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This Week in Military History: August 11th - 17th

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August 13th: Opha May Johnson Joins the Marines

Newspaper article announcing the first women to join the US Marines in 1918


On the morning of August 13th, 1918, the United States Marine Corps officially opened its doors to women. With more and more men needed overseas for the final allied pushes on the Western Front of WWI, the Marines (as well as the other branches) decided to allow women to join the reserves and serve in vital administrative and clerical positions. Over 300 eager applicants lined up at a Washington, D.C. recruiting station to sign enlistment papers on that very first day. The standard enlistment forms they signed featured X-ed out male pronouns with female ones typed in over them. The first person to ink her name on a dotted line was a 40-year-old Civil Service clerk named Opha May Johnson.

Opha May Johnson's Marine Corps enlistment papers

She was born Opha May Jacob on May 4th, 1878 in Kokomo, Indiana. She attended college in Washington, D.C. where she learned the typing skills that lead to her career in clerical work. She married Victor Hugo Johnson, a musician and opera house music director, on December 20th, 1898 and remained with him until his death in 1950. When that morning came when women could earn the eagle, globe, and anchor of the Marines, Opha found herself first in line. Assigned as a clerk at Headquarters Marine Corps, she put her previous job experience to good work. Promoted to sergeant in September, she became the highest ranking woman in the Corps, a distinction she held throughout her brief service.

Private Opha May Johnson, USMC

With the war’s end in November, 1918, the armed forces separated all female enlistees from active duty. But Sergeant Johnson refused to let that be the end of her service to the United States military. She became a civilian clerk at the War Department and worked there for several decades, finally retiring in 1943. In addition to serving her country for portions of both World Wars, she was a charter member of the American Legion’s Belleau Wood Post Number 1, the first such post for female veterans of the Marines. Opha May passed away on August 11th, 1955 at the age of 77. Her funeral occurred two days later, exactly 37 years after the day she joined the Marines.

Little is known about Sergeant Johnson beyond the barest facts of her life before, during, and after her service. She kept no record or personal accounts and was never much in the public eye. Her grave lay unmarked until just last August after a year-long fundraising drive by the Women Marines Association. While her time in uniform included no great feats known to history, her barrier-breaking enlistment to serve her country over two years before it would guarantee her right to vote was, in and of itself, admirable and noteworthy beyond measure. Of course, the same goes for all the dedicated women who enlisted in WWI, but Opha May was first in line so she gets that little dash of extra credit. A hearty Semper Fi to Sergeant Johnson and all her sisters in arms.

L to R: Colenel Katherine Towle (first director of the Women Marines, the first permanent, active duty continget of women in the USMC), PFC Muriel Albert wearing Ophay May Johnson's WWI uniform, and Opha May Johnson herself. Taken 1946.

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