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.