Nothing is more important in Ada Dodson’s life than her family and the U.S. Marine Corps. One is as close to her heart as the other.
The 83-year-old World War II veteran and mother of four was discharged from the Marines in 1946, but 52 years later she still stands at attention whenever she hears the Marines’ Hymn. And she flies the Marine flag in front of her house on special occasions.
“I joined the Marines because they are the toughest and the best,” said Dodson, a Cypress resident. “That was true in 1943 when I joined and it’s still true today. . . . After the war, one life ended and another one began for me, but the Marines have always been a part of my life.”
The loyalty and contributions by Dodson and thousands of female Marine veterans had gone mostly unrecognized by the Corps until recently, when officials dedicated an exhibit of the “History of Women in the U.S. Marine Corps” at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
The exhibit, part of the base’s Jay W. Hubbard Command Museum, offers an intriguing look at the role of women in the Marine Corps since they were first allowed to enlist in 1918. In putting together the exhibit, Marine officials wisely chose to include the best and the worst of women’s experience in the Corps.
Until about 25 years ago, the Marines looked at their female enlistees only as women, not as warriors who just happened to be women. In the 1970s, the Marine Corps ended its policy requiring women Marines to wear girdles while in uniform.
It was also during that time that women were finally permitted to wear civilian slacks while off duty, but only if the zipper was on the side, not in the front.
Today, every Marine, male and female, has to qualify annually at the weapons range. But until as late as the early 1980s, weapons training and annual qualification was not mandatory for women Marines.
One display shows a 1960s era magazine cover picturing a woman Marine holding a .45-caliber pistol. The cover led to an order from Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington forbidding women from being photographed with weapons because the generals wanted them to be depicted in “peacetime, noncombative” images.
Looking at the women’s exhibit at El Toro, it is apparent that women Marines have come a long way since Pvt. Olpha Mae Johnson became the Corps’ first “Marinette” in 1918. Johnson and the other women allowed to serve during World War I were all put to work as clerks at Marine Corps Headquarters.
Marinettes, the first official designation of women Marines, “didn’t go over well,” notes a photo display at the exhibit.
Dodson, who was Pvt. Ada DiStasio when she enlisted in 1943, said she and her buddies were simply known as women Marines. She and other veterans formed the Women Marines Assn. after the war, and Dodson became a chapter president.
Dodson, whose husband, Marcus, is also a World War II Marine veteran, attended the museum’s dedication earlier this month, but long lines kept her from seeing the displays. “I plan on seeing it, though, and eventually, I want to donate my uniform to the museum,” she said.
She was living in Milwaukee, working in a defense plant that built blades for turbines installed in submarines, when the Marines again opened their ranks to women in February 1943.
“Everybody thinks that I made up my mind to enlist because my husband was in the Marines,” Dodson said. “But the truth is that I enlisted long before I met Marcus. . . . I wasn’t called up until 1944.”
While Marcus Dodson fought in the Pacific campaign, including Iwo Jima, Ada Dodson trained as an aviation machinist with other men and women at a Navy base in Norman, Okla.
“The men didn’t like us girls being there. They didn’t treat us very well, but that made me work all the harder. . . . I ended up getting the third-highest score in the class, better than most of the men,” she said.
After completing training at Norman, Dodson was ordered to the El Toro Marine base, where she spent the duration of the war. The Marines ignored her training as an aviation machinist and put her to work in an office.
“I was on active duty for almost three years, but I never got higher than PFC. They just wouldn’t give [women] any rank. I was doing the work of sergeants, but they wouldn’t promote me. That’s how they used to treat women Marines,” Dodson said.
In fact, until President Truman issued an executive order in 1948, women Marine officers could not be promoted beyond lieutenant colonel. Today, the Marines have two women generals, a brigadier (one star) and a lieutenant (three stars). Overall, women make up 5.4% of Marines on active duty.
“I’m glad that things have changed. In my day, you’d never expect to see a woman lieutenant general,” Dodson said. “But we all stick together, men and women, because when you get down to it, we’re all Marines,” Dodson said.