A Trailblazer for Women in the Military
September 25, 2009
As a 21-year-old in the summer of 1942, Jeanne Holm shouted louder than anyone in basic training. Nicknamed “Junior,” she was the youngest enlistee in the new Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the first enlisted women recruited for World War II.
“I was five-foot-three, a little girl with a big voice who knew infantry drill as well as the men assigned to train us,” Holm says. “I blew their minds, so they made me the student company commander. The experience also helped later when I became an officer and a real company commander.”
She’d learned to drill in a civilian Women’s Ambulance Corps, where members learned first aid, convoy driving, motor transport drill, and engine maintenance.
“I took to the military like a duck to water,” says Holm. “I loved the camaraderie, but most of all, I was inspired by being able to serve my country.”
Until then, the only women allowed to serve in the Army were nurses.
By the time Holm retired in 1975, she was the first female brigadier general in the Air Force and the first female major general in the armed forces.
“I never envisioned those promotions,” says Holm. “It was the day-to-day challenges that were gratifying, even working with people who disagreed with me. If I couldn’t muster the rationale for policies I believed in, there was something wrong with either my case or the way I stated it. That flexibility served me well.”
Holm had left active duty as a captain in 1946 and enrolled at Lewis & Clark, along with other GIs, including 10th Mountain Division troopers.
“We organized the ski club and helped found the volunteer ski patrol at Mount Hood,” says Holm, who became an avid skier. She quit just a few years ago after most of her ski buddies had given up.
In 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act passed, allowing women in the regular Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and newly formed Air Force. Holm chose the Air Force, applied for active duty, and was sent to Germany during the Cold War’s first crisis in Berlin.
“I arrived as a senior captain at an air depot that had never seen a woman officer, except for nurses,” says Holm. “When they asked me what I’d like to do, I said ‘Well, what do you have?’ That’s how I got to be the war plans officer.”
With a high-level clearance but little direction, Holm delved into top-secret war plans from higher headquarters she says nobody had been working on.
“I extracted whatever they said our depot was supposed to do in case of an attack,” she says. “Being the U.S. base closest to the Soviets, what we really needed was a plan of escape–just in case. That was a quick education.”
Her education continued in 1952, when she was selected as the first female officer to attend the prestigious Air Command and Staff College in Alabama, and later, when she returned to Lewis & Clark to finish her degree.
Holm’s military career took her to the Air Force headquarters in the Pentagon, several tours of duty in manpower policy and programming, and an assignment at NATO headquarters in Naples, Italy.
In 1965, she was appointed director of Women in the Air Force, which carried the rank of colonel.
“That’s when I made a long list of things I believed ought to be changed,” she says. “I went to work on it the very first day.
“That job gave me license to challenge any policy, go anywhere on my own initiative, visit any base I thought needed attention.”
On a trip to Vietnam, she discovered the only reason Air Force women weren’t being assigned to that theater of war was the bias of a lieutenant colonel in charge of personnel. She went over his head and got that changed because she felt military women should serve wherever needed.
She also supported Air Force Lieutenant Sharon Frontiero in an equal protection case before the Supreme Court. The court’s landmark decision ensured that women–whether members of the military or civilians–were entitled to receive benefits equal to men’s, including those for spouses and dependent children.
“As the doors began to open and women mustered the courage to walk through, to challenge the status quo, we blasted them even wider,” says Holm. “Then the floodgates really opened when President Nixon ended the draft, creating an all-volunteer army. Womanpower was essential to its success.”
After retirement, Holm served in the White House for President Ford and began writing books on military women while also serving as a consultant and member of advisory committees.
Her office bursts with studies and reports published by the Department of Defense, all five branches of the armed forces, the Congress, and other nations.
At 88, she’s currently organizing materials amassed over the years, to be chronicled in military archives and libraries.
With a smile she says, “I’ve never worked harder.”
–by Pattie Pace