KANNAPOLIS — The oldest living Marine in the United States will celebrate her 107th birthday this month.
Dorothy “Dot” Cole was 29 years old when she enlisted in the Marine Corps. She had been confirmed as the oldest living female U.S. Marine. But today, she is the oldest living person to have served in the Corps. She will celebrate her 107th birthday Sept. 19. Her service in the corps began in a time when few women had served as Marines.
In 1918, Opha May Johnson, the first female in the Marine Corps, enlisted. That same year, about 300 other women also joined. But at that time, women were only allowed to perform clerical duties. It wasn’t until February 1943 that the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was formed. It was in that same year that Cole enlisted, on July 12, 1943. Being a Marine was not her initial goal.
“Originally I had chosen the Navy, but they said I was too short,” Cole said. “So I decided to go with the Marines. I even took flying lessons of about 200 hours, thinking it would impress the Marines. But it didn't. They put me behind a typewriter instead of an airplane.”
When she was ordered to report for duty, Cole took a bus to Camp Lejeune and began six weeks of training with the First Battalion, Marine Corps Women’s Reserves. All Marines, despite gender, were required to become proficient with small arms. The Marine Corps did not set a drastically different training regimen or admissions policy for females. Cole was stationed at Quantico.
Before she enlisted, the United States had entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“Lots of people didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was because we didn’t get the news like we do today,” Cole said. “Because the USA was being attacked, everyone was wanting to pitch in and help fight for our country.”
In the early 1940s, Cole said, the majority of the Marine Corps consisted of men. But that changed when the United States entered the war, she said. During World War II, more than 20,000 women served as Marines. With the creation of the Women’s Reserves, women were given jobs outside of clerical duties. Since men who had held administrative, training and supply positions were suddenly sent to combat, Cole said, women filled the gaps. She served from 1943 through 1945. The majority of her work, however, was writing.
“I did administration work,” she said. “Lots of typing the old-fashion way on a typewriter. Kids today don't even know what a typewriter is.”
While serving, Cole said, getting news was difficult, and her main source were from letters that she received from her future husband, Wiley Cole, who was serving in the Navy on the USS Hornet. One of the most memorable moments during her time in service was one letter she received from him describing the end of the war.
“Well, it was 75 years ago, but I remember it was hard to get the news and details of what was happening because we just didn’t have the news like we have today,” Cole said. “It was through letters that I got all the news. I received letters from my future husband, who was in the Navy and was on the USS Hornet. He wrote and told me that all the military forces came together to attack Japan. Many ships were hit, and lots of fighting. So when we heard the war was over, everyone was very happy. Japan had been bombed on August of ’45, and they discharged me on December of ’45. I remember a group of us Marines were discharged at the same time. We all left on a train and many of us ladies were singing.”
Cole was discharged as Sgt. Dorothy Schmidt in the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Schmidt was her maiden name. Cole was the name of her husband, whom she married after her discharge.
Upon her return to civilian life, she took a train to San Francisco to get married. She and her husband were able to obtain jobs at Ames Research in Silicon Valley, which later became NASA.
While Cole only spent a few years in the Marine Corps, her daughter says it had a long-lasting impact on her life and character.
“The military impacted my mother’s life by making her dedicated to whatever she was doing. When she was younger and more able, she would do anything for other people. She loves God and country and feels it is our duty to stand up and protect our country. We are so very fortunate to be in a country where we all have our freedom,” said Beth Kluttz.
As a mom and as a person, Kluttz said, Cole doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a Marine. But she is a woman who lives her life fully.
“If you knew my mother, you would not think she is a Marine,” Kluttz said. “She is not hard-core and strict-ruled. She is a gentle giant. My mother’s secret to living a long life is to be kind to one another, love God and follow his commandments, eat lots of chocolate, and have your dinner with a glass of red wine. Semper Fi to all Marines and to all other military who have served, and a big thank you to their service.”