Grissom honor first female Marine

  • Published
  • By Gunnery Sergeant Brian Knowles
  • Communications Strategy Office, Marine Forces Reserve

Marines and Airmen honored a Marine Corps legend, Sgt. Opha May Johnson, a U.S. Marine Corps Reservist, by memorializing her with a building dedication on Nov. 10, 2022 at Grissom Air Reserve Base, Indiana.

The memorialization ceremony for the Sgt. Opha May Johnson Marine Reserve Center was hosted by Col. Thomas Pemberton, 434th Air Refueling Wing commander, and Marine Corps Captain Joseph Hilliard, Detachment 1 inspector and instructor, Communications Company, 4th Marine Logistic Group.

“The legacy of Sgt. Johnson and all women who volunteer to serve by breaking down barriers, creating opportunities and setting the stage for successful women of the future is what we honor here today,” said Air Force Col. Gretchen Wiltse, 434th Mission Support Group commander.

At the age of 39, Opha May Johnson became the first woman to enlist in the Marine Corps on Aug. 13, 1918, as a Reserve Marine. More than 300 women enlisted in the Corps during the following months at the peak of World War I.

As Pvt. Johnson, she was a clerk at Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington D.C., and was promoted to sergeant after just 30 days.

World War I ended Nov. 11, 1918, and Johnson was discharged Feb. 28, 1919.

Johnson went on to have a long civil service career, working for the War Department prior to World War I, and then for the Navy Department after her military service. She retired in 1943 with nearly 40 years of total government employment.

The Marine Corps Reserve site at Grissom was selected to honor Johnson because she was born in nearby Kokomo, Indiana, and was the first woman to join the Marine Corps Reserve.

Celebration for the 247th birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps was also conducted at the dedication with the Marine’s traditional cake cutting ceremony. The oldest Marine present, 68-year-old Connie Hamm, who served from 1973-1976, said, “I am so honored to be here for Opha May and for the Corps’ birthday. This is such a unique historical event, which I’m so proud to be a part.”

A bronze plaque honoring Johnson will be installed on the building.

Kay Ross, president of the Indiana Chapter of Women Marines Association, who helped organize the event, unveiled a display-replica and said, “I now present a representation of our memorial-plaque for the Sgt. Opha May Johnson Marine Reserve Center.”

Sergeant Mariah Copeland, a Reserve Marine stationed at the Sgt. Opha May Johnson Marine Reserve Center, said her experience in the military was characterized by her recognition as a Marine, not a woman.

“When I first joined the Corps five years ago, I never realized there was once a time serving our country in uniform was something women weren’t allowed to do,” Copeland said. “It never crossed my mind. As one sergeant of Marines to another, thank you, Opha May, for showing the world that women are capable of going the distance, pushing through adversity, and achieving the goals in whatever path they wish to take. Semper Fi!”