Tuesday, January 06, 2004


Methodist Oaks resident believes she's oldest surviving Marine veteran

As one of the first women to join the Marine Corps, Edith Ferris commanded platoons and served as a transportation officer. She had worked her way up to captain when the Marines discharged all women in the early 1950s.
By LEE HENDREN, T&D Staff Writer

Today as The Methodist Oaks celebrates its 50th anniversary, making it one of the oldest retirement communities in South Carolina, one of its residents is marking another feat of longevity.

Edith Ferris says she believes she is the oldest surviving woman veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Sixty-one years ago, World War II raged across the globe and all of the U.S. military branches were under pressure to rapidly multiply their numbers.

The Army created the Women's Army Corps or WACs. The Navy started the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES. And the Coast Guard established the SPARS.

For a brief period during World War I, the Marine Corps enrolled a little more than 500 women in clerical positions at its headquarters in Washington.

When the Marine Corps announced on Feb. 13, 1943, that it would admit women, its commandant, Lt. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, balked at creating a "reserve" force with a cute acronym.

"They don't have a nickname, and they don't need one," Holcomb said in a 1944 interview with LIFE magazine. "They get their basic training in a Marine atmosphere at a Marine post. They inherit the traditions of Marines. They are Marines."

That approach was appealing to Ferris, who joined the Marines on March 23, 1943. "I was the first one in Michigan," she said.

Born in Detroit, Ferris graduated from high school and attended college for a period of time before leaving to work in a store. She married Edward James Leppan, and they built a house in Royal Oak and settled down to rear a family.

But fate had other plans for this feisty lady. After three miscarriages, doctors told her she would not be able to bear children. This was crushing news to both her and her husband.

So she decided to join several other members of her family in the military. "My oldest brother was in the Seabees," she said, but that work didn't appeal to her.

"My brother, the master sergeant in the Marines, asked would I like to join the Army or the Navy? I said, 'What about the Marines?' He said they didn't have women Marines at that time," Ferris recalled.

Later, "I read in the paper that they were having ladies in the Marines. I went down to the recruiting station, and they said, yes, in February, and I said, 'Sign me up!'"

"I didn't know what I was doing," she said with a laugh. "I was discontented about not having babies."

"They said, 'You're the first woman Marine in Michigan,'" Ferris said. "They said, 'Is your husband coming?' My husband went with me (to the recruitment office) but they said they couldn't accept him because he had a perforated eardrum. I hadn't known it."

So "he was a civilian, and I was in the Marines, and I couldn't get out because I couldn't get pregnant," Ferris said. Her husband eventually filed for divorce, citing Ferris' military obligations.

Ferris and the other earliest women Marines underwent basic training at Hunter College in Bronx, N.Y. "The Navy trained us," she recalled. She was salutatorian of her class.

"I was then sent to Camp Lejeune, N.C., and I got a stripe" and was promoted to platoon sergeant. She was one of just 13 in her class to graduate from Officer Candidate School and received the rank of second lieutenant.

"Then I was a commanding officer of recruits and assistant transportation officer at Cherry Point, N.C.," she said.

Women Marines were not sent overseas during that time. Ferris was promoted to first lieutenant and then to captain before all women were discharged from the Marine Corps in the early 1950s.

"After I got out of the service, I went on the (GI Bill) to Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla.," where she earned a bachelor of science degree in social work.

After working for two years in Alexandria, Va., she got a scholarship to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., where she finished her master's degree.

But her subsequent job involved "little babies," and "it was too emotional and I had to quit," she said.

As an American Red Cross hospital field director for U.S. military services, her postings included New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Louisiana, New York and Alaska. She also worked for Goodwill Industries in California.

For 11 years she was a rehabilitation counselor in the California Institute for Women, the prison where the infamous "Manson girls" are held. It also houses the Golden State's death row.

Ferris retired and moved to Florida but returned to Washington to supervise the relocation of Vietnamese refugees for the American Red Cross.

After retiring again, Ferris and her recently widowed sister learned about Bradford Village in Santee from an AARP magazine and bought a house there.

Health problems prompted the sisters to move to The Methodist Oaks. Her sister has since passed away, but Ferris maintains a lifestyle as active as her health allows.

An apparent stroke left Ferris with a condition called aphasia. Experts said she would never again be able to speak. Ferris was determined to prove them wrong and has regained much of her ability to speak.

Once a Marine, always a Marine.

T&D Staff Writer Lee Hendren can be reached by e-mail at lhendren@timesanddemocrat.com or by phone at 803-533-5552. Information on the early years of women in the Marine Corps was obtained from the "Military Officer" magazine.

50th anniversary program today

Today at 3 p.m. in the Nancy Freeman Stringer Memorial Chapel, everyone is invited to attend The Methodist Oaks' 50th anniversary celebration program.

United Methodist Bishop Lawrence McCleskey will be the keynote speaker. The Methodist Oaks Choir will perform. The Methodist Oaks will debut its commemorative 50th anniversary video and DVD. An anniversary cake and other refreshments will be served.

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GySgt USMC (Ret.)
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