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Meet a 97-year-old who was one of the first female Marines

97-year-old who was one of the first female Marines (Renee Jones Schneider/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Buttoned up in dress blues, June Fremont was treated like a celebrity at the annual Marine Corps birthday ball near Washington, D.C., in 2017. The still-visible bruise on her right hand is proof of the hundreds of handshakes she received that night, many from young female Marines thanking her for her example and inspiration.

That same hand, Fremont will proudly tell you, shook Eleanor Roosevelt’s in the 1940s. (If she thinks you’re gullible, she might quickly add a line about not washing that hand a single time since).

“Because of my (military service), I have done so many things I never thought possible,” Fremont said on a recent afternoon in her apartment at Woodbury Senior Living, once again donning her dress blues, still a perfect fit.

Fremont will turn 98 on Aug. 20, which isn’t as unusual as it might seem. According to the Women Marines Association, nearly 60 of the organization’s 3,000 members are age 98 or older, including a 102-year-old woman living in Hastings. Many of them, like Fremont, joined up during WWII, shortly after the United States Marine Corps authorized a Women’s Reserve in 1943.

Spurred by an intense patriotism and desire to help her country during wartime, Fremont (then June Schwark) enlisted in the Marine Corp that year. She was 21 and living in Chicago.

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“I picked it because it was the hardest for a woman to get into,” she said.

By the end of the war in 1945, more than 18,000 female Marines had served, including 820 officers. The women served in noncombat roles and worked primarily in clerical positions. In 1950, however — two years after women were made a permanent part of the regular Marine Corps through the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act — the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was mobilized for the Korean War.

The military “taught me to be persistent … And I became much more aware of the world,” Fremont said.

At the time she enlisted, Fremont didn’t know any other young women joining the Marines. She’d heard stories of her father’s experiences in WWI but didn’t know what service would look like for her.

Once she got to boot camp at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina, however, Fremont quickly realized she was at least more prepared than her bunkmate. A New York debutante, the woman had shown up to the barracks wearing heels, a short skirt and a fur jacket. Fremont lent the woman a few of her own clothes so she could navigate the obstacle course in something other than a skirt. As Fremont remembers it, that course was the same as the men’s.

“Bootcamp was a very strict place,” she said as she flipped though a photo album of black and white photos from her three years in the service. She still remembers how the Browning Automatic Rifle left her shoulder black and blue.

The Marines was the last of the military branches to open its ranks to women. As the country united around supporting the war effort in multiple ways, seeing women enlist became more and more accepted.

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Still, Fremont remembers the many times she was assumed to be a nurse. When she and a group of other women Marines were sent to Hawaii, each had to take a lower rank so as not to offend the lower-ranked men who’d landed on the island after fighting in the Pacific theater.

“It didn’t bother me really,” she said. “I understood it. It was so there’d be no resentment … Here were these guys who were still privates who would come across women with all this rank. No way.”

In Hawaii, Fremont was paraded around the island with a few other women for a series of photos used as part of a public-relations campaign designed to attract more women to the Marines. The photos of the women bowling coconuts on the beach and paddling in a kayak in their swimsuits reveal nothing of the real work the Marines were doing on the island, which for Fremont included data entry on huge IBM computers and driving a Jeep for a general who frequently commented on her “heavy foot.”

Fremont was also stationed at the Pentagon where she wrote up missing-in-action and killed-in-action presidential citations. She always tried to personalize the form letter that went to the families of fallen soldiers. She’d talk to the pallbearers, often young men who’d served alongside the soldier in the casket and glean details she could weave into the letter.

“I wanted their families to know if they were a hero or if they’d done something really special,” she said.

Fremont credits many of her life accomplishments to the lessons she brought home from the military. It was the service that introduced her to her late husband, Lee Fremont. Lee, who was in the Army, oversaw the entertainment for the paratroopers at Fort Bragg. After the couple got out of the service, they moved to St. Paul where they raised six children. Once the youngest was old enough to be independent, Fremont started looking for a job.

At 50, she submitted an application to 3M, not expecting to hear back. But she got the job. And kept it — for 43 years.

Fremont, who worked in corporate marketing services, was the oldest employee at the company — a title that earned her attention from the CEO, who flew her out on a private jet to the shareholder’s meeting in Austin, Texas, and treated her to a Paul McCartney concert.

Her son, Tom Fremont, said he and his siblings were worried they would retire before she did.

“At 90, she had more energy than we did at 50,” he said. “She didn’t need to work but she’s definitely not one to stay idle. She loved the job and her friends there.”

Lee died in 1988. Since retiring, Fremont has kept busy playing cards in a bridge club and planning family reunions around her birthdays. Her 13 grandchildren and 30 great-grandchildren (nos. 31 and 32 are on the way) help keep her young, too, she said.

Fremont is still fiercely independent. A recent health problem meant a transfer from her townhouse into assisted living, though she still requires little help. She’d planned a trip to France for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy in June but canceled the trip after her health took a brief turn.

While she enjoys the military balls, the honor flights and the anniversary memorials and celebrations, it’s the small acts of patriotism that continue to drive her, Fremont said.

“I just really love America,” she said.

She’s a stickler for voting and encourages all her friends to vote, too. She stays up to date on the news, though she’ll admit she doesn’t always agree with what’s said on TV. Her long list of volunteer positions was also a way to give back to her community — something she has prioritized since her time in the Marines. She’s also given several presentations about her time in the military, some to middle schoolers studying WWII.

“I’d recommend (the military) to anyone,” she said. “It was very good for me. It meant being a part of the United States. It meant being acknowledged that we women could do more than sit there like bumps on a pickle.”

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© 2019 Star Tribune 

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.