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'Semper Fi, Sgt. Johnson': First female Marine remembered as inspiring trailblazer

Opha May Johnson was the first female Marine.

U.S. MARINE CORPS

By CARSON GERBER | Kokomo Tribune | Published: August 14, 2018

KOKOMO, Ind. (Tribune News Service) Opha May Johnson was 40 years old and had been married 22 years when she took the oath that made her the first female Marine in U.S. history.

The date was Aug. 13, 1918. It was a time when only 6 percent of married women worked outside the home. It would be two more years before women could legally vote.

And on Monday, 100 years to the day when she joined the Marine Corps, Johnson's historic achievement that helped boost the women's rights movement was commemorated and honored by local and state officials and a Marine lieutenant general at Foster Park.

A crowd gathered at the park pavilion beneath tents to avoid the hot, noonday sun as a military band played marches and an honor guard presented the colors.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said in a statement read by state Rep. Mike Karickhoff that Johnson's decision to join the Marine Corps should serve as reminder of the sacrifice made by all Hoosier World War I veterans.

"Opha May lived a life of service," Holcomb said in the statement. "As you gather on the 100th anniversary of her enlistment, take a moment to reflect on all the obstacles she overcame and the path she helped forge for all Hoosier women. ... She is a reminder of the service and sacrifice of all our Hoosier World War I heroes."

Johnson's life was remembered at the event by retired Lt. General Carol Mutter, who achieved an historic milestone in her own right when she became the first female three-star lieutenant general in the U.S. military.

From her first day in the Marine Corps, Mutter said Johnson was an inspiration to her, and all female servicemembers.

"We have known that very unusual name from the very beginning of our training," Mutter said.

Johnson was born and raised in Kokomo until her family moved to Washington, D.C., in 1888 when she was 10 years old. Not much is known about her childhood or her family. Mutter said only two known pictures exist of Johnson, and she's wearing civilian clothing in both. She had no children and no close relatives are alive.

But her desire to serve was always evident, Mutter said. That service started when Johnson joined the Civil Service at the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1904. She worked there for 14 years until she applied for a civil service position with the Marine Corps.

The Navy became the first military branch to allow women to enlist during World War I. With a shortage of men available deploy overseas, the Marine Corps quickly followed suit.

Johnson had proven to be an above-average civil servant with an impeccable work ethic. So Marine officials asked if she'd like to become the first woman to join.

"At 40 years old, they knew she was the mature, competent person that could provide leadership and guidance to the young women who would be joining the Marine Corps," Mutter said.

On Aug. 12, Johnson showed up for her physical. She remained fully clothed during the examination. Doctors only had forms for male service members, so her paperwork contained lots of crossed-out words.

The next day, she took the oath and promptly got to work on her first duty, which was managing the records for the other female recruits. Very quickly, more than 300 women would also join the ranks, paving the way for other women in the military.

"While on active duty, she worked primarily behind the scenes, and I think she liked being behind the scenes," Mutter told the crowd. "I'm not sure how she would react to all this attention being given to her today."

At the time, Johnson took a massive pay cut when she enlisted. Mutter said she had been making $75 a month as a civil servant. As member of the Marines, she was making only $15 a month the same as the men who enlisted.

Johnson only served 90 days until World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918. But in that time, she made the rank of sergeant, which was the highest rank then allowed to women.

After Johnson was discharged, she once again accepted a civil service position with the Marine Corps until she retired in 1943. She died on Aug. 11, 1955, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Washington beside her husband and parents. The Women Marines Association began raising funds in 2017 to place a memorial marker beside her burial site.

Kay Ross, president of the Indiana Women Marines Association, said in an interview after the event that it's hard to overstate the impact Johnson had on women's rights in the early 20th century. But it wasn't until Monday's ceremony that she realized how much Johnson had sacrificed to serve.

"I don't think she had any idea what kind of impact her decision would have 100 years later," Ross said. "It makes me want to cry. I would like to think that I would have that much courage. It's hard to imagine."

Both Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight and Paul Wyman, president of the Howard County Board of Commissioners, read proclamations declaring the day as Opha May Johnson Day.

The ceremony ended with a benediction from Chaplain Col. John Murdoch, who asked that Johnson be remembered for generations.

"We pray that our community and our nation will remember her pioneering spirit and her willingness to answer her nation's call to serve others in times of need," he said. "Semper Fi, Sgt. Johnson. You have represented Kokomo, the United States and the Marine Corp with great distinction and honor."

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(c)2018 the Kokomo Tribune (Kokomo, Ind.)
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Opha May Johnson, center, the first woman to join the Marines in 1918, watches as adjustments are made to a World War I uniform being modeled by Pfc. Muriel Albert.
U.S. MARINE CORPS

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