Semper Fi: 'Once a Marine, always a Marine'
Kearns, 88, and Callahan, 85, have plenty of stories to swap in the library at Bentley Commons at Bedford, where both are residents. Like 23,000 other American women, both answered the call to serve during World War II by joining the Marines as part of the "Free a man to fight overseas" campaign.
For Veterans Day, both will spend time recalling their military service, while pausing to honor the sacrifices made by veterans throughout America's history.
"When the war happened, I wanted to do something more for our country, for our freedom," said Kearns, who served in the Marines for 27 years. "I wanted to be on the good side. Once I got into it, I wanted to do more and more."
"I loved it until I retired, after 13 years with them," said Callahan. "It was a great experience. Not easy, but a worthy job, an important job."
On Feb. 13, 1943, Gen. Thomas Holcomb, the 17th commandant of the Marine Corps, announced the formation of the Marine Corps Women's Reserve. More than 22,000 women joined the Corps during World War II as part of the Women's Reserve, performing more than 200 military assignments. In addition to clerical work, they also filled many other positions, including as parachute riggers, mechanics, radio operators, mapmakers and welders. By June 1944, women reservists made up 85 percent of the enlisted personnel on duty at Marine Corps Headquarters, and almost two-thirds of the personnel manning all major posts and stations in the United States and Hawaii. At the end of WWII, Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, 18th commandant of the Marine Corps, credited the women Corps Reservists with "putting the 6th Marine Division in the field."
After Japan surrendered, the Women's Reserve was quickly demobilized, with only 1,000 remaining in its ranks by July of 1946. Congress then passed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, authorizing the acceptance of women into the regular component of the Marine Corps and other branches of the Armed Services.
Callahan said she was looking to add some excitement to her life when she signed up.
"I was working in Boston, bored to death," said Callahan. "One day I got off the street car to go to work, and when I stepped off the curb there was a sign that said, 'Join the Marines'. A light went off in my head, and it went off with a bang. I enlisted, and I went through boot camp at Parris Island."
Callahan said her basic training experience was different than the rigorous one that combat Marines go through.
"It was tapered down," said Callahan. "I remember my mother saying she could never believe that I went through the shower in five minutes and was out in time to line up in front of everybody."
Kearns said she signed up because she wanted to help her country - and was surprised to see how many other women did the same.
"There were quite a few women in it, replacing men," said Kearns. "That was a tough thing to do, but we did it and we did it gladly, because we knew we were performing a service. We did the best we could, and came out with flying colors. Everyone pitched in, and did what they had to do. I was proud of them then and still am."
Kearns said she frequently worked with injured troops just back from the front lines of the war.
"I had an administrative job," said Kearns. "It was a desk job, but I worked with casualties also. We tried to help them out as much as we could to get them back into the fold. It was tough, because some of them lost limbs, lost eyesight, but we did everything we could to help them. I'm glad I was a part of that. It made me feel better than it did them. And it made me grow up faster than I would admit to at that time. Now I am really grown up, and I can't fight it anymore."
Callahan said she also held a secretarial job, eventually working her way to an assignment in the Pentagon.
"I was stationed at Parris Island, as secretary to the G1 of the post," said Callahan. "I was 26 years old, and at the end of my year there I went to Quantico with the college kids, passed, and was assigned to the Pentagon the year that the Marines got a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I was just several doors down from the Secretary of the Navy, and worked there for a year, then got a job in DC."
Kearns said she remembers the moment she heard the war as over, and that the Allies had prevailed.
"I was so happy, to see all our men coming back home," said Kearns. "I would go out to different hospitals in the DC area that had war veterans. They were in tough shape, and it broke my heart, but I just kept my cool and didn't let it show. I just said, 'I love you all for what you did for us'. To see them in that condition hurt me to the quick, but you don't show it. I always had two smiles for the men, and one for the women - I'm no dummy."
Today, 214,098 women serve in the U.S. military, representing 14.6 percent of total service members. Hundreds of female troops have received a Combat Action Badge, awarded for actively engaging with a hostile enemy.
Callahan said she didn't have an opinion on the possibility of women taking an active role in combat in today's military.
"I haven't given much thought to it," said Callahan. "The whole world has changed for me. I'm so detached from the military, what goes on today, I couldn't really comment on that. I just know I loved serving."
Kearns said she never encountered any instances of male soldiers not accepting either her or her fellow female Marines.
"Men were always so good to all of us, knowing at the beginning that we were so new to this life." said Kearns. "They were here to guide us, to help us, to teach us. They were such gentlemen to all of us. I went to school in Italy. I got quite an education, in more ways than one. Those Italian men - I tell you."
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