By Alison Mahnken
For the Courier
The year was 1943, when a gallon of gas cost 15 cents, “Casablanca” won the Oscar for best picture, the Marine Corps opened its ranks to women — and Irene Downey of Littleton was among the first to enlist.
Downey was 22 years old that year and living in Illinois.
“I was visiting my Aunt Irene, my namesake, and when I saw that (ad) in the paper, I said, ‘I’m going to go enlist,’ ” Downey said. “So I went downtown and enlisted in Chicago. I was right at the door, so I was in the first group of Marines.”
After signing on with the Women’s Reserve of the U.S. Marine Corps on that day — the recruiting office opened its doors on Feb. 13 — she was transported by train to Hunter College in New York to join hundreds of women from around the nation for a few months of training.
“We did a lot of marching and had to go to a lot of classes to learn about the Marine Corps,” said Downey, now 92.
The new sergeant was asked to lead her graduation parade.
“I was scared to death because I thought when the drums started, on a certain note you had to get everyone coordinated, and I thought, ‘Oh, supposing I miss here,’ ” she laughed. “But I didn’t.”
Downey hoped for an assignment training male pilots on the ground. Instead, she was assigned to recruiting females in Birmingham, Ala., work that she said suited her. As a member of the local Women’s Marine Procurement Office, she participated in media interviews, public speaking engagements, luncheons and office duties.
“I did all kinds of speeches to young women. When civilians would come in, I would interview them. They wanted to know everything about the service and what they offered. I went around to talk to kids in school who were graduating and college kids.”
At that time, during World War II, the patriotic spirit was strong and the interest keen.
“Then we’d take trips and go to various Southern states … Tennessee, Georgia. We’d talk to them about the Marine Corps and what we expected from them.”
Downey enjoyed the traveling and seeing a lot of new faces.
But female recruits were assigned duties on the home front only.
“They were cooks; they were drivers of trucks and jeeps.”
There was no requisite time commitment, “but if they got pregnant, they were kicked out. All the girls that I knew didn’t want to get out,” Downey said.
Meeting the corps’ quotas for female recruits was her biggest challenge, but she never came up short.
“So I did recruiting duty for quite some time, and then when I’d filled my quota, they sent me to Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Va., for about six months.”
There she performed administrative duties — and met her future husband.
“I did discharges, honorable and dishonorable. It was very tough because some of the men would say, ‘Could you just make me an honorable discharge?’ I’d say, ‘Not on your life, kid, not on your life would I do that.’ I couldn’t do that in a million years.”
“Then when they needed more women, they’d call me back to Birmingham.”
Downey liked the city and the work. “I enjoyed it and met a lot of nice friends.” She also met Robert Downey.
“One of the girls’ mother and father who lived in Memphis invited us to come for the weekend from Birmingham. Her parents took us out for dinner and dancing. There was this nice young captain in the Army infantry, and he asked me to dance and asked me where I was from. I think he was at Fort Benning, Ga., at that time. That’s how I met him.”
She continued: “When the war was over, we could either go to Hawaii for a year or we could get out of the service if we wanted to. And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’d love to go to Hawaii, but if I did that, maybe he’d meet someone else!’ So I opted for staying and getting married to my husband” in 1945.
After World War II, she was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant in October 1945. She and her husband raised two children, David, of Littleton, and daughter Terrill of California. Robert Downey, who has since passed away, later served in the Korean War before he too left the military.
“It was an interesting job,” she reflected. “I enjoyed meeting new people all the time. I enjoyed seeing these nice women come in and go into the Marine Corps. I enjoyed it very much. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”