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.