Opha May Johnson

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Opha May Johnson
Opha May Johnson
Birth nameOpha May Jacob
Born(1878-05-04)May 4, 1878
Kokomo, Indiana, U.S.
DiedAugust 11, 1955(1955-08-11) (aged 77)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Place of burial
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Marine Corps
Years of service1918–1919
UnitMarine Corps Reserve
Victor Hugo Johnson
(m. 1898⁠–⁠1950)

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

Early years[edit]

Opha May Jacob was born on May 4, 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 December 20, 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[edit]

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 August 13, 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,[1] and was the highest-ranking woman in the Marine Corps during her time in service.[12]

On July 11, 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[edit]

Marine Corps historians have pointed out that errors concerning Johnson 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, Johnson spelled her middle name May on her enlistment form.[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, she is known to have been 39 at enlistment.[1][2][8]

A third 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 Johnson and subsequently used by otherwise reliable sources.[10][16]

Death and burial[edit]

Opha May Johnson monument was unveiled on August 29, 2018

Johnson died on August 11, 1955, at Mount Alto Veterans Hospital in Washington, D.C. Services were held at Warner E. Pumphrey Funeral Home on Saturday, August 13, 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] On August 29, 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. (August 13, 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 September 2, 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 December 31, 2014.
  3. ^ "Local Mention". Evening Star (Washington D.C.). June 4, 1895. Retrieved January 2, 2015.
  4. ^ "Business Careers Opening". The Washington Times (Washington D.C.). June 5, 1895. Retrieved January 2, 2015.
  5. ^ "The Social World". Evening Star (Washington D.C.). December 24, 1898. Retrieved January 2, 2015.
  6. ^ "Amusements". Evening Star (Washington D.C.). August 28, 1895. Retrieved January 6, 2015.
  7. ^ a b c "Girl Joins Devil Dogs". Evening Star (Washington D.C.). August 14, 1918. Retrieved January 2, 2015.
  8. ^ a b c d Ellis, Samuel (August 25, 2013). "First female Marine, Opha May Johnson's, 95-year legacy". Quantico Sentry Online. Quantico Sentry, BH Media Group Holdings, Inc. Retrieved December 31, 2014.
  9. ^ a b "Women Marines anxious to serve United States". Richmond Times Dispatch. September 1, 1918. p. 2. Retrieved January 2, 2015.
  10. ^ a b Soper, Susan. "Opha Mae Johnson: Semper Fi". Legacy.com. Archived from the original on May 23, 2015. Retrieved December 31, 2014.
  11. ^ Simkins, J.D. (August 13, 2018). "The very few, the proud: 100 years of women in the Marine Corps". Marine Corps Times. Marine Corps Times. Retrieved September 19, 2019.
  12. ^ Ackerman, 2nd Lt. James (March 10, 2016). "The first woman Marine". Unit News. Marine Corps Base Quantico. Retrieved February 1, 2019.
  13. ^ "Girls in Washington were first in Legion". The Recruiters Bulletin. United States Marine Corps. 8 (5): 18. September 1919. Retrieved January 2, 2015.
  14. ^ "Marinettes here form Legion Post". Evening Star (Washington D.C.). June 12, 1919. Retrieved January 2, 2015.
  15. ^ "United States Census, 1920". FamilySearch. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Retrieved February 8, 2017.
  16. ^ File:OphaMaeJohnson.jpg
  17. ^ Sheppard, Kathy. "FUNDRAISER: First Woman Marine – Opha May Johnson Tribute Monument". Retrieved January 31, 2018.
  18. ^ 10 November 2017 (November 10, 2017). "Opha May Johnson Project". Women Marines Association. Retrieved January 31, 2018.