Mary Coan Reilly Ravener
Submitted by: Bob Ravener (grandson)
Mary Coan Reilly Ravener served in World War 1 with the United States Marine Corps. The dates of service are: Known 1918-1922.
Mary Coan Reilly Ravener
One of the Few, the Proud… the First 300
By Bob Ravener
The United States Marine Corps has a long and proud tradition fighting America’s battles and after the U.S. declared war on Germany, were using virtually every active duty service member to fight in the Great War or training those preparing to fight. On 08 August 1918 that all changed when they took on another cause, women in uniform. That’s when Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels wrote a letter authorizing the Commandant of the Marine Corps to enlist women in the Marine Corps Reserve for clerical duty.
Six weeks later, on 24 September, a five foot tall, grey eyed, and auburn-haired Mary Coan Reilly, became one of those first women Marines.
During this period of global crisis and tumultuous change, a little more than 300 women donned the forest green uniform of the Corps, but selection was anything but easy for these aspiring Marines. In fact, it was extremely competitive. According to the book written by Captain Linda Hewitt in 1974, “In New York City alone, 2,000 hopeful applicants lined up...in reply to a newspaper article that the Marine Corps was looking for ‘intelligent young women’.” Mary was one of those many applicants and became one of only five or so to be selected to serve in New York at the Marine Corps Publicity Bureau in lower Manhattan. Most of the rest of these early pioneers served at Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington DC.
Born in 1896 and growing up in a working class Irish family in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, Mary’s father James J. Coan worked as a brakeman on the Long Island Railroad but was killed in a tragic accident in the rail yards in 1904. Mary was raised by her mother, the former Catherine Mulroy and adopted by her stepfather Charles Reilly, but little else is known about her early life. With a blended family consisting of her siblings Thomas (Frank) Coan (1900-1975), John Coan (1903-1916), Rose (1906-1987) and Bill Reilly (1912-1980), and step brothers Charlie (1902-1970) and Ed Reilly (1898-unk), Mary was part of a generation of women looking for equal rights and respect in the early part of the twentieth century.
While the industrial revolution was now in full swing throughout the country during this momentous period, the impact of its cultural shifts was seismic as well. For instance, the homeland had barely averted war with Mexico in 1916 after Pancho Villa and others had raided U.S. border towns. The republic was debating a woman’s right to vote and groaned as the Temperance movement gained steam. All that and more became barely an echo in the national conscience as the country was now embroiled in a conflict to save the world. The front page of the 24 September 1918 edition of The New York Tribune reported fair weather for that Tuesday, but big, bold headlines depicted raging battles overseas as the war escalated with American involvement. As the enlistment record shows her full name upon entering the service was Mary Magdalene Reilly, the feisty patriot may have been following the news about the war all along. Moved by those headlines, she traversed from her modest home to the recruiting station at 74 E. 23rd Street near mid-town in Manhattan, most likely traveling across the relatively young yet already majestic Brooklyn Bridge, an edifice whose stature symbolized the growing and vibrant metropolis for which she was constructed. Mary must have been full of national pride as she chose to take that giant leap of faith with Uncle Sam by raising her right hand for the U.S. Marine Corps.
Mary’s occupation before enlisting was recorded as a multi-graph operator, a contraption which could best be described as the predecessor to the old mimeograph machines, which predated the copiers of today. Ironically, her uniform issue record lists several articles of clothing crossed out, such as pants and suspenders, and replaced with the written words, skirts and scarfs. The word “Female” is written in script at the top of her record. While this was all so new to the Marines, they displayed their best decorum in adapting to the situation they faced at the time. In another demonstration of progressiveness, the Marine Corp paid the females at the same pay scale as the men, $15 per month , something that was not the norm at the time.
The Publicity Bureau was responsible for the war posters and other news about the Marines, and among the five women stationed in New York was Sergeant Lela Leibrand, also known as Lela Rogers, mother of future movie star Ginger Rogers, who would have been just seven years old at the time of her mother’s enlistment. Mary worked in the same offices as Lela and there is a high probability that she would have met the future star at some point in her life. What an interesting prospect for someone that was a pioneer in her own right and would essentially have been a role model for the next generation of women.
While the Publicity Bureau turned out posters and other war effort materials, for a time, Mary and another Private, Helen E. Ostheimer, were assigned as Mechanics according to a letter in Mary’s Service Record dated 02 October 1918 from the Commandant of the Marine Corps to the Paymaster and Quartermaster. Both women were listed as “Contingent” in this duty and were to be paid an additional $.50 per day for their duties, until further notice, beginning 25 September 1918. That collateral duty officially ended on 28 November 1918 according to the same Record.
Mary and her fellow female Marines were certainly motivated to help the cause and must have just been getting comfortable in new uniforms when the Armistice was signed in France on 11 November 1918, just seven weeks after her enlistment. Once that materialized, there would have been a major thrust over the subsequent weeks and months to bring America back to a peacetime footing. While that was all unfolding and still officially on active duty, Mary married a New York Italian longshoreman, John Ravener, on 29 June 1919 at St. Patrick Church in Ravena, New York and they both settled in Brooklyn.
Another letter in her Record from the Commandant written on 21 July 1919, this time sent to the officer in charge of the Marine Corps Recruiting Publicity Bureau, directed that Mary and two other New York female Marines, Sergeant Mary C. Kelley and Corporal Mary A. Benson, be transferred to inactive status on 31 July 1919 as referenced by an “approved act of Congress” on 11 July 1919.
Following the war and the deactivation of the female Marines, Mary was officially and completely discharged on 23 September 1922, thereby fulfilling her four year enlistment commitment. Interesting in all of this was that upon her formal discharge, Mary was eight months pregnant with her first child, the author’s father and namesake. She would receive one more official letter from the Marine Corps dated 17 October 1922 and by the wording of it, enclosed in it was the symbol of a successful enlistment, the Good Conduct Medal. Mary and all the others that served during the conflict would also be authorized to wear the World War I Victory Medal, something they would all be proud to do.
Over the remaining years of her life, Mary remained active in the community, moving to what would have been referred to as the “country” at the time, Roosevelt, Long Island. She and her husband John raised two boys, Robert (Bob) and John (Jay) Ravener. In 1941, Mary became commander of the Nassau County Women’s American Legion and retired to upstate New York in Carmel in the mid 1950s, then to New Fairfield, Connecticut in 1958, before finally landing in Clearwater, Florida from 1971 until her death in 1984.
Now the story could end there and it would be an amazing one for a woman born in the 19th century, to have served as one of the first women to ever be an active duty female Marine before she could even vote for President, and to lead a full and productive life until late in the twentieth century.
But the story was not over as we must fast forward to early in the twenty-first century. Mary’s grandson had been telling his own kids about the exploits of their great grandmother, shining a light on the potential to be anything they wanted to be in life and holding Mary’s life up as an example of what was possible. Katie was a young teenager in high school when, in 2005, she came home and said the class had been studying World War I. She relayed that she raised her hand and told the teacher and the class that her great grandmother had served in that conflict. Much to her dismay, the teacher told her that she was mistaken, that no women served in that war.
Much deflated, Katie relayed the story to her father and he told her not to worry, that he would prove it to her. Her father not only had a photo of Mary in her Marine Corps uniform, he also had a copy of her discharge paper. As he took the cherished document out of the scrap book, he read it closely for the first time. As he read the typed words, which he had glanced at before as it was seemingly standard language, he looked a little closer at the signature at the bottom of the page. Under the line of the signature were inscribed the words, Major General Commandant.
Katie’s father certainly understood the title having served in the Navy himself; this was the top Marine, the most senior member of that service. He had never really looked at the signature, however, until that day. He first glanced at the two long loops that dropped below the line, which indicated to him, a confident person, one who must have had to sign a lot of documents. Both were for the letter ‘J’. The first loop was the bottom of the capital letter ‘J’, for John. Nothing too special about that as it was a common name. The second loop was a small ‘j’, this time in the last name and that is when it got interesting. He looked still closer and thought the flowing, cursive name was a fine looking inscription. Then he looked again, his eyes widened, and with both surprise and delight, he realized in an instant, that this was the hand written name of the “Greatest of all Leathernecks”… “The Marine’s Marine”… the signature of Major General John A. Lejeune….
He literally couldn’t believe his eyes as he stared at the name and pondered the moment. This was the most famous of all Marines, one who had buildings and a military base named after him. This was a towering figure, whose direct letter to all Marines in November of 1921 ordered the Marine Corps birthday be celebrated on the …”10th November, 1921, and hereafter on 10 November of every year…”, and every year since then the order has been carried out across the globe. That John A. Lejeune had personally signed Mary’s discharge paper. The photo, a copy of the document, and the quick lesson to her about General Lejeune was all Katie needed to show her teacher and the class that women had indeed served, and served with honor as Marines in World War I. That her great-grandmother would have been able to take part in that inaugural celebration of the Marine Corps birthday in 1921, and many more after that, was truly a historic period of time.
When the Marines first put women in uniform in 1918, they further galvanized their reputation to do what is right. As if it were meant to be written, it is fitting that the lyrics to the Marines’ Hymn, the oldest official song in the U.S. Armed Forces, contains the words that symbolize this commitment to honor and sacrifice in putting women in Marine green: “…First to fight for right and freedom, and to keep our honor clean, we are proud to claim the title of United States Marine…”. Along with that honor, Mary Coan Reilly Ravener will also always be able to claim another unique title, “one of the few, the proud,….the first female 300”.
Author’s note: Mary’s military legacy continued as her son Bob Ravener, served honorably in the U.S. Navy in WWII and his son, the author, is the grandson of Mary Coan Reilly Ravener, the father of Katie in the story, and is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and U.S. Navy veteran.