Being a woman Marine in 1940s wartime came with its share of culture shock, as this veteran relates. Her well-intentioned patriotism made for some amusing anecdotes and inspiring memories.
Women's continuous active service in the U.S. Marine Corps began in 1943. Before I joined in 1944, I had finished high school, completed two years of college and worked two years building liberty ships at South Portland Shipbuilding in Maine. We were teachers, restaurateurs, bank tellers clerical workers, married women whose husbands were overseas. Women Marines were never sent into battle. This was a good thing for me, because at 100 pounds and a tad over 5 feet, it is dubious whether I could have managed a full field pack. Our purpose was stated on our recruiting posters: ""Free a marine to fight."" We had no official acronym, such as WAVES, WACS, or SPARS. Derisively, the term BAM (broad-assed Marines) was suggested by some male chauvinists, but this was ridiculous. Plenty of us had butts smaller than theirs.
Enlistment was for the duration of the war plus six months. I had my physical and aptitude tests in Boston. Although I had met all the requirements to qualify for Officer's Training School, I was disqualified because I had to wear glasses at times. This really didn't matter to me-none of us was in it for the money. I made more in a week at the shipyard than I did in a month as a corporal (about a C-note).
When I received orders and travel and food chits, I left by train from Portland to Washington, DC, attired in sensible clothes and shoes and waved off by a contingent of friends and family. We arrived in D.C. the next day and were told that there would be a four hour wait until the trip to Camp Lejeune. We could use our food chits to eat in restaurants and explore the sights in the city, but no cocktail hour and to report at the station for roll call at the specified time. We then boarded the train to Camp Lejeune.
During World War II, many things were strictly rationed, gasoline particularly, so the railroads had to activate any of their rolling stock that could move, regardless of its age. Our train might have transported Abraham Lincoln's troops, no air conditioning, primitive toilet facilities, and windows that must be left open in spite of dust or fumes, as it was late summer. Bunks were three high. I slept, but when ""Hit the deck"" awoke me, I forgot I was on the third tier and I hit the deck at about 6.5 on the Richter scale!
Next day we arrived at Lejeune, a motley crew, all sizes and shapes, from nearly every state in the union and different walks of life: city gals and country gals, coal miners' kids, southern belles, and ministers' daughters. Uniforms were issued to us in a few days. I hoped to look exactly like the lovelies on the recruiting poster posters, but in my oversized uniform I looked like a dowdy Russian prison matron. When I later had access to a sewing machine, I made alterations that really did the trick. I gladly offered my talents to others with similar problems and was most gratified to overhear the officer doing personnel inspections ask: ""Why does Company A always look so sharp?""
Laundry was done for the men, but we ladies had to do our own at the washhouse adjacent to the women's compound. There were no washing machines or dryers. Just series of deep washtubs, ""Irish ukuleles"" (washboards), and hand wringers. To dry the clothes, we hung them out on lines behind our barracks or, in case of inclement weather, draped them onto a series of metal rods that slid into a heated space. There were ironing boards and irons in the squad room.
We had fatigues and gym clothes, but skirts were what we wore most of the time. Lejeune was a spit-and-polish base and, as we were in a school devoted to the education of recruits, we were expected to appear exemplary. Pantyhose hadn't been invented, and silk stocking were a thing of the past (we were not then on good terms with the Orient). Nylons were prized but in very short supply, so were force to wear cotton lisle stockings. All of our hose had seams down the backs of the legs and it involved some rather athletic bending and twisting to get the damn things in a straight line.
Our makeup was to be kept minimal; however we were permitted to wear lipstick (and nail polish on occasion) of the exact shade as our red stripes, especially formulated for us by Helena Rubenstein. No jewelry was worn except watches, simple rings, or ID bracelets. Our uniforms were worn at all times during the war, no civilian clothing except on the beach.
Boot camp naturally necessitated a bit of attitude adjustment for each of us. We had a little difficulty convincing the minister's daughter that she must go through the communal showers naked. The southern belle declared she never in her life cleaned toilets or trash cans, servants did this in her home and that she absolutely would throw up if she were compelled to do so. I suggested that she would then be responsible for cleaning up her own mess, at which point she decided she would manage it after all.
We looked forward to chow call. The food was excellent and plentiful, but we had to be in and out in 15 minutes. In the necessary haste, the gravy might wind up on your vanilla ice cream instead of you mashed potatoes.
We had little time to ourselves with classes, drilling, physical education, reading Rocks and Shoals, familiarizing ourselves with military protocol, walking patrol, and keeping our persons and our surrounding in perfect order. Early every Friday morning there was field day, with rigid inspections of personnel and barracks.
One Thursday night after lights out, I noticed that the venetian blind on the tall window next to my bed was decidedly askew at the top, which could mean that my bunkee and I would be gigged for this oversight and we might miss out on our weekly visit to the PX, our one brief emergence from the enclave. I whispered to my bunkee that if she would help me we could very quietly move the huge, lidded, galvanized metal GI trash can in the squad room beneath the window so I could correct the default with no one the wiser. It didn't quite work out, the lid to the can was not the proper size, and just as I completed the adjustment to the blind, the lid fell in the can. Then I fell in the can and it tipped over on the cement deck with a racket like two nights in full armor falling down a flight of concrete stairs, arousing the entire squad room. So much for my bright idea.
I can't forget the first time I had to report to one of the officers to deliver a report. I knew that I would have to execute a proper about-face turn upon departing. So I practiced on the cement deck and thought I had it down pat. What I failed to take into consideration was that the office was tiled in linoleum, waxed with a buffer to a glacial slickness, and my shoes were leather-heeled and soled. As a result, my snappy about turned into something like the gyrations of the Tasmanian Devil in the cartoons, and I ricocheted off the wall with my hat tipped rakishly over on eye. Said the officer: ""I sure would like to see what you do for an encore, Private!""
I soon discovered that in some cases, it wasn't in my best interest to be too zealous in the performance of my duties. While on a brass-polishing detail in the barracks (kick plates, doorknobs, and the brass nozzle on the large fire hose in the corridor), I remarked to one of my coworkers how pristinely white the heavy canvas fire hose was. It occurred to me that constant scrubbing of the hose might have impaired its efficiency, and that maybe we should test it out. She agreed that this seemed like a sensible idea that could protect our fellow Marines from a possible dangerous conflagration, so we pointed it out the door and turned it on. The hose leaked like a sieve and sprayed the environs with a considerable amount of water before we could turn it off. We wound up with swabs, buckets, sponges and not a single commendation or word of appreciation for our diligence. (However, the hose was subsequently replaced with a new much grayer one.)
We went to the bivouac area to see what jungle warfare was all about. We were sent singly down a vague and shadowy path and told to beware. I'm sure that guys had fun rolling dead hand grenades out of spider traps right under our feet, blasting away at us from camouflaged hideouts with blank cartridges, an watching us explode distant charges when we tripped our invisible wires. We could understand that the real thing would be nothing short of hell.
At the completion of boot camp we were assigned orders immediately with no furlough. Human ""computers"" were badly needed and as I had been trained for and done administrative work before, I wound up in Schools Command at Lejeune. New machines were nearly impossible to come by, so we had to use equipment that looked as it had been around since World War I. I had to do payroll for the company on an old manual typewriter (five carbon copies with absolutely no mistakes, or the whole page was illegal and must be done all over again perfectly). New recruits came in regularly, and sometimes I would have to get up in the middle of the night to check orders and get them billeted. There was always some form or other that to be typed in at least triplicate.
We were paid once a month in cash. I had to go to the bank on the base to pick up the dough and sign for it. We never worried about our cash being stolen. The lowest form of life in the service in those days was a lousy crook. We had locks on nothing. Neither I nor anyone else in the barracks ever lost as much as a pack of cigarettes to stick fingers.
In whatever spare time we had, we were afforded many recreation options. The women had their on ""slop chute"" to which a man could on go unless he was guest of one of us. By the same virtue, we did not go to their clubs without being escorted. In our place, we could get 3.2 beer, soda, and munchies. There was little danger of drunkenness. We had to be in at 2200 on the weekdays and 3.2 beer is bilge water; you could drown in the stuff before you got the least bit of a buzz. There was a big old nickel-a-play jukebox and a decent sized dance floor. We played card and board games, but best of all we talked and danced together.
On the base we used bicycles to go places, as there were practically no cars. There was a nice golf course and club-house where we could check out clubs for free; tennis courts, to which tennis stat Helen Wills Moody once came to give us some pointers; plenty of free movie houses with a different film almost every night; a number of big swimming pools; and the boathouse, manned by Marines, all experienced sailors, who'd take us out in the lightning-class-sail-boats. It was great pleasure on a fine moonlit evening to sail over New River to Smead's Ferry, where the natives offered the best fried shrimp in the world plus a bottle or two of real cold beer, cheap.
Once in a while we'd pop into Jacksonville, a simple little town that wasn't prepared for a wartime complement of thousand of Marines from Lejeune. There was on restaurant there, owned and operated by a former Marine. Here, he told me and a girlfriend, he could serve us decent steaks, which during the war were few and far between. Alas, the clientele sometimes wasn't to select, and just about the time two mouth-watering T-bones arrived at our table one evening, two drunken Neanderthals decided to go on a rampage, throwing objects fists, crashing into tables, scattering silverware and condiments. I was damned if anything was going to prevent me from enjoying my much anticipated treat. I told my friend to get under the table, and just as these creatures cam charging down the aisle, I shoved a chair right in front of them and they connected with it full tilt. It was then easy for the MPs to apprehend them. The owner arrived on the scene to see if we were okay, bearing a couple of free beers.
Alcohol was not one of your major concerns, but human nature is such that we are prohibited from indulging in something, the determinate to obtain it takes over. It was soon to be the Christmas and New Year holidays and many of us had no leave. Enlisted personnel could get nothing at our clubs but revolting 3.2 beer. We could manage to get some liquor at the state store (one quart a month with a ration book and an ID), but we could drink it on the street or in a restaurant and we forbidden to bring on the base. All bags and packages were examined, but the guard were not to frisk us bodily. Carefully clinching flat pints to our waists under our trench coats was the only solution. What to do with them once we managed to get them into the barracks was the poser, inspection for this contraband were merciless. Some serious plotting needed to be done.
As I was relaxing on my bunk, my eyes connected with an object hat game me a brilliant idea that I believed could work if properly orchestrated. On the shelved just above he clothing racks that extended down the center of the squad room were our laundry essentials, including bleach, which came in opaque brown glass bottles then. Eureka! I summoned the company and outlined the plan. First, we must carefully dispose of the bleach, rinse the bottles well, fill them temporarily with water, and place them back on the shelves. Then, we could bring in our flat pints and gradually and very secretly transfer the contents into the emptied bleach bottles, placing them back on the shelf. Next, whoever was walking patrol must stealthily dispose of the empty booze bottles in a desolate stretch of the boonies, as any dead soldier in the GI cans would be spotted an blow our whole maneuver. No one was to indulge until the holiday eves, and for Pete's sake, don't forget and do your laundry with the stuff!
It worked like a charm. They tore the place part, but our bleach bottles, in plain sight, were inviolate. We had plenty of cola, ginger ale, soda, and stuff for misers and were able to have a real cool party, not too loud or the officer of the deck might get suspicious. Discretion was the better par to valor.
Fraternizing with officer, male or female, was considered a serious offense. I risked this one time when I was not long out of boot camp and learned that a very good friend of mine, a major, was to be at Camp Lejeune briefly and wanted to see me. He had the use of a car. We arranged to meet outside the PX, and when nobody was looking, I got into the trunk for a short time until we were out of the area where I could be recognized. He then liberated me and fastened the captain's bars to my uniform. We went to an officers' club remote from my stomping ground where I passed as a captain, here briefly from D.C. and on my way to Camp Pendleton. Scary but rather delicious fun! We had very pleasant relationships with all of our male counterparts. I can truthfully say I have never met a greater bunch of guys.
There are many things about those days I will never forget: F.D.R. coming to the base, riding around in a open car with his little dog; our skinny little company bugler, who looked as if she didn't have lungs big enough to blow out a match but could play the calls like the angel Gabriel and ""Taps"" to bring tears to your eyes; going on a pass to Norfolk to be present at the commissioning of the USS Midway (CVB-41) and meet my future husband (a chief boatswain's mate); hearing on the radio the news of the atomic bomb being dropped the day my furlough with my family in Maine was over; the celebrations going on in New York City and on the base.
The next six months of my enlistment were spent in the separation company, making out discharges and sending the company home with mustering-out pay ""ruptured ducks"" (honorable discharge pins-featuring our national bird), and sincerest wishes for good luck and happiness. Quite a few of us were engaged to be married, several to men we had met in the Corps. I shall never forget them; they were part of an experience I wouldn't have missed for anything in the world.
Ms. Shultz served in the Marine Corps from 1944 to 1946. She resides in Jamestown, Rhode Island.