Ask Helen Grahl why she joined the Marine Corps, and she won’t say it was her childhood dream. She won’t say it was because all of her friends joined, because her parents encouraged her, or because she was in love with a soldier. And this woman didn’t join because she was drafted, either. Instead, she’ll lean her delicate shoulders an inch closer and say in earnest: “It was World War II. Everybody was joining. I just thought it was something to do.”
Throughout the course of World War II, 20,000 women also saw the Marine Corps as “something to do” for their country. The immense manpower needs of the war effort led the armed forces to rely on women to take over jobs that kept men off the battlefield. Starting in July 1942, women were assigned more than 200 jobs to “Free a Marine to Fight.” They ranged from radio operator to parachute rigger.
In 1944, Grahl decided to enlist. At the time, the 19-year-old lived with her mother in a St. Louis apartment across from Forest Park. Other than working at a local bank, Grahl says she “didn’t do anything” except follow around her older sister, Flora Mae.
“She could sing, dance, play the piano, and she put together plays,” Grahl says. “She had all the talent in the family.”
The teenager appeared at the local enlistment office and committed to service for the duration of the war plus six months. By that time, Grahl’s sister was married and none of her other female friends were joining up. “But I think everyone was pleased about it,” she says of her enlistment. With her cotton-white hair tied in a neat chignon, it’s hard to imagine Grahl displeasing anyone.
But Uncle Sam was not pleased with her original enlistment. Weeks after visiting her local enlistment office, Grahl received a letter from the Corps stating her enlistment was fraudulent. The Women’s Reserve required female recruits to be 20 years old. This made Helen, who was a few months shy of her 20th birthday, not fit for service. Showing a military wherewithal, Grahl doesn’t say her initial rejection upset her, but she says it “intrigued her,” as her delicate features stiffen into a Marine’s poker face.
Grahl wouldn’t stay “intrigued” for long. After her July 6 birthday, the Marine Corps came calling. They wanted her back, and she was assigned to active duty on Oct. 30, 1944. Grahl, who had never left home, boarded a train in St. Louis’s Union Station and headed for basic training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. She doesn’t remember what she packed. She doesn’t remember where the train stopped along the way. But she does remember there were only 10 or 12 female future Marines who embarked on the same journey from St. Louis that day in 1944.
Camp Lejeune, the largest Marine training base on the East Coast, was chosen by U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve recruiters to put the women in the Semper Fidelis state of mind. The women marched and saluted among men who would fight overseas. All women recruits were treated like Marines the moment they stepped off the train, Grahl says. Once at Lejeune, the recruits marched to the barracks and received uniforms. According to Col. Mary Stremlow, author of the book Free a Marine To Fight, many women had second thoughts after seeing the stark barracks and getting their first taste of Marine life. Some would even cry. Grahl never cried and never got homesick.
“I’m not like that,” she says.
The women became familiar with all aspects of military life. Although they weren’t allowed to handle weapons, female boot camp trainees observed hand-to-hand combat, and the use of guns, bazookas, flamethrowers and other weapons. Grahl, however, remembers the marching. All of the women learned to march in the same knee-length skirt of dark green wool with a blazer to match. The official uniform included cotton stockings, and the Corps even issued a special lipstick in “Montezuma Red” for female recruits.
In A Man’s World
World War II was not the first time women had served in the Corps. During World War I, 300 women nicknamed “Marinettes” were assigned clerical jobs so more men could join active battlefields. But the Women’s Marine Reserve of World War II — a reserve nearly 66 times the size of its World War I predecessor — was met with more opposition. Many male Marines shared the famed sentiment of a group freed from a POW camp in the Philippines in 1945: “Women Marines? You’ve got to be kidding.” Some even bestowed the Women’s Reserve with rude epithets, changing the cutesy acronym BAMs, which stood for “Beautiful American Marines,” to “Broad-Assed Marines.”
Marine officials tried to squelch the dissension among the ranks. Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Thomas Holcomb defended the equality of female recruits in the March 27, 1944, issue of Life magazine: “They are Marines,” Holcomb wrote. “They don’t have a nickname and they don’t need one. They get their basic training in a Marine atmosphere at a Marine post. They inherit the traditions of the Marines. They are Marines.”
Male Marines with qualms about women in the service would have to stifle any consternation. At the time the Women’s Reserve started, the Corps had already increased its recruiting age to 36 and still was short the thousands of men it needed to send overseas.
Grahl and her contemporaries didn’t interact with many male Marines. For the first few months following boot camp, Grahl worked at the base’s post office. The position has never lost her loyalty. “I try to mail something every day,” she says. “I want to keep the post office in business.”
Grahl does remember interacting with one notable male Marine. He was a first sergeant recruiting for jobs at Henderson Hall, a Marine Corps base in Arlington, Va. Grahl stood in line at Lejeune with several other female recruits as the first sergeant inspected the new lot of them: lapels pressed into crisp V’s, black dress shoes laced and polished, hair set in pin-tight curls beneath the forest green disk of a military cap. As he surveyed the line, the sergeant stopped in front of Grahl.
“I’ll take you,” he said. Grahl spent the rest of the war working as a payroll clerk in Company F at Henderson Hall. She enjoyed her time in the chains of squat, square buildings that comprised the Henderson Hall base. She worked in the office above the barracks, where she lived dormitory-style with many other women. Grahl says she never got stir-crazy living and working in the same building, but says she enjoyed her walks over to the mess hall.
Life wasn’t all work at Henderson Hall. When given leave, Grahl hopped trains to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and home to St. Louis. Although she doesn’t complain, she admits it was not a comfortable living environment. “It was just life.”
Over the two years Grahl was in the Corps, she rose to the rank of sergeant. Her position is denoted by three half triangles — the same half triangles as male Marines of the same “buck sergeant” rank — on her uniform sleeves. She cut and hemmed the sleeves into a shorter version because it got hot working at Henderson Hall. In her Columbia kitchen, she picks up the wispy cotton shirt off the back of a chair and holds it up to her chest, its pale green hue contrasting with the jewel tone of her sweater. Grahl seems as if she could still throw on the blouse and march over to the mess hall.
Of her time in service, Grahl has only one regret. In April 1945, she was asked to march in the contingent of women Marines after President Franklin Roosevelt’s death. She said no. Today, she wishes she had done it.
In the seven decades since Helen Grahl’s discharge from the Women’s Reserve of the Marine Corps, times have changed. The women’s branch of the Corps was terminated when President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act in June 1948. This granted women the right to serve in regular military forces in peacetime.
Today, women comprise around 15 percent of the U.S. armed forces — about 202,400 of the 1.4 million active personnel. Since the 1990s, women Marines have been able to serve in air combat and on the Corps’ warships, but they are still barred from the infantry. In January 2013, the U.S. Defense Department rescinded the Direct Combat Exclusion Rule, which limited the positions women could hold on the battlefield. This past September, the first female Marines enlisted in infantry training as part of a research program to test if women are ready for ground combat. The results will decide whether woman can join their male comrades in the infantry.
Grahl acknowledges the country’s mindset is different today than it was in the 1940s. Back then, everyone was involved in World War II. “That’s the way it was,” she says. “That’s the way it had to be. But the younger people are still joining. They know we have to have them in service.”
Today, Grahl is a volunteer, mother and grandmother.
“I’m 89. I’m getting to a point in my life where things are going …” her voice trails off, but her implication hangs heavy in the air. With more than 1,000 World War II veterans dying every day (20 in Missouri, according to Honor Flight statistics), it isn’t a hard leap to make. But Grahl’s sacrifice will remain. Her time in the Corps was much more than just “something to do,” even if she won’t admit it.
“I really didn’t think too much of it,” she says. “Then, all of a sudden, you’re a World War II veteran, and you’re important.”
One woman who recognized the importance of Grahl’s contribution is Cindy Mutrux. As a volunteer for Central Missouri Honor Flight, Mutrux makes it her job to know the World War II veterans of Columbia, but she was shocked to find out Grahl had served in World War II. The two met when Grahl started going to Mutrux’s Sinclair gas station about once a week to fill up after volunteering at the senior center. The women would chat, and Grahl would buy her gas and leave. One day during casual conversation, Grahl revealed she had served in the Women’s Reserve of the Marines.
“I was shocked,” Mutrux says. Not only was Grahl a woman, but she looked far younger than her age. “Her hair is neatly done, her face is neatly done, and she’s neatly dressed,” Mutrux says. “I would’ve never guessed her at her age. Ever.”
Mutrux, a seasoned Honor Flight volunteer, insisted Grahl come on the trip to Washington, D.C., with the Central Missouri group. Mutrux has been on 10 Honor Flights, the first of which also included a female veteran. She knows that women veterans are usually reluctant to participate in Honor Flight, but despite their reluctance, Mutrux thinks it’s crucial that they participate in Honor Flight, too.
“It’s important to know they thought enough of our country to give,” she says. “They are very, very strong, empowered women.”
Grahl was reticent about Honor Flight; she didn’t feel she deserved to go on the trip. “I didn’t want to do it,” she says. “They were after me. I told them, ‘No, that’s for the men.’ I was afraid they would single me out.”
For years, this struggle continued. Grahl would come to the gas station. Mutrux would mention Honor Flight. Grahl would say no. Gas station, Honor Flight, no. Gas station, Honor Flight, no. Finally, with additional persuasion from the president and vice president of Central Missouri Honor Flight — Mary and Steve Paulsell — Grahl agreed to the trip.
In June 2012, Grahl and other World War II veterans were escorted to different war monuments in a daylong, whirlwind trip to the nation’s capital. The hectic pace did not mean Grahl would sacrifice her signature polished look.
“She was very well-dressed,” Mutrux says. “She made sure her hair was all in place. Her lipstick was in place.” While traveling around the city, the group toured the World War II Memorial, the Women’s Memorial and Arlington Cemetery. Although she enjoyed looking up her records at the Women’s Marines Monument, Grahl says her favorite stop was at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. She and the group watched the military precision of the changing of the guard and were greeted by the off-duty Marine after the ceremony.
The young Marine approached the line of veterans. The heels of his shoes were click-click-clicking under the crisp cuffs of his dress blues. He had performed the Changing of the Guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with military precision. From below the brim of his square military cap he said, “I want to shake each of your hands.”
He moved down the line and greeted each veteran, clasping each man’s hand in his own. When he stopped in front of Grahl, she held out her hand with a smile. But the Marine didn’t take it.
Tears clouded her blue eyes as the Marine wrapped her small frame in a hug and planted a kiss on her cheek.
“I don’t often get to see a woman veteran,” he said.
She had evaded an Honor Flight trip because “that was for the men.” But now she knew she would never forget it.