Remembering Memorial Day with a woman Marine

Madera County Historical society Lou Emmert is shown here in 1944 near Quantico, Virginia, posing as a hitchhiker wearing her military uniform. The former Marine will be 96 years old on December 5, 2018.


This Memorial Day was extra special for me. While my wife went to the cemetery, I visited Lou Emmert who will be 96 years old in December. For the life of me, I can’t see where she gets all of her energy. Perhaps it’s a carryover from her years in the United States Marine Corps.

Lou Hughes (later Emmert, widow of Madera farmer Charles Emmert), daughter of Marshall Hughes, granddaughter of William Hughes, and great-granddaughter of Thomas E. Hughes, affectionately known as the “Father of Fresno,” decided to serve her country during World War II by putting on a uniform.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she took a job in Sacramento with the Army at McClellan Field. It was while thus employed that she and seven other women decided that civilian life didn’t offer the fullest opportunity to serve their country, so they decided to join the Marine Corps on the first anniversary of the formation of the WRs, as the women in the Corps were called.

In a 1942 article, the Sacramento Bee announced the women’s intention. They would take their six weeks of basic training at Camp LeJuene, North Carolina, after which they would receive their first permanent assignment in the nation’s war effort.

It took “Private Hughes” and her seven comrades-in-arms three days and three nights to reach the East Coast where, under the watchful eyes of vigilant drill instructors, they learned the art and science of small arms fire, close order drill, and military protocol. Then, for Lou, it was off for Quantico, Virginia, where she would join a motor transport company.

Emmert recalls that she learned to both drive and repair a variety of vehicles, including Jeeps, garbage trucks, troop transports and even one very fancy Buick.

At first, Lou was assigned to troop transport duty. Her job was to get green troops to the field for maneuvers and return those who were finished. Then she was given the “commissary run,” in which she drove three times a week to Washington D.C. to procure supplies for the base at Quantico and to make a ritual stop at the home of the man who would become commander of the Marine Corps, Gen. Alexander Vandergrift, to deliver flowers and vegetables to him from the base.

This latter duty was bitter sweet for Emmert, for she knew from experience that the Vandergrift did not approve of women in the Corps. As evidence of the allegation, Emmert cited the case of Roberta Randolph.

Randolph, also assigned to motor transport, was driving a garbage truck with several male marines on the back. She made the mistake of passing Vandergrift without making the obligatory stop to salute and within one week was shipped out of Quantico for less desirable duty. Emmert stoutly maintains the general would have been much more lenient with a male driver.

Not all of her experiences with generals were unpleasant, however. Lou remembers with fondness, her assignment as personal driver for Army Gen. Emerson LeRoy Cummings. Emmert had driven the general to Washington, D.C., one day, and upon their return, he asked that Lou be assigned to him on a permanent basis. Emmert chauffeured the Brigadier for the remainder of her tour of duty with only one harmless mishap.

Since Lou never knew when the general would require transportation, she kept his Buick with her. One day, while giving several of her fellow WRs a lift to the barracks, she took a sharp turn at an underpass and grazed a surprised 2nd Lieutenant. The young officer quickly recovered, snapped to attention, saluted and then ran off as fast as his legs could carry him. He had seen the star on the bumper of the general’s Buick. Normally there was a cover on the plate when Cummings was not in the car. This time Lou had forgotten to hide the star.

When asked how women in the Marine Corps spent their off-duty time. Lou just smiles. Sometimes several of them would go to Washington, D.C., and rent a room in a big hotel. To get there, however, they had to take a coal-burning steam locomotive, and by the time of their arrival, they were covered with soot. To recover, they would all pile into the bathtub at the hotel and make abundant use of room service.

Lou Emmert served her country in uniform until the end of World War II. She was offered a promotion from Corporal to Sergeant if she reenlisted, an offer which she declined because of letters from home informing her that most of her friends had returned to Madera.

“I loved it; I really did,” she exclaims. “My happiest moment in the Corps came on V-J Day, and I knew the war was over.” Near the end of 1945, Lou came home, took off her uniform, put on a wedding dress and married Chuck Emmert.

Today, Lou and I thumbed through her photo album and talked about old times. Meanwhile in the War and Peace Room at the Madera County Courthouse Museum her old uniform and dog tags are on display. What memories they must evoke, especially on this Memorial Day.

Thank you for serving, Lou.