Women Marines Assoc. brings together a ‘glorious’ group

Women Marines Assoc. brings together a ‘glorious’ group
Janet Johnson, then and now.
Jenifer Matheson.

CLAYTON, CA (May 18, 2023) — As one of the first 10 female aviators in the Marine Corps, Lt. Col. Jenifer Matheson understands her place in history. That’s why the Women Marines Association (WMA) is so “near and dear to the heart” of the helicopter pilot.

“They were the trailblazers to allow women like me the chance to become a Naval aviator and fly in combat,” says Matheson, noting that her twin daughters both received scholarships from the charitable group.

Established in Denver in 1960, WMA is committed to remembering and appreciating all women who have worn the uniform and to influence the next generation of female Marines. Matheson, a life member of WMA, told fellow Marine and Clayton resident Janet Johnson about the group.

“I was flabbergasted. I had no idea this organization existed,” says Johnson.

After joining, Johnson was overwhelmed with emotion at the Las Vegas conference in 2021. “Walking into a huge meeting room full of women Marines was beyond amazing – it was glorious.”

Defying expectations

Matheson began her journey to the Marines after graduating with a business degree and paralegal certificate from Marymount University in the early ’90s. She applied to law school but didn’t get in. Instead, she became a flight attendant and later obtained her private pilot’s license.

“I started dating a guy who was in the F-14 Tom Cat fighter squadron – you know, when ‘Top Gun’ was big. I started hanging out with his squadron. I knew I wanted to fly,” she recalls. “He told me: ‘You’re a girl; you’re never going to get a military flight contract.’ And I said: ‘You have no idea who I am – watch me.’ ”

The Marine Corps was Matheson’s first choice. “But they only accepted women very occasionally into their officer program,” she notes. “So, I took a Navy commission and I got ‘winged’ in the Navy.”

While in officer candidate school in Pensacola, Fla., she admired her Marine drill instructors for their “absolute professionalism, excellent leadership and attention to detail.” She realized she had to be a part of that group and applied for an interservice transfer. She was sworn in as a Marine first lieutenant in November 1997.

Looking for direction

Johnson had a somewhat less altruistic reasons for joining the Marines – she thought the recruiter was cute.

“What I really wanted to do was flirt with him, but he was dead-pan serious – he wasn’t having any of that. He gave me all this literature,” says Johnson, who was struggling in college and decided that very day to join the Marines.

She served 1965-’66, when female Marines – and the jobs for them – were limited. After “growing up really fast” in boot camp, she started as a clerk-typist at Camp Pendleton. Turns out she wasn’t particularly suited for the job, but her boss, Staff Sgt. Peeples, intervened.

“He saw some of my drawings and got me transferred over to the Training Aids Library. Not that I did a lot of drawing, but it was a better job for me,” she recalls, noting that she made signs and distributed equipment like projectors.

She moved up the ranks from private, to private first class to lance corporal. But after that year, her focus turned to marriage and family.

“It was a very unique and different thing to do,” says the Vietnam War vet. “I was very proud to serve.”

Making history

With the combat exclusion for women lifted from aviation positions in 1993, it was a different Marine Corps for Matheson.

At the Replacement Air Group in New River, N.C., she trained on the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter. Then, she “hit the fleet” with shipboard operations aboard the USS Saipan.

“My first helicopter squadron was the HMM-264 Black Knights,” she says. “I was extremely excited because it was the first squadron with two female pilots ever in the history of the Marine Corps.”

She says it was the most rewarding experience of her aviation career. “You’re flying with night vision goggles. You’re flying tactical missions, inserting Marines into tactical zones. It’s pretty cool,” says Matheson, who was promoted to captain while in the squadron.

She continued her career in non-flying support roles, giving birth to her twins while on active duty in 2003 and then transitioning to the Marine Reserves.
Promoted to major, she helped open the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va.

“One of the defining moments of that event was when I escorted the family of Cpl. Jason Dunham, who was posthumously awarded the medal of honor at that ceremony,” Matheson says. “He basically put his helmet over a grenade to protect his Marines. He died eight days later.”

Enjoying the great outdoors

Jenifer Matheson with husband Peter in Alaska on extended fishing trip last year. (Contributed Photo)

Matheson retired from the military in 2018 and now works as a contractor conducting background investigations for the federal government. She married Clayton resident Peter Matheson in 2020, and they live in his grandparents’ 1930s farmhouse.

“I call Clayton ‘Mayberry.’ I love the small-town feel,” she says. “I love Mt. Diablo. I hike three to five times a week with my dog. I’m very outdoorsy. I like to shoot, hunt and fish.”

And once a month, she heads to San Leandro to enjoy the camaraderie at a WMA meeting.

When Johnson joined the WMA, she learned about another female Marine in Clayton. Now 103, Alice Engle has since moved to Elk Grove.

“She served during World War II in the motor pool,” Johnson reports. “She was very interesting – and what a pip.”

Johnson notes that if there were three female Marines in “itty-bitty” Clayton, just think of how many are in the greater East Bay. “I just want to reach out about the WMA to let them know that we’re here – and we’re here for them.”

For more information about the Women Marines Association, visit www.womenmarines.org. Find out about the local chapter at www.wmaca3.org.

Bev Britton
Bev Britton
Copy Editor at The Concord Clayton Pioneer | bevbritton@sbcglobal.net

Bev Britton graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of North Dakota and moved to the Bay Area with her soon-to-be husband Jim in 1986. She was features editor at the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek before becoming managing editor of the Contra Costa Sun in Lafayette in 1995. She retired from newsrooms in 2001, but an ad for the Clayton Pioneer drew her back in. The family moved to Lake Wildwood in the Gold Country a few years ago - but working at the Pioneer keeps her in touch with her old neighborhoods in Concord and Clayton.