'I grew up in the service'
Bea Hammerschmith Wagner can remember the military recruiters who visited her high school more than 50 years ago. “I was impressed by these people willing to spend their life doing something for their country,” she recalled.
Soon she became one of them. She became a Marine.
Joining up was the solution to the question of what she’d do after finishing school.
“I couldn’t afford college and the prospects for young adults in my area were not good,” she said. As a Marine, “I could help my country and myself at the same time.”
She chose the Marines over the other branches, because, in her words, “It sounded like the Marines expected more of you.”
Many of her classmates thought she made a strange choice. But her parents were proud and supportive.
Just after graduating from Oakland High School in 1960, she boarded a bus heading up I-5 to Portland. Then, joined by two other young Oregon women, she flew to the East Coast. After riding another bus on the final leg of their journey, the nervous but excited teens reached the Marine base at Parris Island, N.C.
North Carolina was quite a change for a girl who’d grown up in small towns up and down the Willamette Valley. “It was across the world to me,” she said, remembering her shock at encountering segregation and overt discrimination in the South.
It was hot and muggy, palm trees dotted the base and summer downpours felt like someone had turned on a warm shower.
In winter, she was soon to discover, it would be colder than she was used to. One year, she recalled, icicles formed stalactites down from the roof and stalagmites up from the ground, meeting in the middle.
The base was located in lowland, much of which flooded when the tide rushed in, but the sand was white and lovely. “It sparkled like stars when we’d go out and party on the beach at night,” she said.
Women’s boot camp — running, calisthenics, swimming and other activities designed to make sure the new Marines were physically fit — lasted six weeks. It was followed by three weeks of schooling in office procedures.
Once a week, Wagner and her fellow recruits had “field night,” time for cleaning their barracks thoroughly, down to doing details with a toothbrush. It was hard work, but fun, too, she said. It provided a chance to drink Cokes, play music and chatter with her barracks’ mates.
At the end of boot camp, Wagner took advantage of a brief leave to visit her family.
She wore her uniform and walked into Oakland High School, too. She especially wanted to show it off to one particular teacher who had said she’d never be able to handle the discipline of being a Marine.
Those uniforms, by the way, were ugly, Wagner said.
Winter uniforms included long green wool skirts and jackets over a light greenish-blue blouse. In summer, the women wore calf-length dresses made from the newly popular, wrinkle resistant polyester, in the same strange greenish-blue.
They also were issued gym jumpers for exercise and ugly forest green dungarees for dirty work, she said.
“I didn’t wear green or earth tones for a long time after that,” she said. “It was only recently that I would wear green again.”
Dress blues weren’t standard issue. Women had to buy them if they wanted a set.
Wagner still has hers hanging proudly in her closet, along with the Air Force Reserve uniforms she wore later and the several military hats. “I don’t know why I keep ‘em,” she said.
Back at Parris Island, Wagner had two main jobs.
She ran a photo booth that took ID photos, doing everything from mixing the developer to laminating the photos onto ID cards.
And she stamped dog tags, two per person, for incoming recruits. The dog tag machine was like a big, heavy typewriter that embossed metal rather than leaving ink on paper.
As the recruits lined up to be processed, she said, their drill instructor yelled at them and badgered them — a routine part of the training process. She was supposed to do that, too.
“It was tough for me, but I did it. I’d yell ‘Don’t smile at me!’ or anything I could think of, just to be tough,” she said.
And in the Marines, she was becoming tough.
“I grew up in the service,” she said. “It was the beginning of my adulthood.”
She said she had been a wallflower in high school. She had few friends.
She didn’t attend many social events, and when she did, it was usually to serve punch or play records rather than dance with boys. “I was on the sidelines,” she said.
But as a Marine, she blossomed. Self-confident and eager to be part of things, she went to parties and dated and had plenty of friends.
She earned the nickname “Smiley.” “I got out and saw the world,” she said.
Many of the men she encountered didn’t believe women should be in the service, she said. However, she felt respected, for the most part.
Once a gunnery sergeant harrassed her at length, giving her no time to finish an assigned task. Fortunately, she said, a better man, Master Sgt. Manning, came to her rescue, distracting the gunny until she could get the project done.
“Sgt. Manning saved me from being court-martialed,” she said, laughing, explaining how she had become so frustrated, she was about to pick up a heavy box of dog tag blanks and throw it at the gunny’s head.
The incident was an exception.
“I was lucky. Mostly I was treated OK,” she said.
Wagner did get in trouble a few times, she said, but not for anything major. Rather, “I always had trouble with clocks.”
She would arrive for duty on time, according to her watch, only to find out the official clock was one or two minutes ahead of her. The brief tardiness earned her extra duty or an evening restricted to her barracks, and probably kept her from being promoted to a higher rank than private first class, she said.
Year later, she said, it occurred to her that she should have set her watch ahead.
Clocks or no, “I loved being in the Marines,” she said. “I had a ball, and I liked my job.
“I’ve alway enjoyed my jobs, everything I’ve done. The only thing I don’t like is ironing.”
Wagner left the Marines in the spring of 1962 because her stepfather was in the hospital. When he recovered and found a job managing the Garibrat Lumber mill in Willamina, she joined her family in moving to McMinnville.
Although she was separated from the service, she was still on alert to be called up. Her supervisors told her she could be mobilized with 24 hours notice — a real possibility with the Bay of Pigs and Cuban missile crisis looming.
“I was ready,” she said. “That’s part of what I signed up for.”
However, she was never called.
She worked at Oregon Mutual Insurance for a few months, then decided to go back to active duty. She talked with a women Marine recruiter, who wasn’t surprised. In fact, she had bet a steak dinner on Wagner returning within a year.
“But I told her I’d only go back if I could be assured being stationed in Hawaii,” said Wagner, who yearned to see the islands.
Several months passed with the recruiter promising orders for Hawaii would arrive any day.
Frustrated and jobless, Wagner, 21, won a meter maid job in Salem over 280 other applicants. That’s when her orders finally came through.
“I felt like I’d made a commitment to the meter maid job, and to an apartment, and to the down payment on a TV set,” she said. So she decided against re-upping, and as a result, has still never been to Hawaii.
Wagner did, however, return to the service — this time, as a member of the Air Force Reserve. The Salem city manager suggested she become a reservist, because of her status as a former Marine, and she agreed to join as soon as the program accepted some other women.
Several months later, after she and one other woman had signed up, the unit was de-activated.
She was transferred to the 939th in Portland. As an airman first class, she served as an aide to Col. Mills.
She left the reserves in 1967 to pursue other interests with her new husband, Jerry Wagner, a Navy veteran. “That’s right, I married a swabbie,” she said.
The mixed branch marriage has lasted. Today, they both enjoy gardening and feeding birds at their McMinnville home.
He even supports her branch by letting her have a “Semper Fi” bumper sticker on their van, so she can show the world she’s still a proud Marine. “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” Wagner said.
“I went in because I felt I could do something to help my country, and to relieve a man so he could go fight,” she said. “I’m proud to have served my country.”
Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Women veterans planning to gather monthly
Several local women veterans are starting a monthly get-together open to all women who’ve worn military uniforms.
“Getting together with other women who’ve served ... it just feels like you’re home,” said Bea Wagner, who served in the Marines and the Air Force Reserves.
Consuelo Christianson, a retired Air Force first sergeant, said women vets share the same language and experiences. “We get together, we tell stories, we know what each other’s talking about,” she said.
Christianson said when she, Wagner and several other vets sat down together for the first time, “we women were just instantly comfortable.”
Wagner said she and many other local servicewomen also attend general interest veterans’ meetings, such as Band of Brothers or the veterans luncheons that take place on the third Monday of each month at the Vets Club. “But it’s a different feeling talking to other female vets,” she said.
They’re looking for other women who served. Tentatively, they’re planning to meet for coffee or lunch once a month, with evening gatherings once a quarter. But the plans are flexible and will be shaped by the women who attend, they said.
For more information, contact Wagner, at 503-474-1905; or send e-mail to Christianson at email@example.com.