MARINE BARRACKS ANNEX WASHINGTON, D.C. --
Opha May Johnson may not be a household name, but hers is a name etched in the hearts of all current and former women who have served in the Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard since 1918. This past August marked the 100th anniversary of the day she stepped forward and became the first woman to enlist in the United States Marine Corps, which opened doors and broke barriers to women throughout the sea services.
On Aug. 13, 1918, in Washington, D.C., 40-year-old Opha May Johnson was the first of about 300 women who initially enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve (USMCR) for service during World War I. They served in clerical and administrative positions and marched in parades. “After the Armistice the women were released from active duty by mid-1919 and transferred to the in-active reserve for the duration of their enlistment. One platoon of women Marines was called back to active duty for one day on Nov. 11, 1921, to escort the Body of the Unknown Soldier to his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery,” said Nancy Wilt, the national historian of the Women Marines Association and Director/Curator of the Women of the Corps Collection. “I have tremendous respect for the women of WWI who by the thousands lined up across the country to become members of the Marine Corps and serve a country that had not given them the right to vote,” Wilt continued. “It is amazing the service of the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, the military women of WWI, and the thousands of other woman volunteers who harvested crops, rolled bandages, and knitted cold weather sweaters and mittens for units.”
Wilt wrote a letter to Marine Band Director Col. Jason K. Fettig to ask the Marine Band to honor the centennial with a march since the nearly 24,000 women Marines of World War II marched to Louis Saverino and Emil Grasser’s “March of the Women Marines” and the 1970s women Marines danced to Saverino’s “Women Marine Waltz.” Fettig agreed and selected Assistant Director Capt. Ryan Nowlin to musically mark the occasion. “I spent an hour and a half on the phone with her to get my musical ideas, all of which are inspired by the story of these first women Marines answering the nation’s call in 1918,” Nowlin said. “I wrote these melodies constantly rising in pitch to symbolize that always reaching, always growing, that determined spirit of these women who volunteered in 1918. It is truly an honor to write the march in recognition of the century of service of women in the United States Marine Corps.”
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The centennial celebratory events were rolled out over three hot days in Washington, D.C. On Wednesday, Aug. 29, the Women Marines Association unveiled and dedicated a special memorial at Opha May’s grave at Rock Creek Cemetery, which had previously been unmarked. A brass quintet from the Marine Band provided the music and featured two of its own women leaders, cornet/trumpet player Master Gunnery Sgt. Susan Rider and French horn section leader Gunnery Sgt. Jennifer Paul.
“I think it’s important and wonderful that the Marine Corps is recognizing the presence and contributions of women in the Corps for the past 100 years,” Rider said. “Opha May Johnson felt the calling to serve our country during WWI when she and other women were needed. She paved the way and created opportunity for the women who have come after her to be able to serve our country in the same capacity.”
“As one of the few who call themselves both Marine and woman, I was honored to be a part of the ceremony honoring Opha May Johnson,” Paul said. “As the Marine Corps continues to grow the amount of women in its ranks, it is so important to remember those like Opha May who led the way.”
On Thursday evening, Aug. 30, the Marine Chamber Orchestra led by Drum Major Master Gunnery Sgt. Duane King, performed for the 2018 Women Marines Association Biennial National Convention in Arlington, Va. Marine Band cornet/trumpet player Gunnery Sgt. Amy McCabe sounded the bugle call to commence the convention and the orchestra performed several pre-ceremony marches, to include March of the Women Marines. National Secretary Mary Ellen Stone was delighted with the Marine Chamber Orchestra’s participation in the event. She said the Marine musicians were so professional and motivating to the audience. “There’s nothing like the Marine Band,” she said. “Having them with us is so special, it makes you think you’re at a real Marine Corps ball!”
The centennial culminated in a special Friday Evening Parade at Marine Barracks Washington dedicated to the 100 years of service of women Marines. The Marine Band was led by Assistant Drum Major Gunnery Sgt. Stacie Crowther, the band’s first female in that capacity. The pre-parade reception took place at the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital and featured guest speakers Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Glenn M. Waters, the Honorable Paul Ryan, and Lt. Gen. Loretta Reynolds, USMC, the highest-ranking woman in the Marine Corps. “It was inspiring to be among many who can claim to be the ‘first’ woman Marine to have achieved a certain accomplishment or hold their respective position,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Julia Piorkowski, the Marine Band’s first female Operations Officer. “In speaking with some of the fellow women Marines present, there was a general sense that a Marine is a Marine is a Marine. We do our jobs to the best of our ability and hope that our children see that anyone can make any job a goal.”
The reception also included a performance by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard of “Somewhere” from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” “She has the most beautiful voice,” Crowther said. “After the performance, it was agreed that there were no better words to sum up the history of service for women in our beloved Corps – ‘There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us.’”
Crowther then took her place in front of the Marine Band to conduct Nowlin’s march, “Century of Service.” “The march itself is fantastic,” she said. “But the meaning behind the march is what is so inspiring: representing the rise of service for women in the Marine Corps, with the hints of the melody of The Marines’ Hymn, and of ‘Semper Fidelis.’ Because we, as women Marines, have and will remain always faithful. It was a fantastic parade, and even though the rain started before the parade was over, it didn’t dampen the spirits of the hundreds of women Marines in attendance. Leading the band for this parade was, by far, a career highlight for me, and I’m so very grateful and blessed to be able to be part of such a significant marking point in history.”
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