By Larry Hume, VFW Post 8904
Mention the United States Marine Corps and images that are ingrained in our memories see the historic photograph taken on February 23, 1945 by Joe Rosenthal that depicts five US Marines and a US Navy corpsman raising the American Flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in in World War II. Remembrances of black and white war movies may bring John Wayne, Lee Marvin and maybe even Gomer Pyle to mind but Women Marines? “You’ve got to be kidding”. This was the first reaction from a group of male Marines freed from a prison camp in the Philippines at about the time of the flag raising at Iwo Jima in 1945 according to an April 25, 2012 article that appeared on the Semper Fi Parents web site. There is folklore that the portrait of Colonel (Brevet Brigadier General) Archibald Henderson, 5th Commandant of the Marine Corps crashed from the wall to the buffet the evening that Major General Commandant Thomas Holcomb announced his decision to recruit women into the Corps. Colonel Henderson was the longest serving Commandant and is considered the “Grand old man of the Marine Corps” serving for 53 years.
Today in the year 2013 most people especially the younger generations would want to know “what the big deal was”. World War II was a much different time and women were to be protected and looked after is about the best I can put it. It should be noted that even though he authorized it, General Holcomb did not hide his disdain for recruiting women marines but in the fall of 1942 with all the losses suffered during the campaign for Guadalcanal and potential future losses in upcoming campaigns he had no choice. It was called “Free a Marine to Fight”. On November 7th, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his approval to the plan and on February 13th, 1943 the Woman Marine Reserve program was officially announced. The Marine Corps Women's Reserve Schools, officer candidate and boot training along with certain specialist schools opened in July 1943 under the command of Colonel John M. Arthur. Officer candidates and recruits in training at Mount Holyoke and Hunter Colleges were transferred to Camp Lejeune, New River, North Carolina, where nearly 19,000 women became Marines during World War II.
The late Mattie Dellinger gave me some years ago an envelope full of newspaper clippings from World War II that had been published by the Champion newspaper. Among the clippings that caught my eye was a photo of a local woman with the caption “Mildred Lawson Woman Marine”. The caption said she had been a riveter in civilian life and was now learning to be a woman Marine at the famed Camp LeJeune. It also said she was the daughter of Hobson Lawson, farmer and had a brother Joel who was in the South Pacific. I wondered how the “marine thing” worked out for Mildred and started investigating.
April Alexander also informed me that Mildred was married to Darrell Partlow who lives in the James Community. This gave me the small world feeling as I know Darrell and he is a life member of our local VFW Post 8904. The 1930 census on the SCHS site showed father Hobson (although it was spelled Hodson), mother Lila, sister Oleta, brothers Joel, Glenn and Kenneth. She was born October 10, 1921. The SCHS site also revealed that Mildred was a 1939 graduate of Center High School.
On Sunday, July 14, 2013 I visited Darrell and his daughter in law Donna at his home in the James Community just behind the Antioch Church and cemetery where Mildred is buried. Darrell like myself is not a native of Shelby County. He was born in Milan, Illinois which is close to Rock Island. His dad, Urban was a veteran of World War I. Darrell left home in April of 1942 at the age of 18 and went to work in San Francisco, California at the Kaiser shipyard which was one of seven major ship building yards located on the west coast. This employment only lasted two months as he enlisted in the US Marine Corps and took his basic training in San Diego. He took part in the fierce fighting on Guadalcanal from August 1942 to February 1943. Sometime in 1943 he was transferred to Cherry Point Marine Station, North Carolina. Cherry Point's primary World War II mission was to train units and individual Marines for service to the Pacific theater which Darrell having quickly attained the rank of Technical Sergeant did. Cherry Point is about 10 miles from Camp Lejeune where Mildred took her basic training and was stationed.
I am not sure when she arrived at Camp Lejeune in 1943 but this made her one of the first Women Marines of World War II. Darrell confirmed that Mildred had been a riveter in Dallas after high school which would have also made her one of the first “Rosie the Riveters” who took on male dominated trades during this era.
This must have been a hectic time and from what I have researched there was actually an overabundance of women who wanted to join after the official announcement on February 13th, 1943. They ranged from widows of marines that had been recently killed in combat to schoolgirls, office workers, grandmothers and college students. While there was resistance by some, the Marine Corps actually did it right. First they shared their name “Marine” with the women right from the start. They were accepted as full-fledged Marines, not an auxiliary service and their uniforms would be the same distinctive forest green. Lastly and maybe the most important, they were called Marines. There was no catchy name like the “WAVES” of the Navy and “WACS” of the Army. (Source, Lt. Colonel Pat Meid, USMCR).
Darrell said that Mildred was an airplane mechanic at Camp Lejeune and they met as he and his buddy “Pops” were on their way to the movies. They saw these two Women Marines and asked them if they wanted to accompany them. One said no but Mildred who was the other agreed as she knew she would have a better seat in the company of a Technical Sergeant (Darrell). It was explained to me that the higher your rank the better seat you had at the movies. It must have been more than the good seat at the movies because Mildred and Darrell dated for about four months and were married on October 6th, 1944.
Darrell said they found a place to live just outside the gates of Camp LeJeune and he was sent to Newport, Arkansas for a time to help build a B-24 bomber base. When World War II ended in 1945 both Darrell and Mildred were discharged. Mildred was pregnant with their son Bob who was born May 3, 1946. They moved to Darrell’s hometown of Milan, Illinois where he became a truck driver. In 1984 they moved to Center and Darrell continued to drive trucks. They had three children, Robert “Bob” of the James Community, John “Rick” of Gatesville, Texas and Sandra “Jain” of Terrell, Texas. Mildred passed away on Sunday, September 8th, 2002.
It would be interesting to know just what she went through to become a “Woman Marine” and what day to day life was like for them. I’ve never met a Marine that wasn’t proud of their service in the Corps. I could tell Mildred was no different by looking at how neatly she wore her uniform and of course the Marine Corps emblem that is etched on her and Darrell’s distinctive headstone. “Semper Fi” Mildred and we thank you for your service to our country in its time of need.
General Holcomb the Marine Corps Commandant who authorized but was so opposed to Women Marines in the beginning gave this simple statement at wars end. “Like most Marines, when the matter first came up I didn't believe women could serve any useful purpose in the Marine Corps . . . . Since then I've changed my mind."