“A Wide-Open Time To Be A Lesbian”

Marine Corps Women's Reserve recruiting poster, World War II. By the end of 1944, more than 15,000 Women Marines were performing over 200 different kinds of assignments in the Marine Corps. Courtesy, National Archives

Marine Corps Women’s Reserve recruiting poster, World War II. By the end of 1944, more than 15,000 Women Marines were performing over 200 different kinds of assignments in the Marine Corps. Courtesy, National Archives

To celebrate Pride Month, I’d like to share an excerpt from a work-in-progress, tentatively titled The Light Beneath the Waves. This scene features Betty Somers, one of the first women to serve in Marine Corps Women’s Reserve.  As you will see, Somers was a pioneer in more ways than one. 

I found her story in an oral history interview preserved at the GLBT Historical Society Museum and Archives in San Francisco. The interviewer was Allan Bérubé, a pioneering historian of gays and lesbians in the military during the Second World War.

“Betty Somers” is not the Marine Corps veteran’s real name. When she was interviewed in 1982, she was concerned that she might be a target of discrimination if her real name appeared in print.

* * *

Betty Somers enlisted in the United States Marines Corps in 1944, only a few months after the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established. At the time, she was 20 years old, in college and in a relationship with a woman for whom she cared a great deal.

She was also deeply patriotic and very idealistic. “I went into the service because I wanted to serve my country,” she recalled. She broke her girlfriend’s heart, but she felt that she had to do something more for the war effort. Volunteering at the USO or working at a defense factory was not enough for her.

“I don’t blame her for being furious because I didn’t have to go,” she said, speaking of her lover. “I wasn’t a man, but I felt I had to.”

She thought the Marine Corps was the branch of the military for her. In the Marines, she figured, she had a better chance of getting close to the fighting and that is what she wanted.

“The Marine Corps is known for being a rather aggressive unit, so I went into the Marine Corps for that reason,” she explained. “I expected to make any kind of sacrifices, and I expected to go overseas.”

“We were Rosie the Riveter!”

While she was in the Marine Corps, only one woman lieutenant showed any uncomfortableness with her sexuality. That was at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the site of boot camp for all Women Marines as of July 1943.

Camp Lejeune was established in Onslow County, N.C., in 1941. Image courtesy, Wikipedia

Camp Lejeune was established in Onslow County, N.C., in 1941. Image courtesy, Wikipedia

“She ordered me to have a permanent, which I had never had in my life. I was wearing my hair long, but we called it an `upsweep’ then. It was swept up from the back of your head so when I had my cap on I guess I looked pretty masculine, even though I was not wearing my hair in a short cut. And she forced me to have a permanent.”

The interviewer, Allan Bérubé, asked her why the lieutenant required her to get a more feminine-looking hairstyle.

After reflecting a moment, Somers answered, more than a little wryly, “Well, I think it was probably well grounded in a terrible fear that any woman that takes a job like that is nothing but a perverted dyke.”

Somers discovered that was a common stereotype of Women Marines during the war, though she found that only a tiny percentage of the women with whom she served were lesbians.

During the war, she heard the same rumors about women defense workers—the machinists, welders and heavy equipment operators that wartime propaganda glorified and called “Rosie the Riveters.”

"Rosie the Riveter," by Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post, May 1943. Rosie the Riveter was a WW II icon symbolizing the heroism of women workers in shipyards, munitions factories and other defense industries.

“Rosie the Riveter,” by Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post, May 1943. Rosie the Riveter was a WW II icon symbolizing the heroism of women workers in shipyards, munitions factories and other defense industries.

“I think the lieutenant was probably a straight woman, or certainly fearful of any homosexuality in herself or anyone else and would not have allowed the appearance of people in her boot camp to give that image at all,” Somers elaborated.

Somers said that incident was the only time in the war that anyone in the Marine Corps tried to make her feel ashamed of her sexuality. In general, she considered the war a golden age for being a lesbian in America. To her it was a signature moment in which women, gay and straight, were honored for more than their looks and their ability to please men.

“We were Rosie the Riveter,” she boasted.

That changed after the war. She felt the country’s outlook toward lesbians and nonconformist women of all kinds changed when they were no longer needed in the war effort. “Now, for Rosie the Riveter, they say, `Aha! Look at that dyke!”

She found that sentiment most pervasive during the McCarthy Era. “To come out of that into the ‘50s and be told that you’re queer because you learned to operate a rivet, or you’re a queer because you wanted to be in the service…. This is something that [was] really shocking.”

Somers did not see that kind of disrespect during the war, though. She felt it was most especially not the case early in the war when the manpower shortage was at its height and the threat to the country the greatest.

At that time, military service branches and defense industries alike eagerly sought women who did not fit traditional norms for women’s behavior and dress if they could wield a wrench or drive a truck across country or were tough enough to handle a rivet gun.

Neither military recruiters, boot camp instructors or commanding officers looked to weed out lesbians from the military, as they so often did gay males. As Somers remembered it, they were just happy to get their help. How a woman dressed, how feminine a woman acted and what a woman did on liberty did not seem to matter so long as she could contribute to the war effort.

Wartime demanded strength, courage and a sense of adventure. “So to me,” Somers said, “it was just a wide open time to be a lesbian.”

She thought it was a unique moment in American history. “I do think—and here again, I can only judge by my own self—there’s only been one other time in my life when it’s ever been that good, when it’s like the whole world is open to you,” she reminisced. [In the interview, she doesn’t reveal what other time she felt so liberated.]

“A sort of up-front, out-and-out lesbian group”

After boot camp, Somers was sent to the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station in Craven County, N.C. At that time, Cherry Point was the main dispersal center for Women Marines. After boot camp, they stayed there until they received their orders.

The Cherry Point MCAS was established in Craven County, N.C., in 1941. Image courtesy, Wikipedia

The Cherry Point MCAS was established in Craven County, N.C., in 1941. Image courtesy, Wikipedia

Some of the women remained at Cherry Point. They became flight instructors, reconnaissance photograph analysts, meteorologists, truck drivers and many other things. However, most were evaluated and sent overseas or to advanced training centers in other parts of the U.S.

Somers remembered the lesbians in the Motor Pool at Cherry Point especially well. They were grease monkeys and truck drivers, and Somers described them as “butchy-acting and smoking with the cupped hand and drinking the beer from the bottle and short haircuts.”

Somers, on the other hand, was more feminine and tried to keep her sexuality in the shadows. She confessed that she felt a little threatened by the more butch women in the Motor Pool.

They were, she recalled, “really a sort of up-front, out-and-out lesbian group.” She said that they acted as if they owned the garage and, she mused, they had a softball team in the women’s recreation league that took no prisoners.

A Dreadful Place

Somers was less than besot by Cherry Point. “That was a dreadful place,” she said in the interview. She remembered the great hurricane of ’44, the heat and mosquitoes, a series of infectious disease scares (probably malaria above all) and the sense of isolation that came from being so far from a major city. She also referred obliquely to “violence on the camp.”

In her interview, Somers did not fully explain that remark about violence. However, later in her interview, she did note that male Marines had begun returning from the Pacific Theater while she was still stationed at Cherry Point. They had fought in some of the hardest, bloodiest battles of the war, in places such as Iwo Jima, Tarawa and Peleliu.

On those islands in the Central and Western Pacific, the Marines had taken an ungodly number of casualties. The fighting was of the grimmest, most horrible kind, days and nights of carnage and terror.

Naturally that experience took a toll on the survivors. Somers believed that the war had damaged many of them, and some of them had come back to Cherry Point changed men: edgy, short-tempered, mean to the bone.

I grew up at and around Cherry Point and my mother worked on the base during the Second World War. We used to talk about some of those returning veterans.

My mother found that most of the returning veterans were just lonely. Some, though, harbored wounds deep inside. Many looked lost and acted fragile, as if they could not get their bearings again on American soil.

She learned to take their shows of affection for her and their marriage proposals after only a date or two with a grain of salt. They yearned for anything, and anyone, who reminded them of what life was like before the war: more innocent, less broken apart, less corrupted.

Some took to heavy drinking and fighting. They were in and out of the brig all the time, and half the time they seemed hell-bent on self-destruction. And yes, in some of them, she saw a scary darkness.

Betty Somers explained that she learned to tread lightly around those men and, whenever possible, she steered clear of them.

“It was a dream time”

At least there was the company of women. Somers recalled that a large majority of Women Marines that she met at Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point were not lesbians. Yet she discovered that even many straight women looked at her differently than they would have before the war and brought something of an erotic charge to their friendships.

She wondered if that was because they had so little contact with men while they were in the service. She thought many were lonely and stressed out, struggling to survive their training, craving intimacy and friendship, maybe yearning, in some cases, for a “sexual outlet,” to use Somers’ words.

Everything was different during the war, she said. She loved how the straight Women Marines walked arm-in-arm with her and how they called her their “date” when they were on liberty.

She remembered how she often danced with straight women, which had been more unusual before the war, when men were around. She and her straight girlfriends did grow intimate now and then, too. She found that the women seemed to shed their heterosexuality as easily as they might have taken off a sundress, and did so with no less grace, while thinking nothing of it at all.

Reflecting on the war, Somers wondered if perhaps mainstream society was wrong, and that the line between “gay” and “straight” is much more fluid than is usually appreciated. Maybe, she speculated, within us, we all, to some degree, are gay, and maybe, to some degree, all straight, too. Maybe the war made this visible.

U.S. Marine Corps Women's Reserve recruiting poster, ca. 1944. Courtesy, National Archives

U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve recruiting poster, ca. 1944. Courtesy, National Archives

Somers also suspected that some straight Women Marines found a relationship with another woman less compromising if they had a husband or boyfriend back home or serving somewhere else in the military.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I wonder if perhaps some of these straight women felt that they weren’t being adulterous or disloyal to their men, if they had an affair with you rather than with another man.”

While she was at Cherry Point, Somers had a long affair with a married Woman Marine who had never previously had a lesbian relationship. The woman left her husband after the war, but later married another man and had a family.

The war changed life beyond the military camps, too. When Somers visited her family in the Midwest on furlough, she discovered, if anything, an even greater openness to lesbian relationships there.

She looked at the women back home as being fundamentally straight, but perhaps what she called “situational homosexuals.” She thought they probably preferred the company of men in general, but they were women who moved easily into friendship, intimacy and sometimes sex with other women under the unique conditions of wartime.

“It was a dreamtime, because there were so many women back home without their men,” Somers recalled.

“It was heaven… if you were a woman like myself,” Somers owned. And she added, with a sigh, “Truthfully.”

* * *

Special thanks to Allan Troxler for introducing me to Allan Bérubé’s work and to Joanna Black for her assistance at the GLBT Historical Society. 

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