In 1948. President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. It opened the way for women to be permanent, regular members of all the armed services – including the Marines. My Mom beat him by five years, by becoming one of the first women to be accepted into the Corps in 1943.
Happy International Women’s Day, Mom. Wish you were still here with us.
Her family helped establish our country. They fought in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the War of 1812 (which Canadians tell us we lost), the Spanish-American War, and World War II. Various family root stocks settled in parts of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in the 200 years before her birth. They produced a lineage that was strong and resilient.
After the birth of two brothers, she was a surprise and a great gift to her parents, having been born on their sixth anniversary.
Although some would call her unconventional, she was fun-loving. She and her brothers played ukuleles, sang, and put on skits in the family living room. When wallpaper was stripped to be replaced, they drew cartoons on the plaster walls. I can fondly remember seeing them when I was a young child and that wallpaper was removed again. But those skits used to embarrass me horribly when I was a sophisticated teenager. I think I know where any creative juices I may possess came from.
Good at math and supremely well-read, most people assumed she had a college degree. She certainly had a life degree and was one of the most articulate people I’ve ever known.
Men’s heads turned when they saw her. She was beautiful as well as personable. And unfailingly pleasant. A positive person when life threw her lemons. And she caught a lot of them.
She made history when she became a Sergeant Major in the US Marine Corps during World War II. Up to this time, the Marines were the last bastion of males only among the services. She was: • among the first of eight women to be sworn into the Corps in Philadelphia.; • in the first class of Women Marines to be trained at Hunter College; • chosen with thirteen other women out of hundreds in her boot camp group to attend the inaugural class of Women Marines in First Sergeant’s school; • one of the first Women Marines to appear in uniform in Philadelphia. It caused quite a stir, and was featured in the local newspaper; • the first of four women to make First Sergeant; • the first woman to replace a male First Sergeant.
She was highly intelligent, even though she never finished high school. One of her greatest accomplishment was to see me do well in school and graduate. Assignments were pored over and she constantly encouraged me to be “better” than she was. She was chest-thumpingly proud when her only child got a B.Sc. in Chemistry and an MBA from The Wharton School. It was perilous for anyone who might have asked how her child was doing during that time.
She was an indefatigable single mom, who took care of me, her invalid mother, her father and ran the household like a Marine. She somehow managed to balance everything while maintaining her equilibrium. And her sense of humor.
Our family lost her in 1985. The world lost an unheralded heroine who paved the way for others. I still miss her and can never thank her enough for the impact she had on my life.
Her name was Irene Helen. And she was my Mom, the Marine. Happy Birthday to the USMC!
In July, Irene became a newly non-commissioned officer – a Sergeant. Her class was composed of 75 Marines: 61 men, 14 women. She was one of the first women in the country to obtain that distinction. Irene did it with a final grade of 94.5. Not bad for a high school dropout. She was in her glory. Then reality hit. Irene and the thirteen other newly-minted Featherneck Sergeants were assigned to Camp Lejeune in New River, North Carolina, where the heat and humidity were worse than Philadelphia There was no air conditioning, and the barracks had flying roaches in addition to hot and cold running water. These were the so-called southern tree roaches, not like those smaller, more civilized roaches of the Northern cities that knew their place was on the ground. They had a bad habit of dive-bombing the women while they were in the showers, resulting in a nearly constant barrage of screams. The male Marines thought it was hysterical. The Feathernecks failed to see the humor in it.
In addition to the roaches, there were squadrons of mosquitoes, and platoons of chiggers, which can’t be seen but make you itch like crazy. The Feathernecks arrived in the summer, so they were exposed to the worst that coastal North Carolina could throw at them, with temperatures in the 100-110-degree range, and humidity levels to match.
Camp Lejeune back then was out in the middle of nowhere, and was referred to as the “Hell-Hole” by anyone who’d had any experience with it. The reality was worse. It was situated in Onslow County, North Carolina, roughly five miles from the rugged beaches that would be used in training exercises for the Marine Expeditionary Forces. This elite group played a massive role in the Pacific in Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. But, before the Marines came into North Carolina, the area was composed primarily of tenant farms, and many people who lived there still got supplies by boat, just as generations before them had.
Irene was used to the environments of Hunter College, the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and the Ben Franklin Hotel. All of them were sophisticated, amenity-filled places to live in. She especially missed the food, which was excellent in those places, and there was lots of it. That wasn’t the case in North Carolina, at least not at first. The base was somewhat undeveloped when it was established and built in 1941, and even by 1943, with a population approaching 40,000, it was dramatically different than the near-city it is today, with its 180,000 residents.
However, the “girls” learned to see the positives, and by 1943, the base actually had some decent buildings, all red brick with white trim, so at least it was attractive. One of those buildings was a recreation hall, with dart boards, pool tables, and a dance floor with a jukebox. That contraption seemed to be fixated on one song – “Pistol Packin’ Mamma,” a 1943 number-one song with words composed by Al Dexter, and it played incessantly. But it was certainly appropriate with all those female Marines, who’d had pistol and rifle training and knew how to shoot as well as pack.
The Marine Corps was also new at this Women Marines game, and when Irene arrived, there were no assigned quarters, and no one appeared to have any idea what she and the other “girls” were supposed to do. They eventually figured it out, and Irene was assigned to the Recruit Depot, responsible for payroll and muster rolls for every group of new recruits who came onto the base.
Muster rolls were registers of the officers and men in a military unit. Back in the 1940s, before computers, it was an avalanche of paperwork, with handwriting and typewriters being the norm for recording data. Just keeping up with the mountains of those records for filing was a nightmare. Every time a new battalion came in, Irene and her company had to pack up the documents from the previous group and start the process all over again for the new group.
Within a few months, she was promoted to Staff Sergeant, and inherited some men in her company. They got on well, and they loved being “bossed around” by their pipsqueak “Sarge.” She settled into her role, and made friends among the troops, both men and women. She also had a good woman Marine friend named Geraldine. Gerry was from Chicago. They met at Hunter College and went through First Sergeant’s school together. They were the best of buddies. Gerry even had a car, which they lovingly named “Penny the Passionate Pontiac.” Gerry went on to make a career of the Marine Corps, and was the first woman Marine to attain the rank of E-9, Master Gunnery Sergeant, in 1960. It was the highest non-commissioned officer rank in the Corps.
Irene loved the routine and the intellectual stimulation, but her petite stature, at five feet one and one half inches, gave her some grief during her training. Of course, the women were to be issued uniforms, but because her group was the first, there was no readily available inventory. These included both winter and summer dress uniforms, along with caps, shoes, and blouses. The Marines had Lord & Taylor working hard on it, but what they eventually got was for taller, larger women, so tiny Irene had to have hers altered significantly, delaying her uniforms’ delivery and nearly scuttling her chance at further training.
She did well, finishing in the top of her class. All that hard work and her native intelligence paid off. She was chosen to go to First Sergeant’s School. Those Marines were no dummies. They knew a good thing when they saw it. She also picked up a lot of Navy and Marine jargon, like MMRLH, which was posted on envelopes. It meant Marine Mail Rush Like Hell. Once she learned it, it appeared on the bottom of the envelopes for every letter she mailed back home.
Best of all, First Sergeant’s School was in Philadelphia, at the U.S. Navy Yard, less than two miles from her family. Although she couldn’t stay with them, it was closer than the Bronx, and she had some spare time to spend with her mother and father during that two-month training period. The Marines put their candidates up in the Ben Franklin Hotel, so they had a pretty nice place to stay.
The Clerical School at the Navy Base published a little paper back then called The Pen & Bayonet. The troops trained in the Clerical School would go on to become Clerks reporting to a First Sergeant, exactly what Irene and her fellow classmates would become. When she and the other First Sergeant candidates arrived, Irene and a friend wrote an article called “Hello, Fellow Marines.” In it, they introduced the “girls” and penned a little ditty to be sung to the tune of the Marine Corps hymn that summed up these pioneering women perfectly:
You can tell a girl in the Marines, You can tell her by her walk. You can tell a girl in the Marines, You can tell her by her talk.
You can tell her by her manner, By her attitude and such. You can tell a girl in the Marines, But you cannot tell her much!
“Today, May 8, marks the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe (V-E Day), which signaled the nearing of the end of World War II…
With the approach of the Allies and the death of Adolph Hitler, the Nazi empire surrendered unconditionally on this date in 1945. It marked the end of six long years of a terrible warfare that had cost millions of human lives, destroyed whole cities and brought mass suffering to all of Europe. In preceding weeks, the intolerable cruelty and incomprehensible horrors of Hitler’s death camps had been revealed. But finally, the Allies had cause to celebrate – the enemy was defeated and had capitulated.”
Both of my parents served – my dad in the Navy, who was on the USS Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attack hit – and my mom in the Marine Corps, holding down jobs that freed up men to go and fight. I’m very proud of both of them.
So take a moment today to think of all of those Americans and our allies who fought and died so we could be free.
Although we are all dealing in one way or another with Covid-19, one day we will have our victory day.
Irene was good with numbers, and worked in the Comptroller’s department at Sharpe & Dohme (now Merck). Her luck came into play here, too. She loved what she did, and had a wonderful boss, with whom she remained friends for many years. Irene worked at Sharpe & Dohme for fourteen and a half years, and had found her home away from home. She developed a routine: working, and dating some, but nothing serious ever developed. Still no Mr. Right. As both of her older brothers got married and moved out, Irene began to wonder if she’d become a spinster.
Then the United States got involved in World War II. Because Irene’s family had a long history of military service, all three of the siblings felt the need to do their part. The younger of her two brothers enlisted in the Navy, and the older brother tried to join the Army, but he had a hearing problem that exempted him from service. At that time, the Navy, the Army, and the Air Force all had women’s branches, but none of them appealed to her. The thought of spending endless days on a rocking ship did not sound good, and she didn’t like heights, making the Air Force and planes downright scary. And she just never liked the Army.
The Marine Corps was the last branch of the services to accept women, and when they did, they created the USMCWR – The United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Now, that sounded pretty swell. The Marine’s idea was to recruit women they could train to do non-combat jobs which would free up the men to fight. That was just fine with her. So, she set out to become a lady Leatherneck. She barely made it – with one half inch to spare over the 5’1” minimum height requirement.
The other branches of the services had names for the women’s corps, like the WACs (Women’s Army Corp), the WAVEs (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), and the WAFs (Women’s Air Force). The Marines never gave in to that. They thought a Marine was a Marine. Perhaps they were ahead of the times when it came to gender equality. But the men did have an unofficial name for the female Marines. BAMs, short for Broad-Assed Marines. It was coined by the male Marines, after a female reporter suggested they be called “Beautiful American Marines.” Maybe a bit sexist, but definitely memorable. The official word on their name came from Marine Corps General Thomas Holcomb, who was emphatic that the Women Marine reservists were not to be ascribed any sort of nickname. 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.”
Irene became a BAM in March 1943. Back then, there was no politically correct term for young women, so they referred to them as the “girls.” Those girls also referred to themselves as “Feathernecks” – a portmanteau derived from the two words Female and Leathernecks. The term “Leathernecks” came from the uniform developed in the Continental Marines in 1776, which included a high leather collar to protect against cutlass slashes and to keep a man’s head erect.
She was an early adopter, one of eight women who were the first from the Philadelphia area to join. She was excited and ecstatic, but sad and worried to leave her mother.
Irene told her oldest brother in the sternest possible way, “You must swear to me that you’ll keep an eye on things and do your best to get and maintain our father on the straight and narrow.”
She also lectured her father vigorously before she left, “Now, Pappy, I know you like your bourbon, but I’m not going to be here to haul you out of that tap room. Don’t you dare put that burden on my mother.”
She was a Marine at heart even before she became one officially – totally fearless and one take-charge woman.
The Marines are part of the Department of the Navy, and because they had no training facilities for women at that time, they relied heavily on the Navy for basic training for the new female enlistees. They used the U.S. Naval Training School, on the Bronx campus of Hunter College in New York, to get them off on the right foot.
Starting in early 1943, young women from all over the country did their boot camp training there. A small fraction – 722 of the first group of 95,000 women – arrived in three waves between March 24th and 26th, and were billeted in nearby apartment houses. Irene was in the first wave. On March 26th, 21 platoons, or roughly 600 women Marines, began training. They graduated on April 25th.
Opening of the U.S. Navy recruit camp for WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) at Hunter College (Bronx Campus), New York City (USA), in 1943. At one time in 1944, 5,000 women were training at Hunter College, and a total of 95,000 women volunteers were trained for military service there. Image from WikimediaCommons.
Since the school was designed for WAVE indoctrination, the curriculum was largely geared for the Navy. Some subjects were not pertinent for Marines, so modifications were made and reluctant male Marines were pulled from Parris Island to be instructors. Training sessions varied from three and a half to five weeks, and besides the dreaded physical examinations, time was allotted for uniforming, drilling, and physical training. They had lectures on customs and courtesies, history and organization, administration, naval law, map reading, interior guard, defense against chemical attack, defense against air attack, identification of aircraft, and safeguarding military information. It was a lot to cover in such a short time.
Their training was intense. Those “boots,” as they called them, worked their buns off from 0530 (5:30 AM) to lights out at 2230 (10:30 PM) every day, with only short breaks for lunch and dinner. For Irene, it was like going to college. And, in fact, she was on a college campus. She had always loved school, and having to drop out of high school was painful for her. This training put her right back where she belonged, learning and absorbing like a sponge. She sat on the front row every chance she got, and became a favorite of her instructors.
After a very long absence due to health problems, I’ve decided to start a series of posts about my mom, the Marine, in honor of International Women’s Month. She was a true trailblazer. I hope you’ll follow her story.
Irene heard that some of the Women Marines in Camp Lejeune would be going to Hawaii. Irene was thrilled since she and her good friend Gerry were slated to go. They made all sorts of elaborate plans and even did a little skit with their fellow Feathernecks to celebrate. Their outfits of straw skirts and leis topped off with goofy masks and signs that said “Honolulu Here We Come” were the hit of the celebration.
Unfortunately, they made plans too soon, and learned that “the Corps” sometimes worked – or didn’t work – in mysterious ways. Gerry shipped out in November 1944, leaving poor Irene stuck in North Carolina with the roaches. But in December, just as she was about to have a Christmas leave with her family in Philadelphia, she got orders that she was being shipped to San Diego. That was the first step.
San Diego was a major disappointment to Irene. The Marine Corps base back then was a staging area for the troops going somewhere else, mostly the Pacific. There were waves of them who had to have muster rolls prepared and payroll records initiated, changed, or updated. Unfortunately, her staff there wasn’t like the top-notch crew she had at Camp Lejuene – or as large. And, the constant flow of troops was as never-ending as the California sunshine.
On top of that, Irene was conscientious to a fault. Because of her exceptional experience at Camp Lejuene, and the fact that she excelled at her job, she suspected that the Corps was keeping her from going to Hawaii. Instead of a workload of the two assignments that she handled at Camp Lejeune, she had three in San Diego: one as Acting Sergeant Major; Adjutant (an assistant to the Commanding Officer, or CO); and First Sergeant. Her feelings were likely well-founded. Those responsible were short-handed and they couldn’t afford to lose her. She began working 12- to 18-hour days again and started to burn out. Her superiors finally told her to slow down – which she reluctantly did. Meanwhile, her good friend Gerry had shipped off to Pearl Harbor, so she didn’t even have a buddy to gripe and share late-night snacks with.
Eventually the workload lightened up significantly, and life got easier in San Diego, so Irene could enjoy a bit of time to herself. She made one weekend trip up to Los Angeles with some other Feathernecks so she could see first-hand what Hollywood was all about. They went to The Brown Derby, Sardi’s, the legendary Clifton’s Cafeteria, and saw Grauman’s Chinese Theater with its celebrity footprints and handprints. In spite of its supposed glamour, she wasn’t impressed with Hollywood, and thought it seemed like any other smallish town. Irene was a big city girl, after all.
But right at home, the Marine Corps base had occasional dances, which she thought were much more fun than Hollywood, and she went to as many of them as she could. At least they were easier to get to, and less expensive. Best of all, they played a bigger variety of songs than “Pistol-Packin Mamma.” There were new tunes too, like “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” that she could jitterbug to and “Sentimental Journey” for those dreamy slow dances.
Among her other duties, Irene scheduled the Marines who were on her muster rolls for physicals and dental checkups before they shipped out, so she had frequent contacts with those who were responsible for scheduling at those facilities. Clarence was now stationed at the Dental Clinic in San Diego, performing duties as a Dental Technician, and one of his responsibilities was scheduling. They spoke to each other frequently by phone. For weeks, in addition to setting appointments, they laughed and joked and engaged in some serious flirting with one another.
On one occasion, Clarence told Irene, “I heard you need to have all your teeth pulled. I’m so sorry to hear that, but I’m just the guy to be the technician to assist when you get that done.”
Irene was pretty clever too, so she shot back at him, “Listen, buster, if you even think about doing that, I’ll send a platoon of my Marine buddies over to rough you up.”
They both enjoyed the verbal foreplay, and worked hard at coming up with more outlandish things to tell each other.
In February 1944, Irene was promoted to Tech Sergeant. A Tech or Technical Sergeant was similar in rank to a gunnery sergeant and other technical ranks with which it shared its insignia. Then in March, she made First Sergeant. By this time, she had 120 women in her company plus nineteen Drill Instructors (DIs) – all men, of course. She developed strong friendships with those DIs, who referred to her as “Top.” She learned about leadership and how to get people to do what you want them to do. Within the first year or so of her Marine Corps career, she had racked up an impressive collection of achievements:
• the first woman to leave Sharpe & Dohme to join the Marines • among the first of eight women to be sworn into the Corps in Philadelphia • one of the first class of Women Marines to be trained at Hunter College • among the first group of Women Marines to appear in uniform in Philadelphia • one of the first group of fourteen chosen from boot camp to attend the inaugural class of Women Marines in First Sergeant’s school • the first of four women to make First Sergeant • the first woman to replace a male First Sergeant
Irene (fourth from left) and her fellow Feathernecks arriving in Philadelphia. Photo Philadelphia Inquirer
Life at Camp Lejeune did have its bright spots, however, and the Feathernecks (along with the Leathernecks) got liberty as long as they behaved. They’d frequently go into the nearest “town,” Swansboro, which had a population of 454 in 1940. Not exactly a metropolis. There was a great little restaurant there called Captain Charlie’s, where those Yankee girls learned how to eat Southern, from fried green tomatoes to grits to hushpuppies to yummy fried catfish, and crisp, succulent fried chicken. And, it was a change from the base. The locals loved seeing the women Marines, who were still a novelty then. I suspect this is where I learned my love for Southern food, although the only ones I remember my Mom cooking as I was growing up were fried green tomatoes. But I can easily make a meal out of grits. Especially if they have lots of butter and cheese in them.
By August of 1944, there were fewer recruits, so Irene’s company began scaling back. They were down from 139 to 37 at this point, and because one of her clerks had been transferred, she was putting in 12- to 18-hour days just trying to keep up. It started to get really old really quickly. The only saving grace was the food on the base was significantly better, and she and Gerry had friends who were cooks and ran the mess hall. So, even when she worked late, she could always get some food, and especially some goodies like cake, brownies, and cookies. Irene loved goodies.
During her time at Camp Lejeune, she met Carl, a fellow Marine who was a Chief Pharmacist’s Mate in the Quartermaster Corps. The Quartermasters were responsible for logistics, but served alongside the fighting units so they were in just as much danger. Irene and Carl fell deeply in love. They went to Swansboro and ate great food, along with Gerry and whoever she could round up to go along. But there were several hitches. For one, there was a war going on, so personal planning was complex and uncertain at best. More importantly, Carl had a tricky personal situation. He was married, but separated, when he met Irene, and he was very up-front about it. He swore that he’d soon be divorced, but he said that his wife kept dragging her feet on signing the papers.
Irene had finally met who she thought was Mr. Right – if only he was not married. The situation was far from perfect.They both decided to enjoy life while they could, even if they were in limbo. They had a great time together until he was shipped out, first to San Diego, and then to Iwo Jima. He was in the 5th Division, which was the group that sustained the highest casualties of any Marine Division anywhere in WWII. Irene heard from him sporadically, but the last letter she received was in November 1944. She dreaded knowing what that meant, and even pulled some strings to see if she could get any kind of news of him, but to no avail.
“Finding the right guy for me gets harder & harder,guess that’s why I just stopped trying.“
Irene was born on August 17, 1912, in Philadelphia, on her parents’ wedding anniversary. Unlike Evelyn and Maria – the first two mothers – she was a big city girl. Like a lot of people from the northeastern part of the country, her family had deep Colonial American ancestry that stretched back to the 1600s, when Thomas Clifton emigrated from England to settle in Delaware. Also, unlike Ethel and Maria, her family had lived in either Philadelphia or nearby New Jersey for at least 100 years. Her family near in time were not adventurers as Ethel’s and Maria’s had been.
Those early ancestors eventually made their way from Delaware to New Jersey, and then across the Delaware River to Philadelphia. They included a Revolutionary War Patriot and some seafaring men, including Daniel Baker, who was a river pilot and has a shoal in the Delaware River named after him.
Irene had what to outside appearances seemed to be a good family life, with two loving older brothers, and a mother who adored her, since she was the only girl. Her father and both brothers were members of the Masonic Lodge, and she and her mother belonged to the Order of the Eastern Star, the women’s branch of the Masons. As a young girl, she dated young men who belonged to the DeMolay, the youth group of Freemasonry. But nothing clicked with any of them. She looked, but she never found Mr. Right in this group.
Irene’s upbringing was very different than Ethel’s and Maria’s. She came from what was considered a “good” family. Class distinctions divided society then much more than they do now. Her ancestors several generations back traveled in the right social circles, were written up in the New York Times, and although not rich, were far more financially comfortable than most people, especially Irene’s immediate family. Having Revolutionary War Patriots and leading citizens in your ancestry was important in Philadelphia, which was extremely class-conscious. Membership in the Masonic Order and the Eastern Star was part and parcel of this.
The only fly in this idyllic ointment was that her father was an alcoholic. Worse, he was an ugly drunk. This led to some bad situations for Irene, especially when she had dates that came to her home to pick her up. Back then, this was the only way that nice girls dated young men. Her “Pappy” as she sometimes called him, would confront those young men, and in a slurred voice, demand to know what intentions they had regarding his little girl. She was mortified. The young men were scared off and horribly embarrassed. As a result, there were very few repeat dates.
Despite this, she loved her father dearly. She was his only daughter, and when he wasn’t drinking, he doted on her. But she couldn’t stand his binges. She was constantly tasked with dragging him out of the neighborhood Tap Room to bring him back home. As time went on, it began to get very old.
She considered getting out, but, like Ethel and Maria, Irene’s family was affected by the Depression. She couldn’t bear to think about leaving her mother alone to deal with an alcoholic. Then her father lost his job as a printer, and began drinking more than ever. She dropped out of school after the 10th grade to get a job to support the family. Now she began to have some luck, although it wasn’t in the romance department. Because she was smart, she managed to land a job at a company called Sharp & Dohme – now Merck, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.