DOWNERS GROVE – Gwen DePinto has an easy laugh and tells stories about life during World War II in the same matter-of-fact way she describes audio books from the library or her volunteering work at the Hines Veterans Affairs Hospital.
So when the 90-year-old casually mentions she is a Marine, sometimes it catches people off guard.
Once during a checkup with the eye doctor at the VA hospital, the optometrist asked DePinto about her service.
“And I said I was a Marine,” she said. “He laughed right at me. He said, ‘You don’t look like a Marine to me. I don’t think I’ve seen a Marine who looked like you.’ I said sorry to disappoint you, but this is it.”
DePinto celebrated the 90th milestone this spring. She is visionless herself due to macular degeneration, but she still volunteers in the blind center of the hospital, in addition to being an active member in the Women Marines Association.
She remembers the day she enlisted near the beginning of World War II. She and two girlfriends went to sign up for the Waves, a women’s-only division of the Navy created during the war. The Waves took her two friends, but she was too young at the time.
“I was out in the hall, pouting, not happy about it because I could tell they were going to go without me,” she said. “And a Marine recruiter came out and started talking to me, and asked me what was wrong. And I told him the situation.”
She was too young for the Marines, too. The branch was accepting women for the first time and set a minimum age of 20. Despite being too young, the recruiter signed her up, scheduled the physical and set in process the other paperwork needed so that when she turned 20, she would be ready to go.
The women Marines would fill jobs at the headquarters in Washington, D.C., allowing the men to fight overseas. Although DePinto and the other women Marines didn’t see battle, they were provided the same training and boot camp to integrate them into Marines culture.
DePinto said she knew some men didn’t want women to be in the service, but she never felt mistreated.
“It was rough, like all boot camp, hot and sticky,” she said. “The exercise, the chow, the marching, all of it was pretty bad. You never walked anywhere, you marched, and they thought nothing of miles.
“We had to be Marines.”
One difference between the women and men, she recalled, was when they’d go on night watch, women weren’t given guns. Instead: a billy club, flashlight and a whistle.
“So we had to march around a certain area and patrol,” she said. “And if you saw something, you blew the whistle.”
After basic, DePinto went to work in the Marine headquarter’s office in Washington, D.C. They worked six days a week with the men officers, but they retired to women’s-only barracks at night.
“We didn’t have any men in the compound,” she said. “It was all run by women. If we had a problem women couldn’t do, sometimes plumbing or something, then a man would come in and it was a big deal: ‘Man aboard, man aboard.’
“And they could not go certain places. If they came into the barracks, oh boy, you had to be dressed and all.”
After more than two years of service, the war ended, and her then-boyfriend Albert DePinto returned home from the European Theater.
The two were married several months later, and started their family in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. After almost 60 years of marriage, Albert DePinto died in 2003.
Gwen DePinto’s bond with her fellow women Marines lasted for decades after the war.
“We visited with each other after the war,” she said. “We sent pictures of our children back and forth, we were great friends.”