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Pvt. Opha May Johnson, first enlisted female Marine sometime after joining the Marine Corps. Johnson enlisted into the reserve in August of 1918, as a 40-year-old. (Courtesy of the Marine Corps History Division, Historical Reference Branch)

Photo by Photo courtesy of Marine Corps Archives and Special Collections

The first woman Marine

10 Mar 2016 | 2nd Lt. James Ackerman Marine Corps Base Quantico

Good timing, some luck, and a paradigm shift in history are often the graces which allow someone to be commemorated for important accomplishments. In the case of Opha May Johnson, the three above graces allowed her to be remembered as the first woman to join the United States Marine Corps.

When Opha May Johnson enlisted in the Marine Corps, the United States was in the middle of the First World War. With as many men enlistees as possible needing to be trained for combat on Europe’s Western Front, many of whom were trained right here in Quantico, the Marine Corps realized that it still needed able bodies capable of performing the administrative tasks men had performed up until then.

The solution came in the form of the creation of the Marine Corps’ Women’s Reserve. On Aug. 2, 1918, Commandant of the Marine Corps Maj. Gen. George Barnett sent a request to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels for women to be enrolled in the Marine Corps to replace men in clerical duties. The key reasoning being there were any number of clerical and administrative duties that women could perform as well as men, and that by doing so, those men could be freed to perform field service instead. Secretary Daniels approved Maj. Gen. Barnett’s request six days later on Aug. 8. Word was spread quickly via word of mouth and the media channels of the era, and five days later enlistments of women began.

And so, by being the first in line on Aug. 13, 1918, at a Washington D.C. recruiting station, Opha May Johnson, originally from Kokomo, Indiana, became the first woman enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. At the time of her enlistment, Opha May Johnson had been working as a civil service employee at Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington D.C. Now Pvt. Johnson, she would continue to serve the Marine Corps in Washington D.C. in the office of the Quartermaster General of the Marine Corps.

By the time of her exit from active service in 1919, Opha May Johnson had risen to the rank of sergeant and was working for the quartermaster still. She was the highest ranking woman in the Marine Corps during the war. And like the other 304 women who were enlisted into the Marine Corps during World War I, she never left her clerical duties.

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