OPHA M. JOHNSON
First Woman to Enlist in the Marine Corps
May 1878- August 13, 1955
BY CONNOR MCBRIDE
Connor McBride is a graduate student of Public History at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and intern for the Indiana State Historic Records Advisory Board. He received his B.S. in history from Indiana State University in 2015. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the onset and throughout the First World War, women in the United States were still denied the same basic rights and privileges as male citizens, including the right to vote. Suffragists would continue to battle on through this time, but their efforts would not culminate into a constitutional revision until 1920. Not only was the political arena considered off limits for women, but military service was also denied to them. Though legends of women dressing as males to fight for the United States had been spoken of since the Revolution, women were not allowed to legally enlist in the armed services, the Marine Corps being no exception. By the summer of 1918 however, the Corps was in need of more soldiers, many of whom occupied vital administrative and clerical positions throughout the war department at the time. The idea was circulated and eventually approved to allow women into the marines to fill these non-combat positions, relieving this men to head for the front. From Kokomo, Indiana, Opha May Johnson was first in line when the recruiting station in Washington D.C. opened its doors to women and would become a legend as the first woman Marine.
Opha demonstrated the willingness of women to step up and fill these roles just as earnestly and to perform them just as capably as their male counterparts. Women like Opha May Johnson would be among the first to pierce the patriarchal bulwark that was the United States military and would open a door that had been closed for so long to so many people. Though they may not have seen combat at the front, these women would fight fierce battles of their own, as they fought for the very right to serve, protect, and support their nation.
Opha May Jacob was born in May of 1878 to William and Ella B. Jacob in Kokomo, Indiana.1 Not much is known about her early life in Indiana, but by 1895 she would move with her parents to the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. On June 04, 1895 she is listed as a graduate of Woods Commercial College in D.C. She graduated salutatorian of her class from the shorthand and typing department and reportedly presented a paper that had clearly been “carefully prepared” according to news sources, at the graduation ceremony.2 Three years later on December 20, 1898, she married Victor Hugo Johnson, who had just recently become the music director of the Lafayette Square Opera House.3 She would continue to live in Washington D.C. with her husband and parents and found clerical work with the Interstate Commerce Commission.4 This is where she would find herself through the beginning of the First World War.
Initially, American women served their country in a moral and economic support role. They sold and bought war bonds, sent supplies and clothing to the troops overseas, held troop gift drives, and rationed food. Many found ways to help through organizations, collectively organizing their efforts to effectively provide support to the soldiers and government through groups such as the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and numerous other local and national organizations. The closest that women would be able to get to the front would be as nurses in hospital units, treating wounded soldiers at evacuation hospitals behind the lines or as humanitarian workers aiding the soldiers in the trenches. Women also were heavily represented on state defense councils, through which women could not only serve their country and communities, but also exercise a level of political influence that had previously been far less attainable. As the war continued, it soon became clear that the United States desperately needed workers to fill the jobs left vacant by men leaving to fight overseas. This opportunity allowed women to step up and take over many jobs and positions that societal customs would have otherwise restricted their access to. Waves of women would answer the call, filling jobs in factories, clerical positions, rail workers, and other jobs that previously would not have been open to them. By the summer of 1918, it became clear that the marines would also need women willing to serve in non-traditional roles.
Following the German offensive in the spring of 1918 and their subsequent defeat at the Second Battle of the Marne, the Allied Powers now found themselves on the offensive; however, it had been at no small cost. With the casualties sustained by repelling the offensive as well as the need for trained, battle-ready soldiers for the final push of the war, the military realized that it needed ways to increase the number of trained combat troops in Europe and that they needed to do so quickly. While the United States military wouldn’t consider using women as combat troops for decades to come, there was another way that women could bolster the nation’s fighting strength in France that began to be discussed. On August 8, 1918, the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels gave his approval, allowing women to enroll in the Marine Corps Reserve to serve in clerical positions which would free up the marines currently occupying those positions to be deployed to the front. On August 13, 1918, Opha Johnson, at age forty, would be at the head of a queue of many women in line to enlist.5
Newspapers across the nation announced Johnson’s enlistment as the first woman in the marines and reported that Johnson would be helping to “look after the interests of the young women who are to be enrolled in the Marine Corps Reserve and detailed as clerks.”6 Indeed massive numbers of women would enlist from across the nation. Clerical and stenographical experience was preferred and for this, Johnson’s education and experience in civil service would have made her an extremely qualified candidate.
This would be beneficial as it was reported that the Marine Corps Reserve was extremely selective in deciding which of these recruits would be allowed into service. Rigorous interviews and examinations made for a challenging path towards enrollment in the Marine Corps. Of the many thousands that enlisted, only 305 were enrolled during the four months of recruiting.7 As evidenced by her successful enrollment, Johnson was able to successfully clear these challenges. Muster rolls indicate that Johnson was assigned clerical duty in the Department of the Quartermaster under Brigadier General Charles L. McCawley.8 The new marines would initially be placed in three departments overall; primarily, the departments of Quartermaster, Adjutant and Inspector, and a few were placed in the Paymaster Department. Some individual marines would be transferred to other departments later on, particularly those whose work was deemed particularly skillful and impressive. In addition, women were permitted to staff recruiting offices in various cities that needed help with the massive amount of paperwork that accompanied rapid, widespread military enlistment.9 These women not only freed up marines for services overseas but performed vital work for the nation’s war effort and they did so admirably. They performed on par with and in some cases outperformed their male predecessors, receiving praise and recognition from their commanding officers.
Though assigned clerical duties, the new marines would nonetheless still be required to work and drill as traditional marines. They would learn marching orders, posture, and other aspects of military drill under the stern watch of male drill sergeants, many of whom were reported to have been, “indignant to have been selected to teach drill to women” and therefore were all the more merciless in their instruction. In spite of such bias against them, these women demonstrated a will and determination to persevere that is difficult to match. Throughout the marines during this time, attitudes towards women were mixed. Negative attitudes were certainly present among men who felt the military should not have allowed women into their ranks and had somehow “stepped down” from doing so. Many, both in the military and in the press, would refer to the reservists with different terms than their male comrades, such as ‘marinettes’. One Marine Corps private indicated her take on such names, saying in a letter “Isn’t it funny the minute a girl becomes a regular fellow somebody always tries to queer it by calling her something else? […] Well, anybody that calls me anything but ‘Marine’ is going to hear from me.”10 Even with the prevalence of such negative attitudes towards women in the Marines, it was nevertheless reported that most of the female reservists reportedly felt they were treated as equals, with one female reservist recalling that, “The men did not look down or frown upon us; actually they were glad to have us. We were given a job to do and we did it.”11 Opha Johnson seemed to agree with such sentiments, and was reported to have felt that she was, “just as much a soldier as the men of her family.”12 While attitudes towards the female marines may have been mixed, the determination among the reservists to do their jobs and do them well, appears to have had no such inconsistency.
Throughout her service in the Department of the Quartermaster during the final months of the war, Opha May Johnson clearly demonstrated herself as a capable marine. On September 11, 1918 she received and appointment to Sergeant while assisting in the coordination of recruitment drives for the Marine Corps Reserve.13 By January of 1919, she remained the only female reservist working in the Quartermaster Department who held that rank. Johnson’s rank was but one indicator of the excellence of the service rendered by her and other female reservists. As a whole, they had been praised by such commanding officers as Major General Commandant George Barnett who called the service of these marines, “uniformly excellent.”14 In spite of any pressures they faced, these women were able to perform their duties in a way that commanded dignity and respect, even at a time when the legitimacy of their very position within the armed services was challenged on a regular basis by their peers, the press, and the country.
Following the end of the war, the female reservists were gradually discharged from the Marine Corps Reserve. Many, including Sgt. Johnson, elected to stay working in the War Department in the role of civil servants.15 Johnson would continue her clerical work in the civil service for decades to follow.16 Many of the reservists reflected on their service to be, as one private put it, “a wonderfully gratifying experience.”17 Opha clearly felt this way to some degree, as she would stay in touch with her comrades and remain involved in the Marines after she was discharged. Her name would be found amongst the charter members of Bellau Wood Post No. 1 of the American Legion, formed by these women of the Marine Corps.18
Following service in the Marines, Opha May Johnson lived the rest of her life in Washington D.C. with her husband. There remains some evidence of her continued involvement with the Marine Corps later on in her life, including a 1946 photograph of Johnson with Colonel Katherine A. Towle examining Johnson’s original uniform from almost thirty years prior.19 A few years after that photo was taken, Victor Hugo Johnson, Opha’s beloved husband for 52 years would die on November 01, 1950.20 Less than five years later, on August 11, 1955, Opha at the age of 76 would also pass away at the Mount Alto Veterans Hospital. She would be buried next to her husband at Rock Creek Cemetery on August 13, 1955; 37 years to the day from when she stood eagerly at the front of the line to enlist in the Marine Corps.21
In many ways, Opha May Johnson was the average American woman of her time. She happily lived and worked in Washington, D.C. alongside her husband and sought to do what was best for her family and country. What sets Johnson apart is the ambition that led her to that spot at the front of the line and the perseverance that saw her through any prejudices and obstacles she encountered to become a Marine Corps legend. Her dedication to her country never wavered or diminished, after the war she would dedicate much of the rest of her life to the civil service. When the Marine Corps and her country needed her, Opha possessed the strength and mental fortitude to embark on a path that had yet to be tread: the first but certainly not the last. Opha May Johnson began a tradition of women serving their country in the Marine Corps, having lit the torch that is so proudly carried by thousands in the corps today.
1 "United States Census, 1930," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XM2H-XJM: accessed 13 February 2017), Opha M Johnson in household of Victor F Johnson, Washington, Washington, District of Columbia, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 389, sheet 38B, line 71, family 398, NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2002), roll 305; FHL microfilm 2,340,040. (nothing to indicate she was from Kokomo)
2 “Business Careers Opening,” Washington Times (Washington, D.C.), 05 Jun. 1895, 4.
3 “Amusements,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 28 Aug. 1895, 12.
4 “Women Marines Anxious to Serve United States,” Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), 01 Sep. 1918, 24.
5 "United States Muster Rolls of the Marine Corps, 1798-1937", database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q29J-DSRV: 8 August 2016), Opha M Johnson, 1918.
6 “Washington Woman Joins Marines to Look After Girls Entering Clerical Posts,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 14 Aug. 1918, 14.
7 Linda L. Hewitt, Women Marines in World War I, (Washington, DC: History and History and Museums Division Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1974), 9.
8 "United States Muster Rolls of the Marine Corps, 1798-1937", database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q29J-DSRV: 8 August 2016), Opha M Johnson, 1918.
9 Linda L. Hewitt, Women Marines in World War I, 27- 28.
10 Linda L. Hewitt, Women Marines in World War I, 13-15.
11 Linda L. Hewitt, Women Marines in World War I, 31.
12 “Woman Recruit in Marine Reserve Will Aid in Drive,” Indianapolis Star, 3 Sep. 1918, 7.
13 "United States Muster Rolls of the Marine Corps, 1798-1937," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-998P-VSBV?cc=1916228&wc=SYPZ-7MW%3A1516642801%2C1514707501 : 8 August 2016), 1893-1940 > image 20 of 822; citing NARA microfilm publication T1118 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
14 Linda L. Hewitt, Women Marines in World War I, 27-41.
15 "United States Census, 1920," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MNGM-GYX : accessed 13 February 2017), Opha M Johnson in household of Victor H Johnson, Washington, Washington, District of Columbia, United States; citing ED 288, sheet 7A, line 43, family 116, NARA microfilm publication T625 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992), roll 212; FHL microfilm 1,820,212.
16 "United States Census, 1930," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XM2H-XJM: accessed 13 February 2017), Opha M Johnson in household of Victor F Johnson, Washington, Washington, District of Columbia, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 389, sheet 38B, line 71, family 398, NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2002), roll 305; FHL microfilm 2,340,040.
17 Linda L. Hewitt, Women Marines in World War I, 45.
18 “Marinettes Here Form Legion Post,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 12 June, 1919, 21.
19 Linda L. Hewitt, Women Marines in World War I, 44.
20 “JOHNSON, VICTOR H.,” Washington Post, 4 Nov. 1950.
21 “JOHNSON, OPHA MAY,” Washington Post, 13 Aug. 1955.