The following letter was written by Martha L. Wilchinski, then a private in the newly formed Marine Reservists, as she broke the news of her recent enrollment in the Corps to her sweetheart fighting in France. In 1918, due to the shortage of men working stateside, the Secretary of Navy signed an authorization to allow women to enroll for clerical duty in the Marine Corps. During that year, more than 300 women entered the Corps – one of which was Martha. After reading this letter, Martha can only be described as one heck of firecracker!
I’ve got the greatest news! No, I haven’t thrown you over; I’m still strong for you, Bill. No, It’s no use; don’t try to guess. You’re not used to that much mental effort, and you might get brain [exhaustion]. Besides, you’d never guess, anyway. Now, listen and try to get this. I know it’ll be hard at first, but it’ll grow on you after a while. Are you ready? Well then, — I’m a lady leatherneck; I’m the last word in Hun hunters; I’m a real, live, honest-to-goodness Marine! The process was painful I admit, and lasted for thirty-six hours, but I survived it all right. Our future together doesn’t look so black to me now. Don’t be surprised if you see me mentioned for a Croix de Guerre or something. You know me! I’m not looking for sympathy or anything, but honest, I’ve been through an awful lot. They’ve done everything to me except punch my name out on my chest. That’s coming soon, I guess. But I’ll begin from the beginning and tell you everything ad seriatim. That’s Latin. It means, ‘Go to it, kid.’ You know I always had a kind of a hunch that the Marines would realize the necessity of women some day, so I was laying low and waiting. Well, when I heard they had at last hung out a sign at the recruiting station — ‘Women wanted for the United States Marine Corps’ — I was ready. ‘Mother,’ says I, ‘give me your blessing, I’m going to be one of the first to enlist.’ I was there when the doors opened in the morning. I was one of the first all right — the first six hundred! You’d think they were selling sugar or something. Well, when the crowd heard that you had to be willing to go anywhere as ordered and you had to be a cracker-jack stenog [stenographer], they thinned out some. And from what was left the lieutenant picked out twelve to go over to the colonel and have him give us a double O. I was one of them, of course. I’m not looking for applause, but you know I always said with colors when they change ever season. The colors don’t change, of course, but some smart guy wants to make it hard for everybody else so he calls green, chartreuse, and yellow, maize. Then they took my finger-prints. They’ll know me when they see me again. The nurse couldn’t find any marks on me for purpose of identification. ‘Take a picture of my freckles, nurse,’ said I. Some kidder, eh? And, I’ve got a terrible confession to make to you. You know what I said, no secrets between us. They took my height in my stocking feet. It wasn’t fair; nobody had ever done that to me before and I told the doctor as much. I’m a terrible shrimp, and I don’t know whether you’ll want me when I tell you. I’m sixty-two inches. Isn’t it heart-breaking? I felt as big as a yardstick when I heard it. But you know me, Bill, I’m a sport. You can always have your ring back. There’s still nine installments to pay on it, anyway.
Well, only three of us came out alive. The others had fallen by the wayside. Then the colonel came in and told us to come over and be sworn in. I’m going to tell you something. I’m not bragging, but it isn’t every private that’s sworn in by a colonel. It was terribly impressive. Something kept sticking in my throat all the time. I don’t know whether it was my heart or my liver. I had to swallow it several times before I could say, ‘I do.’ Then they took a movie of us. I’m not throwing ‘bokays’ at my self, but you’ve got to admit, the kid’s clever!
And then I got my orders. Travel orders they call them. But that’s only to make it hard. The only traveling I have to do is to come down from the Bronx in the new subway. I’m so worried about those orders, I sleep with them under my pillow at night and wear them around my neck during the day.
I got some good tips from the boys. They said if you want to scare the captain just click your heels at him. I don’t remember whether they said click or kick; I guess they meant kick. And another thing they said. When I’m made a sergeant, I mustn’t stand for being called ‘Sarge.’ Nothing doing on that ‘Sarge’ stuff. They’ll have to call me anything that’s in the Manual. I hear some people are giving us nicknames. Isn’t it funny the minute a girl becomes a regular fellow somebody always tries to queer it by calling her something else? There are a lot of people, Bill, that just go around taking the joy out of life. Well, anybody that calls me anything but ‘Marine’ is going to hear from me. ‘Marine’ is good enough for me.
Bill, you never were very literary. But did you ever hear me speak of Kipling and what he said about the female of the species being more deadly than a triple titration of TNT? Well, if a regiment of Marines can make the Germans stand on their bone heads and yell “Kamerad,” you can imagine what a regiment of female Marines would do? Why, those plop-eyed, yellow-skinned bounders would run so fast and furious they’d never stop for second wind until they reached Berlin.
I never received that German helmet. Are you sure you got the fellow, Bill?
I can’t sign myself as affectionately as I used to, Bill. You understand, I’m a soldier now and you wouldn’t want me doing anything that wasn’t in the Manual.
Yours till the cows come home,
Pvt. Martha L. Wilchinski, M.C.R.
Captain Linda L. Hewitt, USMCR, Women Marines in World War I, Washington, D.C.: History and Museums Division Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1974, 13-15.