WWII Marine honored at her 90th
Wedding photo of Marines C. Lester and Josephine Del Castilho in December 1943. After their three-day weekend leave, they wouldn’t spend much time together again until 1946.
Grandson Robert Benoit brings Josephine Del Castilho a birthday cake during her 90th birthday celebration held at Trinity Church in Shelburne Falls on Sunday, June 30. Recorder/Trish Crapo
BUCKLAND — There was no such thing as a “woman Marine” when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. But as soon as she saw the recruitment poster for the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, 19-year-old Josephine “Jo” Del Castilho signed on.
This week, while celebrating her 90th birthday with family and friends at Trinity Church, Del Castilho was surprised by a color-guard salute by members of the Oak Ridge Detachment 628 of Bernardston. They also made her an honorary member.
“Usually you don’t have a Marine Corps honor guard celebration until after you’re gone,” she said, with a smile. “It was a privilege to have them come here and recognize that I was a Marine.”
“World War II members are fading now. Every time I talk to someone, I learn someone else is gone. I’m lucky to be here, still,” she said.
Del Castilho’s high school sweetheart and future husband, C. Lester Del Castilho, joined the Marines. And Josephine did the same as soon as she saw a recruiting poster and learned it was possible for women to be Marines.
The Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was established in February 1943, and in 1948, Congress made women a permanent part of the Marine Corps, through the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act.
When asked if she was among the first group of women to get Marine training, Del Castilho said, “I wasn’t exactly the first, but I was maybe among the second group that went through boot camp.”
She said the difference between boot camp for Marine men and the Marine Women’s Reserve was that “they trained for battle, and we trained to be able to take orders — to work in offices. Nowadays, it might be different,” she added, “because women weren’t sent into battle. We weren’t even allowed to be sent overseas.”
Del Castilho, who had been taking business courses at the Katharine Gibbs Institute, then on Park Avenue, New York City, was now stationed in Washington D.C., in a barracks near the Arlington National Cemetery with about 60 other women. Initially, she was assigned as a secretary in a department that screened applications for soldiers seeking officer status.
She was stationed in D.C. while Lester Del Castilho was training to be a radio operator at Camp Lejune, N.C. They got married in December 1943 during a three-day leave. The bride, groom, bride’s maid and best man all wore their Marine uniforms, she remembered.
“We were married in Washington, D.C. that weekend. We had our pass, and we went to New York, to see my family,” she said. “It was like a military wedding, and we were all in uniform. The wife of the chaplain played ‘Here Comes the Bride.’ Everybody was getting married then. It wasn’t unusual,” she added.
Del Castilho applied for a transfer, to work for aviation supply service — and to be closer to her husband. She got her transfer — but a week later, her husband was transferred to the South Pacific, and he eventually served in the Battle of Okinawa.
“I didn’t see him again until 1946,” she said.
She was stationed at Parris Island, S.C., and about once a month they corresponded through “V-mail.” V-mail, according to Wikipedia, stood for “Victory Mail,” and all letters were copied onto film, sent to their destinations, and reprinted on paper.
“It was like a photograph of your handwritten pages,” she said.
According to Wikipedia, V-mail ensured that thousands of tons of shipping space could be reserved for war materials, since the 37 mail bags required to carry 150,000 one-page letters could be replaced by a single mail sack. This saved considerable weight and bulk in a time in which both were hard to manage in a combat zone.
During their years of military service, “We saw each other a couple of times, but it was more like a ‘date’ — because you lived in a barracks,” Del Castilho said.
When asked if it felt odd to be married and never see your spouse, she replied, “Everybody was like that. Everybody had their lives on hold until the war was over. My friends were scattered all over the world. Some of them didn’t make it. It was a very strange time.”
When U.S. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox died in 1944, Del Castilho was among the Marines who marched in the funeral procession from the Washington Monument to Arlington National Cemetery. She and her colleagues appeared in a newsreel from that event.
Del Castilho’s service ended in November 1945, and her husband came home in April 1946. They lived their civilian life in Livingston, N.J., then moved to Florida in their retirement years, becoming increasingly active in veterans’ organizations and the U.S. Marines’ Toys for Tots campaign.
Lester Del Castilho died in 1995, and his widow moved to Buckland in 2007, to be near her son, Barry Del Castilho, and daughter-in-law, Laurie Benoit.
Jo Del Castilho said her father had been in charge of J.C. Penney leases for the eastern United States and would have negotiated the lease for the J.C. Penney store that had been in Greenfield. “My Dad used to come up here on business,” she said. “He used to rave about the Mohawk Trail, and even about the Bridge of Flowers.”
When asked what being in the Marines contributed to her life, Del Castilho said being in the Marines instills in young people “the discipline of service.”
“I’m very proud to be a Marine,” she said. “Once a Marine, always a Marine.”
You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 277