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Marie Johnson, 107; Veteran Was a WWI 'Yeomanette'

October 13, 2004|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Marie Odee Johnson, a veteran of World War I and one of the first women to serve in the U.S. armed forces in a non-nursing capacity, has died at 107.

Johnson died Sept. 25 in her sleep at the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center of age-related causes.

As a young woman, Johnson was a secretary for the FBI in Dallas when the U.S. entered "the Great War" in the spring of 1917. After she turned 20 that July, she walked over to the nearby Navy recruiting office and signed up.

"One of my brothers was in the Navy, the other was in the Army, and my sister had signed on as a Red Cross nurse," she explained in a first-person account for Life magazine in 1997. "When I joined the Navy, I didn't tell my dad -- my mother died when I was 6 -- until after I'd gone in. I thought he would hate to see the last of his children go.

"When I told him he'd have to put a fourth star in the window," she continued, "he congratulated me." During the war, families placed a star in the front window for each son or daughter serving in the armed forces. Many homes displayed multiple stars.

Johnson was one of 12,000 women who weren't nurses who served in the Navy during the war, handling clerical duties in the U.S. to free men for fighting. Her official rank was Yeoman, 2nd Class, Female; she and her colleagues were quickly dubbed Yeomanettes.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimated last year that fewer than 75 of those women are still alive, and that of the 4 million Americans who served in World War I, only about 500 remain.

The Navy had no barracks for women, so Johnson and others were given $90 a month for living expenses and were told to rent their own rooms and find their own meals. They earned $30 a month in salary.

Johnson was stationed in New York City, where she obtained entertainment tickets for sailors on shore leave.

She was serving in Washington, D.C., as a secretary to a Marine general, when the armistice was declared Nov. 11, 1918.

In 1919, the Yeomanette returned to Dallas and her work for the FBI. She married Army veteran Edward C. Johnson in 1924 and was widowed in 1948.

She later worked for the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas.

Born in Quincy, Ill., she was an infant when her family moved to Dallas.

The acknowledged "queen bee" of the veterans' facility where she had lived since 1998, Johnson celebrated her 107th birthday with a cake, a party and letters of congratulations from President Bush and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

She wore a tiara on her head, had balloons tied to her wheelchair and sported a button that read, "Aged to perfection."

Johnson is survived by her daughter, Marilyn Brooks of Dallas, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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