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Around The South Bay

First to become 'one of the boys' at her VFW post, she now heads the whole district

July 09, 1987|GEORGE STEIN

Joseph Romano, newly installed state commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, was chairing the first meeting of the new state council in Fresno last month when he learned what it meant to have Gloria Johnson on his board.

"All during the meeting, he kept saying, 'you guys,' or 'fellas' or 'gentlemen,' " said Johnson. "I had had it. I got up and said I would like him to remember the proper way to address members is 'comrades.' "

Gloria Johnson, 55, of Lomita, is the first woman to be a district commander for the VFW in California.

Although she scorns being thought of as a "women's libber," she makes it plain that she will not stand for anything less than equal status in what was a male-only organization until 1978. There are about 50 women members out of 101,236 statewide.

"Our (military) discharge is just as good as anyone else's, maybe even better," she said.

She was elected in May as commander of the sprawling 4th District, second largest in the state, which encompasses 26 posts and 8,639 members in the southern half of Los Angeles County.

Her new position, her ambitions in the VFW, her career in the since-disbanded Women's Army Corps are departures from her youth in a quiet Latino family in Los Angeles.

Just a young girl during World War II, she resolved that she would join up as soon as she was old enough. A year after graduating from Manual Arts High in 1949, she became a WAC.

"I was the first woman (in the family) to go into the service. I always wanted to," she said.

In 1951, she landed in the dusty outskirts of Pusan, Korea, as a secretary in the troop information and education section.

In the months before the battle lines stabilized, mortar rounds came in close enough to "scare the hell out of me," Johnson said. "You could hear the shots like firecrackers in the distance. I didn't know what was going to happen from one day to the next. It was frightening."

Marriage and pregnancy ended her military career in 1953. "When I went for my re-enlistment physical, I was expecting. In those days, you got out. I had planned on making it a career," she said.

Back in the United States, she raised four children, then worked for 14 years as an assistant manager of the Camelot Drug Store in Lomita. Now divorced, she is manager of the Old Town Press in San Pedro.

Johnson first got involved with the VFW when her husband became a member and she joined the women's auxiliary. She became a member herself in 1978, the first day that women became eligible.

During the next nine years, she plunged into VFW activities, working on post, district, state and national committees ranging from Americanism and community activities to safety and youth programs. Her citations and awards cover the walls of the well-ordered office in her home.

Along the way, she became a trailblazer of sorts--the first woman post commander in the state and the first female to join the Post 1622's chapter of the Military Order of the Cooties, a VFW elite of those who devote a lot of time to organizational work.

"There was a little bit of a problem," reported longtime pal Bob Crawford, interviewed at Post 1622. "At the initiation, you had to run around in your shorts. That was omitted."

Later, Johnson became the post's "Seam Squirrel," a title used to recognize outstanding dedication to hospital work.

The long hours she put in and her down-to-earth manner dispelled initial uneasiness among male members about accepting her. In addition, reported Frank Borello, past state commander, Johnson had to contend with resentment from the women's auxiliary.

"I am sure there are ladies who are jealous of the fact that Gloria is one of the boys, you might say," Borello said. "Now that she will be visiting the posts and auxiliaries in her district, it will be that much more obvious."

As in any election, her rise to district commander is a story about politics. It started about three years ago in elections for junior vice commander for the district. VFW protocol dictates that, unless there is a major failure in job performance, the junior vice commander advances to senior vice commander a year later and then to commander a year after that. Competition is usually present only at the junior vice commander level.

When an unexpected vacancy occurred, Johnson got her chance.

Starting from the strong base of Post 1622, second largest in the district after Hawthorne's Post 2075, she visited each of the district's 26 posts. "She hit them all," recalled Ron Branham, who finished behind Johnson in the election. She went back two and three times to some posts.

She came in a close second in the special election.

"I know why I did come in second. Because there were doubts that I had enough experience to fill the post at the next level," she said.

Branham, who came in third, threw his support to Johnson a few months later in May, 1985, when regular elections were held for junior vice commander. She won without opposition.

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