Women Marines ~ 10th INF Battalion ~ Classification Platoon
Honor ~ Courage ~ Commitment
My Story by PFC. Phyllis Silva-Keith (H.D. 1958)
In the 1940’s, when, Col. Julia Hamblet, USMCR, penned: “Once a Marine…Always a Marine…Then, now and always,” little did I know, all these years later, that I would still be living out and reflecting on those powerful words.
When I was first “introduced” to the Marine Corps, at age 18, in 1957….and now, reminiscing 60 years later at age 79, I feel an immense gratitude for the experiences and people who were and are so importantly part of my Marine Corps memories.
Before I begin sharing with you, I want to say “Thank you” to my sister Marines then and now. You have my gratitude, respect and admiration for the individual roles each of you has played in providing protection for our country as well as for peoples and places around the world. May your knowing that you have made a difference in your sister Marine’s lives, and countless others, bring you a sense of peace and accomplishment. Your example of service and sacrifice continues to shed light upon our paths.
Each of us has our own Marine history and personal stories to tell.
I didn’t serve overseas or in combat nor did I serve the length of time or make the sacrifices that some of you have. But, we are each and all part of the whole history and success of the Corps. Sisters and brothers….I salute you one and all.
Thank you for your interest in this “Old Lady Reservist” and what it was like back in “50’s.
It was May 1957 and I had just returned home after three semesters of college and secured a job with Pacific Northwest Bell Telephone in Seattle (or “Ma Bell” as we called it then). At that time, I was trying to envision how I would transition into adult life.
One day, during a work lunch break, I saw one of my co-workers, Margaret Carr, in a Marine Corps uniform. Our conversation centered on why she was in uniform. She told me that after work she would be reporting for drill and continuing training classes. (Our employer was quite supportive of those in the military including Women Marine Reservists.) Margaret invited me to go along with her to the Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Armory on Lake Union, and I gladly accepted! (Today the building houses the MOHAI (Museum of History and Industry).
We arrived at the armory and Margaret reported to her classes and drill. I wandered around in the lobby, looking at a very large bulletin board showing activity photos and articles about the Marine men and women of the 10th Infantry Battalion – Classification Platoon. I was quite impressed!
Seattle was home of the first women’s VTU (Volunteer Training Unit) established January 1947
I remember hearing the door of the recruiters office open….and….well, I think you know what was about to happened next. A fine gentleman Marine told me more about the Corps and especially the Women Marine Reserves plus the need for more dedicated members.
Before I could say “Ooh Rah,” I was sitting down at a desk taking the qualifications tests. After finding out that I had passed the tests I said “yes” to my desire to be part of the Women Marine Team. Margaret was my witness as I signed my intention papers.
Because I was not 21 years of age, I needed a parent to give their approval for me to continue the enlistment process. So, the recruiter made an appointment for us to visit my parents at their home.
Having women in the military was still a divided question for many people. My Mom wasn’t happy, to say the least…and left the room. Papa carefully and caringly told me the importance of making a decision and then abiding by it. “If it is really what you want to do…then go into it with determination regardless of what anyone else thinks?” Much to Mom’s dismay, Papa signed my papers. It would turn out to be one of my better decisions. (I am glad to be able to tell you that a few years later Mom and I were sharing thoughts and experiences. She told me she was pleased with how my decision had helped me to grow and give me a sense of being part of something bigger than she expected.)
June 1957, Pvt. Phyllis Elaine Keith, USMCWR ~ W784912 reported to the U S Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Armory at Lake Union. It was now time for the induction and those well-known proverbial vaccine shots. There were many new recruits both Navy and Marine, men and women, lined up in ques with their arms at ready. Men were passing out in what looked like a dance routine…one to the left…another to the right…again and again. I managed to hang in there and complete the task without any event.
Uniforms and supplies were issued including nylon stockings, dress buttons (of which I still have two), emblem pins, instruction books and brown leather pump dress shoes and hardy boots.
I was assigned to drill and training classes which we attended monthly on a specific weekend at Sand Point Naval Air Station. There were also some week night classes and drills at the Armory at Lake Union.
Women Marines 10th INF Battalion Classification Platoon was established May 1952.
My first annual two-week summer training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego began in June 1957. Our platoon leader was Capt. Esther Farrar Ripley (ranked Major the following year) and 1st Lt. Katherine Donohoe. We left Sand Point NAS Seattle June 1957 via Marine crewed planes. It was quite the event as the Sea-Fair Queen attended our send-off including taking photos for publication in local newspapers.
The higher ranked members sat in jump seats closer to the front of the plane; there were two narrow stretcher type bunks on either side plus the bench seats. Each of us was given a boxed lunch in which there was a sandwich, cookie or chocolate bar, apple or orange and of all things…a sample size box of 6 Lucky Strike cigarettes and matchbook! Yep, we wore parachutes throughout the flight.
(I can still remember the loud roaring prop engine noise and the bumpy ride.)
I was the youngest, shortest and newest recruit so I was tagged as “Boots” and the go-to-person when someone wanted help polishing their shoes or boots. (Little did they know that I really liked polishing shoes…loved the aroma of the polish and feeling of accomplishment when seeing the finished brightest shine possible!) I lite matches and held them over the shoe or boots to help melt the polish wax into the leather. I chuckle now when I see the patent leather shoes that are worn today. )
We flew into North Island Naval Base and were ferried to San Diego and then bussed to the MCRD base.
Summer Training was filled to the brim every moment of the day. There were numerous classes to train us for our Classification position clerical duties which also included testing newly arrived recruits for their MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) placement. (We were kind of like the human resources departments of the todays companies.) There were men and women regiments from all over the West Coast divisions.
We had to pass similar tasks and tests such as those required in “Boot Camp” basic training: jump in the swimming pool with our gear (and make it to the other side alive!); how to properly use a gas mask in the “tear gas” shed; march, march, march; night firing at Camp Pendleton; qualify with a rifle and hand gun; memorize the General Orders for Sentries and Marine Handbook; learn to drive a jeep; ride in a tank and fulfill barrack upkeep assignments…just to name a few.
(I was not a good swimmer, so I will always be grateful for the Marine who partnered with me as we jumped into the pool in pairs. She not only “had my back…but also my pack!)
I was assigned to be the charge person for the “Head Duty” of our barrack and thought I had been given a promotion until I learned what “head” meant! Our crew worked diligently with bucket and mop, scrub brushes, cleaning towels and disinfectant! We were a team…no matter what our duties…and we took pride in a job well done.
I remember being awakened in the middle of the night with the clanging of a large metal spoon on a metal garbage can lid. I don’t remember why. I think we had to do with more chores or the “experience” of being in basic training. (I think a toothbrush had a part in this story too!)
Inspection was always a tense moment. If anything was out of place or our uniform not up to par or the quarter didn’t bounce properly on our tightly made bunk….we knew there were reprimands ahead. The “white glove” inspection was when we held our breath and hoped for the best. (I found out later that we were called an “Honor Platoon” but didn’t hear it mentioned until after the platoon had been disbanded.)
I will never forget the feeling of a swagger stick being “tapped” upon my shoulder when my shoulders weren’t back and straight enough for the DI. (He only had to do that once!)
My most embarrassing moment, while at camp, was when I was in the head and Capt. Ripley came through the door as I was about to leave. I stood at attention and saluted her! Well, she firmly responded (with her strong southern drawl): “Oh Keith, not here” and with a wink…went about freshening up. You can be sure that I re-acquainted myself with when and where to correctly salute an officer!
I remember our male Drill Instructor (DI) who was very unhappy that he had been assigned a women’s platoon. But, when our training was coming to an end, he confided in us that he was proud of us and how we took every instruction with determination to prove our worth and commitment. At the company graduation, we paraded passed the Commanders with our heads held high and our step firmly placed.
We all were required to attend a religious service of our choice. (I went to my first ever Catholic Mass at the base chapel.) God and Country shared important places in the “fabric” of who we were and are today.
The sound of the bugle playing “reverie” over the base loudspeakers woke us up and “taps” brought us to an immediate halt and attention as we faced the flag.
Shopping at the “exchange” was overwhelming with so many items under one roof (this was before multi-item stores like we have today).
Then there was the time I forgot to put in ear plugs before rifle practice and afterwards wandering around the base for three days feeling like I was living inside a tin can!
There were times, when I wasn’t sure if I could complete a difficult or tiring task, that I would keep telling myself, “think I can, I think I can” and then changing the litany to “yes I can, yes I can.” The confidence and determination instilled in me, during those Marine Corps years, remains with me even now. I have reached with in my “being” many times over the years, since my Marine days, to find the strength to carry on.
Our Marine Values of “Honor, Courage and Commitment” resonates in my memory as a Marine and also as a civilian. These three values have and will always call me to being the best I can be as a person.
Food was plentiful and good…we needed all the fuel we could get to keep us energized!
We shared our work time, class time and spare time with reservists from other regions. I especially remember Kit, Audie and Terry from the Los Angeles region.
We were reminded to carry ourselves with the grace and strength becoming of a Women Marine. We were respectful of and looked up to our officers who were an excellent example to us all.
It wasn’t all work and no play, so I need to tell you, to our surprise, one Saturday they loaded us onto luxury busses and drove us to Disney Land which had only been opened just two years before. We were given event and food tickets for the whole day. Even our Officer Liaisons went with us.
There were picnics with the Navy personnel at their base (now called Liberty Station Mall) and at Balboa Park. (Many years later, in the 1980’s, I would re-meet one of the Navy picnickers in Anchorage, AK. His wife and I are friends to this day!) We enjoyed softball games and watching a movie or playing cards. Mission Beach and La Jolla were also special places for R and R.
There were also firing competitions between divisional regions.
When we were back in Seattle, we participated in “Sea-Fair Torch Light” parades, Port Townsend “Rhody Festival” parade, “Toys for Tots” Toy Drives and attended community events.
Of our platoon, those who remain strongly in my memories are Margaret Carr, Shirley Haines (now retired Sergeant Major), Marian Mac Namara (Mac), Gail Strong, Janet Cox, “Zee,” June, Marilyn, Katherine R., Dona…just to name a few.
I often wonder where they all are and how they are today.
In December 1957, I received a promotion to Pfc. (No more slick sleeve!)
Then in May of 1958, more personal changes entered my life. In those days, a husband had to approve his wife being in the military. My husband agreed and signed his approval but soon after we learned that I was expecting our first child. Since the rule then was “no child under the age of 13,” Major Ripley and I knew that I would need to leave the platoon.
The Women section of the platoon disbanded on 30 September 1959.
Some of us were able to keep in touch, through the years that followed, and reunited at occasional Marine Corps birthday celebrations. Many years later, Corporal Janet Cox and I discovered that we were both working at the same hospital, from which we are now both retired.
On another occasion a few years ago, I was at church and saw the now Sgt Major Shirley Haines exiting a side door. She and I immediately locked eyes and arms and reminisced about “the good old days.” (She was one of the ten members of our platoon who were allowed to stay on with the male battalion when the women portion of the platoon disbanded.) She is now in her 90’s and living in California.
I still have people ask me the question: “why did you enlist?” I tell them that I remember when I was a child, during WWII, hearing my parents and other relatives talk about our family members who were in the service on both sides of the world. As families, who came from other countries, they were grateful to be in the United States of America. They firmly established patriotism and our individual and collective responsibility into our keeping our country’s values upheld and protected.
I remember the stacks of letters that were received from our loved ones in the military. The letters were read over and over again, until the next letter arrived. I can still see us gathered around the big radio in our living room and intently listening to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats about the concerns of our country.
When my sister and I would go to a matinee movie we saw newsreels of those in uniform. We were taught in school and at home to be respectful whenever our country’s flag was presented, the Star Spangled Banner sung or a service man or woman passed us by.
Those feelings remain with me to this very day. Serving together with others who were grateful for our country and the freedom we hold dear will always be important to me. I will continue to do whatever I can to keep those values and blessings protected and revered.
I will always be grateful for and humbled by those who join me in saying from our hearts and esprit de corps: