-out, correcting their positioning, their posture, and their stride as only a drill sergeant can do. “One gal’s nylon stockings puddled at her ankles because she used rubber bands to hold them up instead of the required garter belt or corset,” ditched because of the heat. [vii] The sergeant marched them off the field, politely turned his back, and had her pull up her stockings after dressing her down for being out of uniform. No tears allowed. Some of the sergeants resented having to train, “Broad-Ass Marines,” the BAMS, a nickname that inspired one group of Women Reserves to walk out of a performance when the bandleader used the term.[viii] By August, the Commandant issued orders to stop the course epithets and hazing that some boots were experiencing. It was the competence, self-assurance, and pride of the women who won over the nay-sayers. It wasn’t long before their male counterparts were duking-it-out with other servicemen who hassled their fellow Marines.
The women had to be ready for training by 6:00 AM. Reville was at 5:45AM. They drilled, “crawled under electric wires with live fire overhead;”[ix] they did the obstacle course, after warming up with calisthenics— in men’s dungarees—and then drilled some more, in the dirt, in the mud, in the rain, under the hot Carolina sun.
They dawned gas masks and “had to go into a smoke-filled tent and come out breathing.”[x] And they played volleyball. One ended up with blood poisoning when a teammate with dirty fingernails scratched her arm. The medical clinic on the Post was a life saver. In their off hours, the “boots” went to the PX (Post Exchange), the movies and the enlisted men’s club. There were no dances. Every two weeks 500 more women arrived to train for 225 specialties previously held by men.
After taking a battery of tests, the 5 foot Marine was assigned to Bakers School. Some of her platoon mates went on to truck driver school, parachute folding school, radio operator or mechanics schools or to clerical positions. Others went to medical training. They were freeing men to fight. The only overseas duty the women would be assigned to was Hawaii.
The Bakers specialty school was also at Lejeune. There, she learned to bake rolls, breads, and cakes using a stool to reach the top ovens. Her baker’s uniform was a man’s. She rolled up the cuffs but ended up with the nickname of “droopy drawers,” because there was nothing she could do about the oversized seat-of-the-pants. Now she was allowed to leave the post, by bus after passing inspection because she “represented the face of the Marines.”[xi] And a cute face it was, with a dimple in her chin and sparkling brown eyes. Given the success of the first group of women, a film crew came to the post from Quantico and shot a recruitment film. She was also photographed in uniform next to the river as a pin-up girl. Later some of the clips of her were in a History Channel documentary.
Her first and only duty station was at the Officers mess in El Toro, California. Chicago, Cheyanne, WY, and Los Angeles sped by on her 4-day troop train ride to California. She was seeing her country from coast to coast for the first time and she loved every bit of it.
She had one of the best times of her life while in the Marines. She “would not have changed anything.”[xii] Her fellow Marines, male and female, showed her respect and acted with dignity. She, like over 22,000 other Women Reserves, did her duty for her country and served the Marines proudly until her discharge at the end of the war. She was one of the many women who answered Sgt. W. C. Allison’s question posted in the 2 April 1943 issue of Yank Magazine, with a resounding “yes.”
“Will WAACs and WAVEs,
In civil lives,
Enlist again as humble WIVEs?”
She and many like her happily became wives when their men came home.
Here’s a recipe for some the best sugar cookies you will ever eat. From Jo-Jo, a fellow baker, during WWII:
Makes 8 dozen (of course!)
Sugar: 3 lbs
Margarine 2 lbs
Flour: 5.5 lbs
Baking Powder: 2 tsp
Milk 1.2 pint
Eggs: 5 whole
Salt: 1 tsp
Vanilla Extract 1 tsp
Rub together like making a pie dough. Roll and cut with any shape cutter.
Place on lightly greased pan after dusting pan with flour.
Brush top of cut cookies with milk and sprinkle a little sugar on top.
Bake at low heat for 7 to 8 minutes.
The 5 foot, 100-pound baker in this story wished to remain anonymous. She, like so many of the women who “Freed a Man to Fight,” felt that they were just doing their bit, and didn’t deserve any special recognition.
Photo: google images
[ii] Stremlow, Free a Marine to Fight: Women marines in World War II.1.
[viii] Stremlow, Free a Marine to Fight: Women marines in World War II,12.