Vietnam and the Women Who Served

In honor of Veterans Day, today’s post comes from Bailey Martin, an intern in the National Archives History Office. Visit our website for more information on our resources related to veterans.

As we open the new Vietnam exhibit at the National Archives, we also mark the anniversary of important milestones for women in the U.S. Marine Corps that occurred during that war. 

When we think of the Vietnam War, we bring to mind countless images of men in uniform and recall stories of the men who fought and lost their lives during the war. What most people don’t realize is that women also played a crucial role in this war and had been making their own contributions for several decades.

When the Marine Corps first opened their branch to women in 1918, advertisements called for “only women of excellent character and neat appearance, with business and office experience.”

During World War I, the Marine Corps called for women to be typists, stenographers, and bookkeepers. These women were the first to volunteer in New York City, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 45568009)

Opha May Johnson believed she met these requirements, and on August 12, 1918, she joined the Marines as the first Woman Marine, or Marinette. In total, 305 Marinettes enlisted during World War I. Their main job was to take over clerical duties so male Marines were free to serve in combat. Women were stationed in Washington, DC, as well as more distantly in Oregon and California.

This assignment was only temporary, however. The group was disbanded in 1919, with the last members officially released from service in 1922. The Marines decided women did not belong in the Corps.

A lack of on-hand Marinettes created a problem when the United States entered World War II. Since all women had been dismissed, the Corps had to go through their entire recruiting process again, at a time when they needed as many volunteers as quickly as possible.

A World War II poster recruiting women to join the Marine Corps. (National Archives Identifier 513679)

That invitation came in 1942, when General Thomas Holcomb officially created the United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Even though Johnson and her fellow Women Marines had more than proved their worth less than two decades earlier, these new recruits once more served the purpose of relieving men of their desk jobs.

While the the Corps initially had intended to again disband the group after the conclusion of the war, it instead announced in 1948 that all women were welcome to join the regular Marine Corps.

This decision had two consequences when the U.S. became involved in Vietnam. First: there would be no more special women’s divisions. Second: there would be no scramble to find and train women all over again.

Such planning allowed for many significant milestones in the following decades.

In 1965, Master Sgt. Josephine S. Davis was the first Woman Marine to come under hostile fire when U.S. troops were sent to the Dominican Republic. This was a sure indication that the Corps was serious in their acceptance of women. Further proof came on September 6, 1966, when women were officially allowed to request a post in the Far East.

Master Sgt. Barbara Dulinsky was one of the many women who took the Corps up on its offer within a month of this announcement. By March 18, 1967, she received her orders for Saigon, becoming the first female Marine stationed in an active combat zone.

All of these events helped bring about a final landmark decision: on November 8, 1967, President Johnson signed legislation giving enlisted women equal promotion opportunity with their male counterparts.

Retired Brig. Gen. Margaret A. Brewer, right, congratulates Brig. Gen. Gail M. Reals on her promotion, May 5, 1985. At the time, they were the only women to achieve the rank of brigadier general in the Marine Corps. (National Archives Identifier 6402957)

In 1968, both active duty and retired Marines celebrated their accomplishments during the 25th anniversary of the Women in the Marine Corps. 

The National Archives holds many records detailing these Marines’ achievements and the celebratory events. The Archives has uploaded digital copies of these materials to our Online Catalog so anyone to learn more about this important part of Marine Corps—and women’s history.

Active and retired Women Marines work late to assemble press kits for their 25th anniversary celebration. (National Archives Identifier 26323295)

You can discover more about Vietnam in the National Archives exhibit, “Remembering Vietnam: Twelve Critical Episodes in the Vietnam War,” which will be on view in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in Washington, DC, from November 10, 2017 through January 6, 2019.

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