Norma Gene Rambow was 18 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japanese planes. The attack left many Americans scared and confused. Rambow wanted revenge.
“I was very angry,” she said. “To think they could bomb us, and with all the death and destruction. It made me want to fight.”
Rambow didn’t get the chance to do battle, but she did spend two years cooking meals and grinding coffee at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Rambow was one of three women honored Tuesday as part of a celebration of the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve’s 75th anniversary at the Armed Forces Retirement home in the District.
Now in their mid-90s, Rambow, Phyllis Bradford and Muriel Kupersmith were some of the first to enlist in the Women’s Reserve. Rambow kept applying until she was old enough to be accepted. Bradford enlisted because she thought it would be fun. Kupersmith wanted to join so badly that she toted a handkerchief filled with pennies to help her meet the weight requirement.
“In those days, the slogan was ‘Free a Man to Fight,’ ” Bradford said. She and thousands of other women joined the Marines to replace men taxed by the demands of World War II.
Rambow, Bradford and Kupersmith now live at the Armed Forces Retirement Home, which bills itself as the oldest continually operating retirement home for veterans in the United States.
It houses 380 residents. Nearly 40 of them joined Tuesday’s celebration, with many donning the colors of the uniforms they wore decades ago.
Betty Moseley Brown, national president of the Women Marines Association, reminded the crowd of women and men gathered that once a Marine, always a Marine.
“We are women, but we are Marines for life,” Moseley Brown said in an address. “From the first moment that we earn our eagle, globe and anchor, there’s no difference for a Marine.”
Bradford became a Marine in 1943. She left her home in Detroit to work as a payroll clerk in San Diego. Her reason for enlisting was simple: She said that she thought it would be fun.
“I was fortunate to meet many interesting people,” she said. “I had the same job for all 25 months [of service].”
When she wasn’t working, Bradford was on the basketball court. Some of her coaches were professional basketball players drafted for duty.
Bradford, 94, earned the crowd’s praise when Moseley Brown revealed that Bradford had won a gold medal in volleyball at the National Senior Games.
Women like Bradford, Rambow and Kupersmith forged a path that helped make it possible for more women to serve in the military.
“We stand on their shoulders,” said JoAnn Fisher, CEO of the Women Veterans United Committee.
Rambow was a freshman in teaching school when she knew she wanted to be a Marine.
“I knew it was meant for me,” she said. “I was angry [about Pearl Harbor].”
A family emergency during her sophomore year prevented her from enlisting, so she tried again in 1943, when she was 20. By November of that year, she was on a train to Washington. She can remember women in uniform chanting: “Fall in!”
After completing basic training at Camp Lejeune, Rambow went to cooking school. She worked her way up to chief cook, then supply sergeant in one of the mess halls on base.
“Us girls did not slack,” she said. “Everyone did their part.”
Rambow was discharged in 1945 and went back to college. She taught first and second grade in Battle Creek, Mich., for 27 years.
Rambow took the stage at the ceremony. A bouquet of brightly colored paper flowers pinned to her chest, she read “The WRs Have a Birthday,” a poem written in 1945 by an unknown author, to celebrate the Women’s Reserve’s second birthday.
Afterward, the honorees smiled for pictures. Cake and punch were served.
And Kupersmith bonded over her Brooklyn roots with another veteran who called out an approving “Oorah!” — the Marines’ battle cry.
Kupersmith followed in the footsteps of her fiance and brother-in-law, both of whom were Marines.
Back in Arlington, Kupersmith was assigned the grim job of notifying families of fallen Marines.
“It was very sad work,” she said. “Sending all those letters out — it was sad.”
After her own fiance was killed, Kupersmith would have been allowed to leave the service but remained enlisted until the end of the war for what she said was “a good cause.”
Soon after losing her fiance, Kupersmith learned that her brother-in-law had been killed at Iwo Jima.
Kupersmith talks about those tragedies, but also has another Marine story she likes to tell.
It is the account of her son’s birth, when she awoke after a very lengthy labor and heard the “Marines’ Hymn” being played. Her son became a Marine and served for 26 years.