On August 13, 1918, Opha May Johnson became the first woman to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. Before she was even allowed to vote in the United States, the 39-year-old wife of an orchestra conductor made military history. Although she only served for a brief period of time, Johnson served valiantly and laid the groundwork for future women in the military to follow over the next century.
Towards the end of World War I, it was decided that as many male enlistees as possible needed to be trained for combat on Europe’s Western Front. The Marine Corps realized that with so many men gone, there were several administrative jobs that needed to be filled. Their solution was creating the Marine Corps’ Women’s Reserve.
Johnson was the first of 305 women to show up for one of these newly opened positions. Johnson’s Marine Corps job was clerking at the Headquarters in Arlington, Va. Although she and the other women were strictly assigned to desk jobs, they were required to train and drill like the other Marines. However, their time serving was short-lived. At the end of World War I, all women were discharged from military positions, including the ones that Johnson and the 305 women held in the Marines. By the time of her exit from active service in 1919, Johnson had risen to the rank of sergeant and was the highest ranking woman in the Marine Corps during the war.
After being discharged from her assignment in the Marines, Johnson remained an active supporter of the U.S. military for the rest of her life. She worked as a clerk in the War Department and served as a charter member of the first American Legion post dedicated to women. For decades, she met with new veterans, supporting women as their roles grew more prominent in the military.
Johnson passed away on August 11, 1955, and funeral services were held for her on August 13, 37 years to the day from when she stood first in the line of women answering the call to duty for her country.