They were few, but proud, these women who joined the Marines in World War II

It was 1943. Frank Sinatra and the Glenn Miller Orchestra were on the radio. Gas was 15 cents a gallon. A Coca-Cola was a nickel.

That summer, Allied forces invaded Italy, overthrowing its dictator, Benito Mussolini. America took control of Guadalcanal and experienced its first rationing of meat, cheese, butter and shoes. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League took the field.

And the new Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was starting to fill its ranks.

Bettie Lerdall was working as a secretary in Oakland for the Southern Pacific Railroad and still living at home. She worked with her mother, riding back and forth to the office together, making dinner every night.

Vivian Wood was a newspaper reporter in Belle Center, Ohio, writing about the kind of things that make news in a small village. The biggest scoop was if someone was murdered, though it didn’t happen often, not with just 500 residents.

Bettie was 19. In California, she yearned for more: “Let me out of here,” she thought. “There are better things for me.”

Vivian had just turned 20. In Ohio, she felt felt like she was missing out: “I want to get out and see the world.”

‘We could be anything’

I grew up on military bases, and as a kid, I’d skid to a stop on my bike to watch platoons of Marines running in formation.

I’d stand on my pedals to count the WMs – the women Marines – among them.

I was among the first wave of girls whose parents told us we could be anything we wanted – and they actually believed it.

Career Day at school included women pilots, engineers, lawyers and once, even a sniper.

No one ever told me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl.

My dad opened car doors for me, but he also taught his left-handed daughter to throw right-handed, how to drive a stick shift and shoot a gun.

My mom says I was so driven she had only to get out of the way.

Career Day at school included women pilots, engineers, lawyers and once, even a sniper.

No one ever told me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl.

Joining the Marines

It was different in 1943. In what was an extraordinary leap for a woman at that time, Bettie decided she would join the Marine Corps.

Even at 20, the minimum age for women to join the Marine Corps, the young women had to have permission from their parents.

Bettie’s parents were divorced, and her father was in the Navy and away at the time. Her mother thought it was a terrible idea. She was sure her daughter would hate having someone tell her what to do, where to live and what to wear, a uniform in particular.

But Bettie was determined. She wished to serve. She wanted to do something for the war effort.

Bettie convinced her mother to sign. She enlisted on July 21, 1942, her 20th birthday.

Vivian hadn’t intended to enlist at all. She accompanied a girlfriend to a military recruiting station. The friend was interested in the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC, the women’s branch of the U.S. Army.

The Marine recruiter there told Vivian she should consider joining the Corps. “The green uniform would look good with your red hair,” he told her.

She considered it. Like Bettie, like most people she know, Vivian wanted to do something for the war. She enlisted on Aug. 3, 1943.

That year, the first for the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, there were fewer than 200 women serving. They worked as mechanics, clerks and drill instructors, freeing up male Marines to go overseas. Their ranks would grow to more than 20,000 by war’s end.

Prudy and Woodie, in training

Both women were sent for training to Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C. They never crossed paths.

The summer heat was miserable, a terrible time for rigorous physical training.

Bettie was 5-foot-8, and an athlete in high school, playing field hockey, baseball and basketball.

Vivian was 5-foot-4, and while she wasn’t an athlete, she was strong from working on her parents’ farm in Kenton, Ohio.

The drill instructors were women, too, except for one hour a day when a male drill instructor took charge.

They were pretty tough, these male drill instructors, Bettie came to realize.

Vivian would always remember one in particular. He liked to have the women stand at attention while the mosquitos were thick. He liked to tease.

Bettie’s last name then was Pruden, so the other WMs called her “Prudy.” Vivian was “Woodie.”

The uniforms and the catcalls

The uniform Bettie’s mother had warned her about turned out not to be so bad. She liked not having to choose an outfit every day.

The WMs wore fitted jackets and crisp skirts. It was sharp. She didn’t feel sloppy.

In winter, the uniforms were forest green wool. In summer a green and white striped seersucker.

Each morning, Vivian had to pull on an uncomfortable girdle and unbecoming lisle hose.

Even in those outfits, and with their hair cut short – it could be no longer than the bottom edge of their shirt collar – the WMs attracted attention. The men and women lived separately on base, but when the women were on their way to eat or to go to the theater, men would sometimes call out.

“BAM!” they would holler. Big-ass Marine. The memory would always make Bettie giggle.

Both women dated Marines, though nothing too serious.

Still, Vivian could tell not everyone was happy they were there. There was some resentment of the women joining the Corps, she saw, and would tell herself and others later that it was still such a macho organization.

At the end of training, Bettie stayed put in Camp Lejeune, put in charge of her platoon and then made a drill instructor.

At inspection, she would tap the women standing at attention with her swagger stick to make sure they hadn’t forgone their girdles. She got 40 to 45 new recruits every six weeks. Bettie was firm but fair.

Vivian was transferred to Camp Pendleton in San Diego, where she worked as the acting personnel Sergeant Major of the women’s battalion. The female officers she worked for had college degrees; it sparked something in the young woman. She was growing aware that women could – and did – do important jobs.

After the war, Bettie

Bettie and Vivian were honorably discharged as Marines returned from overseas to reclaim their jobs.

Bettie was a platoon sergeant until December 1945, having served her entire stint at Camp Lejeune. After she left, she went to the University of California-Berkeley on the GI Bill and then was hired as a secretary by the State Department Foreign Service.

Her first assignment was in Karachi, Pakistan, where she met and married her husband, Sgt. William Lerdall, an Air Force man.

(“Traitor,” Vivian would say on a morning many years later when they got together to chat. They both laughed.)

Bettie and her husband came back to the States for a few years and then were stationed in Cairo, Egypt, with their 6-week-old baby and a 2-year-old. They would travel the world, having four children in all. Her husband retired after 21 years to Phoenix, which they chose because they wanted somewhere warm.

William passed away 24 years ago, and Bettie lives on her own in Mesa. She golfed for years until her back got bad. Now a grandmother of six, she leads a Bible study class.

She still talks about what it was like to return to civilian life. She liked the routine and the responsibility. Her friends’ concerns about finding rationed butter and sugar seemed inconsequential.

“When you’re first discharged, and you go home, you’re just lost,” Bettie says.

She loved being a Marine. “I would go in today if they’d take me.”

After the war, Vivian

Vivian served at Camp Pendleton until Dec. 6, 1945.

She tried to get into the University of Chicago after the Marine Corps, but the campus was overrun with soldiers returning from the war. So she worked at a farm journal in Philadelphia, taking classes at night until she was admitted. She earned two degrees, a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a master’s degree in sociology.

She taught in California and then return to the University of Chicago to earn her doctoral degree in Human Development. She then was on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 24 years, teaching and doing research in gerontology. She never married.

When she retired in 1987, Vivian moved to Sun City, one of the communities she examined as part of a study.

Her retirement has been busy, working on the women’s build team at Habitat for Humanity and teaching English as a second language at Dysart Community Center. She assembles survival bags for the homeless, exercises three times a week, volunteers at the library and never misses happy hour on Friday night.

Bettie and Vivian, together

Bettie and Vivian never crossed paths while they were in the Marine Corps. They met about 10 years ago at a reunion of the Women Marines Association. Both women are now involved in the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, another non-profit group.

They laugh a lot when they get together and talk about their stories.

“I never drank, and I never smoked,” Bettie says. She’s 93 now.

“I always drank, but I never smoked,” Vivian says. She’s 94. They both laugh.

They agree that those years in the Marine Corps influenced the kind of women they became. They learned discipline, respect and how to get along with all sorts of people.

They learned to be strong and independent. “It certainly gave me a sense of pride,” Vivian says. “I could see what women could do. I learned I could take care of myself.”

They both still respond with “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir.” They believe in the power of a firm handshake.

They agree that those years in the Marine Corps influenced the kind of women they became. They learned discipline, respect and how to get along with all sorts of people.

They learned to be strong and independent. “It certainly gave me a sense of pride,” Vivian says. “I could see what women could do. I learned I could take care of myself.”

If Bettie meets someone with a weak grip, she doesn’t let go. “What are you doing?” she asks. “That’s not a handshake!” She makes them do it again. Bettie laughs: “I’m still a drill sergeant.”

Vivian laughs, too: “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

They are the few – estimates are that there are fewer than 5,000 women Marines from that era – and the proud.

Vivian and Bettie will attend Friday’s Veterans Day commemoration at McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park in Scottsdale.

“I still feel proud of being a Marine,” Vivian says.

Bettie nodded. She is proud, too:

“We were part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Scottsdale’s Veterans Day commemoration

Bob Parsons, a decorated U.S. Marine Corps Vietnam veteran and founder of GoDaddy, will speak, along with Rep. David Schweiker and U.S. Air Force veteran and Scottsdale historian Joan Fudala. There will be music from the 108th Army Band and refreshments from Shamrock Foods Co. and the Wildflower Bread Co.

When: 3 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11

Where: McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park, 7301 E. Indian Bend Road, Scottsdale

Cost: Free

Details: 480-312-2312

Reach Bland at or 602-444-8614. Read more here.

Read or Share this story:

What's Your Reaction?
Cute Cute
Buzz Buzz
Geeky Geeky
Win Win
Angry Angry
Fail Fail
Love Love

log in

reset password

Back to
log in