100 years later, first female U.S. Marine honored with monument

First female US Marine photo
Opha May Johnson (R) and former Director of Women Marines Col. Katherine A. Towle (L) admire the uniform modeled by USMC Pfc. Muriel Albert in 1946. Photo courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps

By Danielle Haynes

Aug. 13 (UPI) — She might be the most consequential female U.S. service member you’ve never heard of. But those now working to correct that oversight hope everyone will know more about Opha May Johnson by the end of the month.

Though she’s been gone for more than six decades, Johnson remains linked to a remarkable place in history, which occurred a century ago Monday — the first woman to enlist in the United States Marine Corps.

A USMC commandant asked Johnson to be the first to sign, not long after the military opened enlistment to women. She is remembered for being one of the first women to attain the rank of Marine sergeant — after just one month and five days in the service. She’s also remembered for working more than two decades as a civil servant at a time when married women were not supposed to work outside the home.

But there’s one place her name isn’t remembered — her grave.

Buried in 1955 beside her husband, Victor Hugo Johnson, in an unmarked grave in Washington, D.C., her grave wasn’t vandalized, nor was her identity unknown at the time of her burial. She’s simply buried in a family plot along with her mother, father, brother and a female cousin. One large marker bears the Jacobs family name, Johnson’s maiden name.

Six decades later, Johnson is about to get a grave maker befitting her role in history — a 7-foot-tall obelisk detailing information about her life and featuring the Marine Corps seal.

The Women Marines Association will unveil the monument at Johnson’s gravesite Aug. 29 to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of women in the Marines and the organization’s biennial convention in the capital.

The monument

Former Marine Cpt. Nancy Wilt, historian for the WMA, said she first heard about Johnson’s unmarked grave around 2006. An official from the cemetery — which is also the final resting place of historical figures Henry Adams, Upton Sinclair and Alice Roosevelt Longworth — contacted Wilt to let her know about one other notable grave.

That phone call started Wilt and former Marine Maj. Kathy Sheppard on a decade-long research and fundraising campaign to correct what Sheppard describes as a “gross error.”

“It broke our hearts to think that no one recognized her,” Wilt told UPI.

“I said, ‘We have to fix this. This is insane,'” Sheppard added. “Those of us who have been on active duty wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for Osha May.”

Though Wilt started what came to be known as the Opha May Johnson Monument Project, Sheppard, a former member of the WMA’s national board and 10-year veteran, eventually took the lead. The team spent years trying to track down living relatives of Johnson.

“We had to ensure we had permission from any family member that might still exist to go in and disturb the cemetery plot,” Wilt said.

Victor and Opha Johnson had no children, and neither did Opha May’s brother. The WMA finally tracked down one distant cousin, now in his 90s, who granted the requisite permission.

Since then, Sheppard said, the project has raised $18,000 of the $26,000 needed to fund the monument. They’re continuing to accept donations, even after the unveiling, and anything collected beyond the target figure will go toward landscaping at the site.

Workers started pouring the foundation for the memorial last week and the final project is expected to be unveiled at a public ceremony at 1 p.m. Aug. 29. Expected to attend are Gen. Robert Weller, commandant of the Marine Corps, Sgt. Maj. Ronald L. Green and about 200 other guests. The President’s Own Marine Band from 8th & I also will perform.

“This has been a long time coming,” Sheppard told UPI. “A lot of hard work for a lot of people.”

Opha May’s story

Opha May Jacobs was born in 1878 in Kokomo, Ind. Though she had Midwestern roots, she mostly grew up in Washington, D.C., where her parents moved.

“She was very much a D.C. girl,” Wilt said.

She married Victor in 1898 before graduating from a secretarial course at Wood’s Commercial Business College. In 1904, Johnson joined the civil service and later took a position as a clerk for the Marine Corps.

After impressing her supervisors with her work, the commandant and quartermaster general of the Marines asked her to become the first woman to enroll in the service — “to free a man to fight.” The Marines wanted to encourage women to join to take clerical positions that were being done by men needed for battle.

Wilt said when they began allowing women into the service during World War I, the USMC realized it needed someone with the skills and maturity to assist younger women joining.

Wilt said Johnson “took her oath” that day, Aug. 13, 1918, “went back to her desk and went back to work.”

Sheppard and Wilt both credit Johnson’s husband, a musical director, for supporting her desire to work at all — uncommon for married women at the time.

“At that time, she had to get her husband to go along with it,” Sheppard said. “At that time, she didn’t have the freedom as a woman to do what she wanted to do because at that time, basically once you got married the men were in charge.”

Within five weeks, Johnson was promoted to the position of sergeant. She remained in the Marines until February 1919, three months after the end of World War I, when she took another civilian role with the corps.

She remained in the civil service until her retirement in 1943, which was accelerated by her failing eyesight. Opha May Johnson died in 1955, five years after her husband.

Sheppard credits her for “blazing the way” for women Marines who came after, and not just for being first.

“She was willing to step up to the plate and take this on,” Sheppard said of Johnson’s role as a mentor to younger Marines.

It’s not just other female enlistees who may have benefited from the trail blazed by Johnson and her sister Marines. Wilt credits women in the service for helping win the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.

“The military told them what a remarkable job they had done during the war years,” Wilt said. “As a result of that, when the Congress went into session, they couldn’t really say women weren’t qualified to vote anymore.

“They had signed all the commendations.”

Now, 100 years later, the Marine Corps just named its first female combat platoon commander — First Lt. Marina A. Hierl, 24, of Bethlehem, Pa.

“Today a woman can do anything she wants to do in the Marine Corps,” Sheppard said. “All she has to do is have the desire, have the drive and have the fortitude to do it.”

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