The Marines needed female recruits during WWII, so Dorothy Peterson stepped up

This Marine Corps recruiting poster from World War II was aimed at women like Dorothy Peterson Dinnauer.


By CATHY DYSON | The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va. | Published: December 10, 2017

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (Tribune News Service) — When the military needed women to sign up for service so every able-bodied man could fight during World War II, the young lady from Milwaukee—tall and thin and an excellent swimmer and tennis player—knew exactly which branch she’d join.

It was as if she were born to it.

Dorothy Peterson, who later married and became a Dinnauer, arrived on this earth the same day the Marine Corps celebrates its birthday, Nov. 10. But she shared more with the Corps than a mere date; she admired what the Marines represented.

“I liked their way of doing business,” she said. “Everything was on the up and up. You knew what you had to do and what was expected of you.”

Beyond her respect for the service was her obligation to answer the call of duty, a trait exemplified by those known as the Greatest Generation.

“I really wanted to help the country,” she said. “They said they needed people, so I said, ‘I’ll go.’ “

Dinnauer recently celebrated her 98th birthday at Cardinal Village, a senior community in Spotsylvania County for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Dinnauer is one of the oldest and most active residents, said Linda George, director of Memory Care.

As soon she finishes breakfast, Dinnauer wants to know what’s next. She enjoys crafts, games and music, from painting to playing bingo, George said.

When told that Dinnauer was still running 5K races in her 80s, before she needed hip replacements and eventually, a wheelchair, George said: “I totally believe it. I would say she’s never stopped.”

Dinnauer lived in Lake Caroline with her oldest daughter, Sue, before moving into Cardinal almost two years ago. The Lake Caroline Property Owners Association celebrates the Marine Corps birthday each year with dinner, and Dinnauer has gotten the customary first piece of cake as the oldest Marine.

Dave Rababy, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who served more than 27 years, including deployments to Kuwait, Iraq and Somalia, is executive manager of the association. When Dinnauer moved from Caroline, he brought her slice of cake to Cardinal.

“When she talks, everybody, regardless of rank, respects her service and commitment and the fact that 70-some years later, she’s still proud she wore the eagle, globe and anchor,” Rababy said. ‘She has my total respect and that of so many other Marines.”

Rababy thinks about how brave women must have been to don military uniforms in the 1940s, when the culture was so different. Women typically stayed home and raised children; those who worked before motherhood were school teachers, nurses or secretaries.

Dinnauer was in the latter group. She’d been to secretarial school to learn typing and shorthand and was working at Northwestern Mutual Insurance when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

She remembers the anger, then fear, that followed as the United States entered war.

“Families were broken apart, and people were learning about their loved ones who had gone,” she said. “There were a bunch of young people who signed up right after that.”

By 1942, America and its Allies were battling on two fronts—in Europe and the Pacific—and the military didn’t have enough bodies to fight in the trenches and do all the jobs needed to keep its forces fed, trained and equipped.

The Army, Navy and Coast Guard began recruiting women for jobs ranging from office work to vehicle maintenance so they could free a man to fight.

Gen. Thomas Holcomb, Marine Corps commandant, did not support the practice, according to the history of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve.

“Like most Marines, when the matter first came up, I didn’t believe women could serve any useful purpose in the Marine Corps,” Holcomb said after the war. “Since then, I’ve changed my mind.”

Dinnauer served in the Signal Battalion from 1943–46. She had basic training at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and did lots of drills, running and exercises.

“Did you ever go out to the rifle range?” her daughter, Sue, asked her during a recent interview with a reporter.

“We did,” responded her mother, who was Sgt. Peterson in those days. “We just learned the basics, how to hold a rifle and shoot it. We didn’t try to be sharpshooters.”

She worked as a secretary, both in San Diego and San Francisco. She processed paperwork for men returning from service in the Pacific.

“They didn’t talk much about what they saw,” she said.

The same was true of her husband, a Marine who fought at Guadalcanal, the eighth-most lethal battle because of the 7,100 Americans killed by Japanese troops. John Dinnauer admitted he was there, but that’s about as much as he ever said.

“He was a man of few words,” Sue Dinnauer said about her father, who died in July 2007.

John and Dorothy Dinnauer met after the war, when both returned to Milwaukee and worked at the P.C. Monday Tea Company. He was too shy to approach her, so he tossed pebbles at her feet as she walked to the bus stop after work.

The two courted for six months, married and raised three children, instilling “very strong ethical and moral fiber,” Sue Dinnauer said.

The children made their beds and straightened their rooms daily. Each had chores after school, including setting the table, vacuuming the house or cutting grass.

Education and religion were paramount to both parents who passed on Marine Corps values to their children.

“We were taught there’s a right way and a wrong way,” Sue Dinnauer said. “If you’re going to do something, you do it right, or you don’t do it at all.”

As she described her formative years, her mother got a look in her eyes that seemed almost wistful. In a moment of crystal-clear clarity, Dorothy Dinnauer summed up her experiences, both past and present.

“I really miss that life,” she said.

©2017 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)
Visit The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.) at www.fredericksburg.com/flshome
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