Opha May Johnson

Opha May Johnson
Opha May Johnson
Birth name Opha May Jacob
Born 4 May 1878
Kokomo, Indiana
Died 11 August 1955(1955-08-11) (aged 77)
Washington, D.C.
Place of burial
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch  United States Marine Corps
Years of service 1918–1919
Rank Sergeant
Unit Marine Corps Reserve

Opha May Johnson (née Jacob, 4 May 1878 – 11 August 1955)[1] was the first woman known to have enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. She joined the Marine Corps Reserve on 13 August 1918, officially becoming the first female Marine.[2]

Early years

Opha May Jacob was born on 4 May 1878 in Kokomo, Indiana.[1] She graduated from the shorthand and typewriting department of Wood's Commercial College in Washington, D.C., in 1895.[3] As salutatorian of her class, she "entertained the audience with a carefully prepared paper."[4] Jacob married Victor Hugo Johnson (1873–1950) on 20 December 1898 at the Sixth Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.[5] At the time of their marriage, Victor Johnson was the musical director at the Lafayette Square Opera House.[6] Prior to joining the Marines, Johnson was in the Civil Service,[7][8] working for the Interstate Commerce Commission.[9]

Military service

Opha Johnson (far right) in 1946, with Katherine Towle (far left). They are looking at Opha Johnson's uniform being worn by PFC Muriel Albert.

Johnson became the first known woman to enlist in the Marine Corps on 13 August 1918, when she joined the Marine Corps Reserve during World War I.[7] Johnson, due to being first in line that day,[10] was the first of over 300 women to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserve during World War I. She was 39 years old at enlistment.[11]

According to 1918 newspaper articles, as well as the published history of Women Marines in World War I, Johnson's first duties were as a clerk at Headquarters Marine Corps, managing the records of other female reservists who joined after she did.[2][7][8][9] She was promoted to sergeant in September 1918,[1] and was the highest-ranking woman in the Marine Corps during her time in service.[12]

On 11 July 1919, the American Legion granted a charter to the first post of women's Marine Corps reservists. Known as Belleau Wood Post No. 1, its membership consisted of 90 women who had worked at Headquarters Marine Corps.[13] Johnson was a charter member of this post.[14]

At the end of World War I the Marine Corps, like all services, began the steady disenrollment of women, including Johnson, from active service.[2] After her brief military career, she became a clerk in the War Department,[15] and worked for the Marine Corps as a civil servant until retiring in 1943.[1]

Common biographical errors

Marine Corps historians have pointed out that errors concerning the first official female Marine have been circulated and published, the first of which concerns her middle name. Although many have identified the spelling of her middle name as Mae, her middle name is actually spelled May. That is the way she penned it in on the applicant line of a Marine Corps Reserve form. As an official document, her full middle name was required on the form, and thus documented for historical reference.[1][8]

The second fallacy typically published is her age when she enlisted. Although many report her birth year as 1900, placing her in her late teens at the time of her enlistment, historians cite her as being almost 40 when she enlisted. Various historical records and photographs verify that.[1][2][8]

A third, more recent error involves her official photograph. Another well known photograph of three female Marine PFCs (Mary Kelly, May O'Keefe, and Ruth Spike) in 1918, was cropped to show just the center figure and published correctly as being May O'Keefe. At a later date, that cropped picture was erroneously attributed as being Opha May Johnson and subsequently used by otherwise reliable sources.[10][16]

Death and burial

Opha May Johnson monument was unveiled on 29 August 2018

Johnson died on 11 August 1955, at Mount Alto Veterans Hospital in Washington, D.C. Services were held at Warner E. Pumphrey Funeral Home on Saturday, 13 August 1955, 37 years to the day from when she stood first in the line of women answering the call to become a U.S. Marine. Buried near her husband and parents in Rock Creek Cemetery, her grave was unmarked.[17] In late 2017 the Women Marines Association began raising funds to place a marker at her burial site.[18] In 29 August 2018, she received a grave marker which celebrated 100 years of women in the marines.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Waxman, Olivia B. (13 August 2018). "The First Woman Was Sworn Into the Marine Corps a Century Ago. Now a Group of Veterans Is Trying to Preserve Her Story". Time. Retrieved 2 September 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d Hewitt, Linda J. (1974). Women Marines In World War I (1974). United States Marine Corps History and Museums Division. Retrieved 31 December 2014.
  3. ^ "Local Mention". Evening Star (Washington D.C.). 4 June 1895. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  4. ^ "Business Careers Opening". The Washington Times (Washington D.C.). 5 June 1895. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  5. ^ "The Social World". Evening Star (Washington D.C.). 24 December 1898. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  6. ^ "Amusements". Evening Star (Washington D.C.). 28 August 1895. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
  7. ^ a b c "Girl Joins Devil Dogs". Evening Star (Washington D.C.). 14 August 1918. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  8. ^ a b c d Ellis, Samuel (25 August 2013). "First female Marine, Opha May Johnson's, 95-year legacy". Quantico Sentry Online. Quantico Sentry, BH Media Group Holdings, Inc. Retrieved 31 December 2014.
  9. ^ a b "Women Marines anxious to serve United States". Richmond Times Dispatch. 1 September 1918. p. 2. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  10. ^ a b Soper, Susan. "Opha Mae Johnson: Semper Fi". Legacy.com. Archived from the original on 23 May 1915. Retrieved 31 December 2014.
  11. ^ Simkins, J.D. (13 August 2018). "The very few, the proud: 100 years of women in the Marine Corps". Marine Corps Times. Marine Corps Times. Retrieved 19 September 2019.
  12. ^ Ackerman, 2nd Lt. James (10 March 2016). "The first woman Marine". Unit News. Marine Corps Base Quantico. Retrieved 1 February 2019.
  13. ^ "Girls in Washington were first in Legion". The Recruiters Bulletin. United States Marine Corps. 8 (5): 18. September 1919. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  14. ^ "Marinettes here form Legion Post". Evening Star (Washington D.C.). 12 June 1919. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  15. ^ "United States Census, 1920". FamilySearch. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Retrieved 8 February 2017.
  16. ^ File:OphaMaeJohnson.jpg
  17. ^ Sheppard, Kathy. "FUNDRAISER: First Woman Marine – Opha May Johnson Tribute Monument". Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  18. ^ 10 November 2017. "Opha May Johnson Project". Women Marines Association. Retrieved 31 January 2018.

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