Kokomo will celebrate one woman who added another “first” to the long list for which the city is known: Opha May Johnson.
Johnson, a Kokomo-native, was the first woman to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps’ Women’s Reserve. A commemorative ceremony will be held next week to honor Johnson, who enlisted 100 years ago on Aug. 13.
“We’ve really dug into this, and we have a really good program coming up,” said Jonathan Russell, one of the organizers with the Howard County WWI Centennial Committee.
Russell, a historian, said even he didn’t know about this “first” until a couple years ago when his wife, Amy Russell, who’s the genealogy and local history director at the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library, was contacted by students from North Carolina who were doing research projects on Johnson.
It wasn’t long before officials with the Indiana WWI Centennial Commission caught wind of Johnson’s claim to fame and called the Russells for information on Johnson. Amy already had done research on the woman and even had her military records.
With this month being the centennial of her enlistment, it was decided by the Centennial Commissions that Johnson would have her own ceremony right in her hometown.
Johnson was born in Kokomo on May 4, 1978, and it wasn’t for 40 more years that she chose to enlist in the military. While little is known of her childhood, Russell estimated that Johnson and her family moved east when she was around 6 years old, and she spent most of her life in the Washington D.C. area.
Johnson began her career in civil service at the Interstate Commerce Commission shortly after graduating from the typewriting department at Wood’s Commercial College in 1895.
She met and married Victor Hugo Johnson, who was the musical director of the Lafayette Square Opera House in D.C., at age 20. Another 20 years passed before Johnson made the decision to enlist in the war efforts, a decision that later became etched in history.
World War I had been going on for more than four years at that time, but now the U.S. was fully involved. According to background provided, Johnson was the first in line at the Washington D.C. Marine Reserve recruiting station and became the first woman to join the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve on Aug. 13, 1918.
By the end of the day, 304 other women joined the ranks.
“The Army and the Navy both had women in the service before the Marine Corps did. The Marines were the last. They were the holdout, and they didn’t let them in until August of 1918. And of course, in November the war was over,” said Russell.
Opha’s first duty was to manage the records of the women recruits. As the war came to an end shortly after her enlistment, the Marine Corps started disenrolling women from the service.
“Although short-lived, her contributions to the history of the Marine Corps were significant,” read a release that detailed her history.
On Feb. 28, 1919, Johnson returned to civil service but this time in the war department. She died on Aug. 11, 1955, at the Mount Alto Veterans Hospital in D.C. Her services were delayed purposely for two days so that it would be held on Aug. 13, which was the 37th anniversary of her enlistment. Her grave remained unmarked until the Women Marine Association began raising funds to place a marker at her burial site last year.
The Indiana and Howard County World War I Centennial Committees will commemorate Johnson’s contribution to society on the 100th anniversary of her enlistment, Monday, Aug. 13, at 12 p.m. in Foster Park.
Retired Lt. General Carol A. Mutter will keynote the event. Mutter is the first female to receive the rank of lieutenant general in the U.S. armed forces.
Other highlights include performances by the 4th Infantry Division woodwind ensemble and appearances by local and state officials including Mayor Greg Goodnight, Commissioner Paul Wyman, and State Representative Mike Karickhoff. The Marine Corps Reserve Base also is sending a color guard and aide-de-camp.
The public is invited to attend. Attendees are requested to bring lawn chairs, as seating is limited.