Episode 5 of Irene’s Story

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.

Irene, The Woman Who Never Found Mr. Right,but Eventually Found Mr. Wrong

Finding the right guy for me gets harder & harder, guess that’s why I just stopped trying.

– Unknown

            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.