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Female Marines Celebrate 95 Years In The Corps

From Marine Corps Base Quantico:

There it was, her name, Opha May Johnson, simply penned on the applicant line of a Marine Corps Reserve form. Although she typically signed her name Opha M., this was an official document and her middle name was necessary. Her decision to fill out that form entered her into an exclusively male world and would make her nothing less than a Marine Corps legend.

Although historians speculate whether the date was actually the 12th or 13th, there is no argument that Opha May Johnson was the first woman to enter the Marine Corps, enlisting in the reserve as a clerk, in August 1918.

“Maybe she saw an ad, we really don’t know her reason for joining,” said Kara Newcomer, historian with the Marine Corps History Division. “We do know that she was the first, and for that she should always be remembered.”

Pvt. Opha May Johnson
Marine Corps History Division, Historical Reference Branch
Pvt. Opha May Johnson

Several errors concerning the pioneer of female Marines have been circulated and published by some, the first of which concerns her middle name.

According to Newcomer, although many spell her middle name Mae, her middle name is actually spelled May.

“We also believe she probably went by her first name alone, based on how she signed her name,” said Newcomer.

The second fallacy frequently circulated is her age at time of enlistment. Although some report she was in her late teenage years, experts say something quite the opposite.

“She was almost 40 when she enlisted,” said Newcomer.

Historical records verify that fact and show more about the professional life of the 1918 Marine private originally from the Midwest. Johnson worked with the civil service even before enlisting with the Marine Corps.

According to an article from the News in History website, published from the Plain Dealer, a 1918 newspaper out of Cleveland, Johnson’s Marine Corps responsibilities included managing the affairs of other female reservists at Marine Corps headquarters.

As for her personal life, historians paint this picture.

Although they didn’t ever have children, Johnson was married to a man by the name of Victor, who may have been an orchestra conductor in the Washington, D.C., area, said Newcomer.

Johnson started something that, although uncommon in the early 1900s, would slowly allow females into more military roles. According to the Women Marines Association website, some of those roles include: first female commissioned officer in 1943, Capt. Anne Lentz; the enlistment of the first black female Marines in 1949; the first female Marine to be promoted to E-9 in1960, Master Gunnery Sgt. Geraldine M. Moran; and the first female general in 1978, Brig. Gen. Margaret A. Brewer.

Today women have a larger role in the Corps, as shown by the statistics.

According to the Marine Corps Concepts and Programs website, today there are more than 1,300 females serving as officers and more than 12,000 serving as enlisted Marines.

As females roles continue to evolve and female Marines participate equally with male Marines on many levels, Marines should know that Opha May Johnson, had the same characteristics as those who wear the uniform today.

“She was your typical American woman who wanted to help,” said Newcomer. “She saw an opportunity to serve her county in a time of need and took it.”

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