(April 4, 1922 - December 30, 1997) U.S.A.
Feminist, gay rights activist, addictions counselor
Joining the first WAAC battalion during WWII, she first served in the South Pacific and later under the occupation forces in Germany under Eisenhower. Wounded in action, she received the Purple Heart, awarded to soldiers injured due to enemy action.
Counselor/Board President, Alcoholism Center for Women. Lesbian Rights Task Force Chair,
Los Angeles NOW & California NOW. While Chair she was one of the leaders for the March on Sacramento for Gay Rights and spearheaded the media campaign for the women accused of lesbian tendencies on the USS Norton Sound.
While treasurer of California NOW, she built bridges to the political community. Provided printing and consulting services to such political candidates as Jackie Goldberg, Linda Nelson and others.
She was appointed by Gloria Molina to the LA Commission on Veterans' Affairs, but she had to resign in 1996 due to severe health problems.
First seen in the film Documentary Before Stonewall, she was later chronicled in My Country, My Right to Serve by Mary Ann Humphrey, and Conduct Unbecoming by Randy Shilts.
In 1993, the first annual "Sgt. Johnnie Phelps Annual Awards Banquet" was held in Portland, Oregon by the Veterans for Human Rights, and continues today. A portion of the documentary, Trailblazers: Unsung Military Heroines of WWII by Mindy Pomper will be shown ad infinitum at the Women's Memorial in Washington D.C.
Johnnie passed away at the Veterans Home in Barstow. She was 75. She was survived by Grace Bukowski, her life partner of 22 years.
World War II veteran, Johnnie Phelps, a brave, wonderful, kind and generous woman, who later headed the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, providing key strategic support and morale for the infamous 1980 lesbian harassment and witchhunting incident aboard the Norton Sound. Way before Ellen, Johnnie stood up to then General Eisenhower, outing herself as a lesbian.
In gay veterans' circles, WAC Sergeant Johnnie Phelps became legendary for a conversation she had with Eisenhower when she served on the general's staff during the postwar occupation of Europe. Phelps admired Eisenhower as a soldier's soldier who genuinely cared for his troops and would never order them to do something he would not do himself.
During the post-World War II occupation of Germany, General Dwight D. Eisenhower learned that there were a significant number of lesbians serving in the United States Women's Army Corps (WAC). In response, Eisenhower summoned WAC Sergeant Johnnie Phelps and ordered her to compile a list of all the lesbians in the battalion; "We've got to get rid of them," Eisenhower said.
Sergeant Phelps said she would compile the list, though she noted that WAC was among the military's most highly decorated battalions (Phelps, for example, received the Purple Heart), and its members generally had superb records. "I'll make your list," Phelps concluded, "but you've got to know that when you get the list back, my name's going to be first." "Sir," Eisenhower's secretary interrupted, "if the general pleases, Sergeant Phelps will have to be the second on the list, because mine will be first."
Eisenhower stared at the soldiers, shook his head, and said, "Forget that order."
After her military service, Phelps established her own printing business in Southern California, which she ran for years. In the 1970s, she became politically active, founding the Whittier chapter of the National Organization for Women in 1979. A recovering alcoholic, she also served as president of the Alcoholism Center for Women.
Johnnie Phelps died on December 30, 1997; she was seventy-five. Phelps was survived by her partner, Grace Bukowski.
Sources: Randy Shilts, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military. © 1994 by the Estate of Randy Shilts - and http://www-lib.usc.edu/~retter/ -