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Episode 2 of Irene’s Story

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 Wikimedia Commons.

            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.