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Public Servant and Marine Corps Pioneer: Ruth Cheney Streeter

  • Published
  • By Col Frank A. Blazich, Jr., CAP
Ruth Cheney Streeter

Among the pioneering members of Civil Air Patrol (CAP) is Ruth Cheney Streeter (1895-1990). One of the founding members of the New Jersey Civil Air Defense Services (CADS), the immediate model for what became CAP, Streeter served as the first director of the United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve (MCWR) in World War II. As the first female major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel in the Marine Corps, she built the foundation for the postwar role of women Marines.

Prior to commissioning as a major in the Marines on 13 February 1943, Streeter was a 47-year-old married mother of four. A native of Massachusetts, she married attorney and banker Thomas W. Streeter in 1917 and graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1918, president of her class. Her two brothers, First Lieutenant William H. Cheney of the Army Air Service and First Lieutenant Charles W. Cheney of the Army Corps of Engineers, served overseas with the American Expeditionary Forces. Tragically in January 1918, her brother William died in a midair collision over Foggia, Italy.

Moving to her husband’s hometown of Morristown, New Jersey in 1922, Streeter settled into the roles of wife and mother, raising three sons – Frank, Henry, and Thomas – and a daughter, Lilian. In 1927, Streeter and her mother funded and established the Cheney Award in remembrance of Lt Cheney, awarded to an Airman for an act of valor or of extreme fortitude or self-sacrifice in a humanitarian interest, which act was performed in connection with aircraft, although not necessarily be an act military in nature.

When the Great Depression struck, she began to engage in public relief for the betterment of her community and state. Throughout the decade, she worked in public health and welfare, unemployment relief, and assistance to the elderly in New Jersey, “because those were the needs during that decade,” as she later recalled. Throughout the 1930s, she served on the New Jersey State Relief Council, New Jersey Commission of Inter-State Cooperation, and the New Jersey Board of Children’s Guardians.

In 1940, after long interest in aviation, she learned to fly and earned her private pilot’s certification. That same year, the director of New Jersey’s Department of Aviation, Gill Robb Wilson, wrote to the chairman of the newly established New Jersey Defense Council about employing civilian aviation for national defense purposes. The following year in May, Streeter became the only female member of the New Jersey Defense Council’s Committee on Aviation. The next month, the Council approved Wilson’s plan to launch the New Jersey Wing of CADS to organize the state’s civilian aviation resources for effective cooperation with military and civilian defense forces.

One of the first members of the new wing was Streeter. By late summer, she was First Lieutenant Streeter, A Flight, Second North Jersey Squadron of the CADS, flying and training with the wing’s 600 members and approximately 157 privately-owned aircraft, including her own. When CAP stood up as the nation plunged into war in December 1941, members of the New Jersey Wing of CADS began to work with and transition into CAP, including Streeter, eager to do her part of the war effort. She received CAP identification number 2-2-18, marking her as the eighteenth member of CAP from New Jersey.

In January 1942 as Adjutant of the Metropolitan Group (later Group 221) of the New Jersey Wing, CAP, she wrote to CAP National Commander, Major General John F. Curry and his executive officer, Earle L. Johnson. In her letter to Johnson, Streeter explained how civil pilots received “an enormous ‘lift’ to feel that the heads of the Civil Air Patrol are really keen and on the job.” She also detailed an idea of using CAP pilots to help ferry the simpler models of military trainer aircraft so military pilots could be freed for more important duty. That April, Streeter earned her commercial pilot’s certificate and the following month received orders to ferry an aircraft to First Task Force coastal patrol base at Atlantic City for antisubmarine duty.

Yet while her personal aircraft flew antisubmarine patrol missions, Streeter, as a woman, could not. Instead, she found herself serving as a group adjutant inland doing “all the dirty work.” Frustrated but determined, she continued to fly and hone her skills, keen on joining the newly formed Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). At the age of 47, however, she was 12 years past the age limit. After WAFS rejected her four times, Streeter met with Jackie Cochran to attempt to join her Women’s Flying Training Detachment. Cochrane gave Streeter her fifth rejection.

With two sons in the Navy and one in the Army, Streeter next attempted to join the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service in January 1943. When she asked if she could fly in the Navy, she was informed she could be a ground instructor. Streeter chose to walk out of the recruiting office. Mere weeks later, she instead found herself being interviewed by Commandant of the Marine Corps, Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb, about becoming the inaugural MCWR director.

The MCWR intended to use women in noncombatant billets to release men for essential combat duty. Although admitting she did not know a single Marine, Holcomb found in Streeter a qualified leader, in his words “somebody in charge in whom I’ve got complete confidence.”

On 29 January 1943, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox administered Streeter her enlistment oath into the Marine Corps. For the first time in her life, Streeter held a paying job. She now held responsibility for recruiting, training, and administration for the new female Marines. Although the Marine Corps was the last service to include women, Streeter wasted no time recruiting and speaking enthusiastically for the new organization to help “free a man to fight.” Promoted to lieutenant colonel in November 1943 and colonel in February 1944, by 1 June the MCWR had reached its authorized strength of 18,000 (831 officers, 17,714 enlisted total).

Streeter worked hard to obtain opportunities for women Marines to serve in roles other than clerical and administrative postings. By war’s end, women had attended around 30 specialist schools. Eventually women Marines performed over 150 different duties nationwide and in Hawaii. With aviation still close to Streeter’s heart, fully one third of the Women Reservists served in aviation technical fields. So great was the contribution of the MCWR in releasing men for combat assignments that the Sixth Marine Division stood up and saw action at the Battle of Okinawa.

On 7 December 1945, Streeter resigned her commission to return home to Morristown. On 4 February 1946, Lieutenant General Alexander A. Vandegrift, Commandant of the Marine Corps, awarded her the Legion of Merit, the highest award received by any female Marine during World War II. Her award citation proclaimed:

Under her inspiring leadership, the organization expanded to include approximately 19,000 women at the peak of the Marine Corps war program. A brilliant organizer and administrator, Colonel Streeter demonstrated a keen understanding of the abilities of women and of the tasks suited to them and, by her tact in fitting women into a military organization succeeded in directing the efforts of the women of the reserve into channels of the greatest usefulness to the Marine Corps and to the country, thereby contributing to the successful persecution of the war.

Through her dedication to her community and devoted patriotism to the nation, Colonel Streeter will forever remain a pioneering heroine to the Marine Corps, and a model volunteer to all CAP members.

Learn More:

Official Documents #1 View Here
Official Documents #2 View Here

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