With war with England looming, colonist John Corbin made the difficult decision to join the Continental Army in 1775. His young wife Margaret was, unfortunately, confronted with two less than desirable choices. She could stay behind and face any number of hardships on the western frontier of Pennsylvania, or, like so many other wives and children of colonial soldiers, she could follow the Army.
Margaret chose the latter.
Known as a “camp follower,” Margaret was paid a small stipend to help with cooking, laundry and caring for the ill and injured. She accompanied her husband’s regiment to New York and by 1776, was stationed at Fort Washington in Manhattan. When the fort came under attack by the British in November of that year, Margaret trailed John into battle.
While loading his cannon, John was killed when his position was assaulted by Hessian mercenaries fighting for the British. Rather than flee, Margaret took over the cannon. Her excellent aim ultimately stopped the Hessian’s advancement, but she was severely wounded during the fighting. Although not officially recognized as a member of the Army, in 1779 the Continental Congress granted Margaret a lifetime pension. It was the first time a woman received recognition for military service.
While women would continue to support American troops during future conflicts, both in country and on foreign shores, it would take more than 100 years before they would be permitted to formally wear the uniform of the nation.
Today, all military occupations and specialties are open to women, but it took more than two and half centuries to achieve equal footing.
“I am pleased, amazed and awestruck at the things that are open to do within the military now,” said Karoline Riek, a USS Midway Museum volunteer docent who spent more than 28 years as a hospital corpsman on active duty and in the Naval Reserves. “As a docent, I often point from the Midway across San Diego Bay to tell the story of how women were restricted to certain jobs when I joined the Navy in 1992, and now we have a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with a female commanding officer.”
As part of Women’s History Month each March, the service and sacrifice of women in the military are highlighted and celebrated.
“I am very pleased that the military has accepted their challenge to allow women in more fields,” said Rose Falk, a volunteer in Midway’s library since 2015 and a retired Navy photographers mate. “I wanted to be a photographer. It was the only thing I wanted to do. My officer in charge told me I had to prove it, which I did. Persistence and proving one’s worth can make a difference.”
And it’s taken dogged persistence over the last several decades to systematically open the doors for all women serving in the military. While today they fill roles from staff duties to direct combat positions, it has not been an easy road to travel.
“Females in the Navy or Marine Corps have always been and are still outnumbered by the males,” said Karoline, who was the first woman to receive orders to a Marine Corps combat arms unit. “It was challenging, but I just kept going, trying to do the right thing, for the right reason. I realized as long as I continue to try and give it my best, that speaks volumes.”
“I have had so many memorable times during my career,” said Rose, a Pennsylvania native who served at multiple naval bases in the United States as well as in Europe. “Women can learn new skills that will help them get better jobs once they have left the military.”
As the first women were assigned to Navy aircraft carriers two years after the USS Midway was decommissioned, the ship remained an all-male crew during its 47 years in the fleet. As a museum, however, Midway has women both on staff and as part of its volunteer corps. Through sharing naval history and stories about Midway, they help museum guests enjoy a more engaging experience.
Museum veterans like Karoline and Rose, with more than 40 combined years of military service, continues to play critical roles in keeping Midway as the number one thing to do in San Diego according to Tripadvisor.
“I am interacting with the guests coming on board the museum and I love giving tours of the different areas of the ship,” said Karoline, who grew up in Iowa and Arizona, and has amassed nearly 500 volunteer hours since joining Midway in 2021. “I enjoy meeting the guests and teaching them history.”
For Carole Hansen, a safety department volunteer who is not a veteran, being part of the Midway team is, in its own way, service to the military.
“I get great satisfaction in helping people, whether providing a band-aid or answering questions about the Midway and Navy,” said Carole, whose husband Al Hansen is also a Midway volunteer as well as a World War II veteran. “It’s not only increased my knowledge and perspective with respect to the military, but it also added a new chapter in my life.”
“I didn’t think I was a people person, but here on the Midway, it’s hard not to be,” said Rose, a volunteer with more than 4,000 hours. “The guests that I have met from all over the world are amazing. I think they love the Midway just as much as I do.”
Volunteering on Midway not only brings tremendous satisfaction, but it is also an opportunity to give back to the community.
“It’s important because it keeps us more aware of what’s going on in the place we live,” said Carole, a retired AT&T employee who has nearly 10,000 volunteer hours since joining Midway in 2005. “It gives us recognition of the bigger picture of our relationship to the community as a whole. Volunteering on the Midway has made the last 17 years fuller than I ever imagined my retired life would be.”
For those interested in becoming a USS Midway Museum volunteer, more information along with the volunteer application can be found at www.midway.org/give-join/volunteers.