President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Public Law 772 on November 23, 1942, officially establishing the U.S. Coast Guard Women's Reserve. SPAR was the moniker given to members of this new unit. It was a play on words taken from the Coast Guard's motto Semper Paratus or Always Ready. Approximately 10,000 enlisted personnel and 1,000 officers served in this all-female corps during World War II.
Candidates were required to be women between the ages of 20 and 36, and they signed on for the duration of the war plus six months. Enlisted personnel had to complete a minimum of two years of high school; officers needed at least two years of college. A married woman was permitted to join as long as her husband was not a member of the Coast Guard. Single women were allowed to marry only after completing their initial training, and again their spouses could not be Coast Guardsmen. SPARs were compelled to resign immediately upon becoming pregnant. Beginning in October 1944, African Americans were allowed to join SPAR.
Members of the Coast Guard's Women's Reserve were forbidden to give orders to any male servicemembers. This precedent was established in the SPAR's sister organization in the Navy, the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). This restriction caused problems at times, especially when SPAR officers were placed in charge of male subordinates. These issues were circumvented when the judge advocate general ruled that women could issue orders as long as their commanding officer was male, which was usually the case. The female guardsmen were originally required to serve only in the continental United States. On September 27, 1944, this policy was reversed and SPARs were permitted to transfer overseas, as well as to Alaska and Hawaii.
Navy lieutenant Dorothy Stratton, a former dean of women at Purdue University, transferred to the newly created military branch and was named director with the rank of lieutenant commander. She would achieve the rank of captain in February 1944. It was Stratton who devised the name SPAR from the Coast Guard motto. She also noted that a spar was a support beam for ships, just as the new unit would provide an invaluable support role to the service. Many of the first recruits also transferred from the WAVES into the new Coast Guard contingent. Officers trained at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Eventually, officer training was conducted at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, where the women were commissioned as ensigns.
Enlisted women went through boot camp at Oklahoma A & M Teachers College at Stillwater, Iowa State Teachers College at Cedar Falls, and Hunter College in the Bronx. At Hunter College, they trained alongside WAVES who had already established a training facility. On June 14, 1943, a Coast Guard training depot was established at the Palm Beach Biltmore Hotel in Florida. SPAR recruits were indoctrinated here until early 1945, when many trained at Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. Boot camp for women was much the same as that for their male counterparts—a monotonous routine of physical and classroom training combined with rigid military discipline that transformed civilians into their new role of service. The volunteers were given the rank of seaman second class upon completion of their training.
The Women's Reserve was created to augment the Coast Guard's shore operations and to allow more men to serve at sea. Thus their official slogan was “Release a Man to Fight at Sea.” Recruitment challenges were daunting at first. Convincing women to join any branch of the armed forces was difficult enough and especially so with the Coast Guard, which was not as popular as the Army or Navy. Higher wages in the civilian sector also hampered efforts, so a strategy was developed to appeal to patriotism. Recruitment posters read, “Make a date with Uncle Sam and enlist in the Coast Guard SPARs.” Tars and Spars was a popular song-and-dance show that helped push up recruitment numbers. Jeeps were used in parades with the slogan “Don't be a spare—be a SPAR” painted on the spare tires.
SPARs served throughout the ranks in over 43 different Coast Guard ratings from yeomen, air traffic controllers, and clerks to cooks, pharmacist mates, and coxswains. A majority of these women were trained in communications to deal with the tremendous amount of signals sent to ships at sea. A number of seawomen stationed at Florida were charged with the vital mission of directing submarines on their way from training at Groton, Connecticut, to the Pacific Theater. Some were placed in charge of a new and highly secret technology called the LORAN Navigation System.
Ensign Jan Thorpe's experience demonstrates just how quickly the new female corps released men for sea duty. Thorpe signed on as an officer in January 1943 and was assigned to New York City in the Code Board office that May. When she arrived, the staff was entirely male, and a total of three female officers were stationed in the district. By November, Ensign Thorpe was in charge of the Code Board, and all male officers had shipped out.
Another officer, Ensign Martha Vaughn, illustrates the extent of responsibility placed on SPAR personnel. Vaughn joined in January 1943 and was sent on a brief stint in Washington, D.C., before being assigned to Florida. Here she reviewed and edited classified documents and was sent to Coast Guard bases throughout Florida to teach other members how to decode and handle sensitive information. Vaughn was then put in charge of communications at Key West, Florida. In addition to being responsible for a large number of enlisted women arriving at the base, she oversaw communications between Navy minesweepers along the coast and the top-secret ship signals housed in a safe in the communications office.
Enlisted personnel also carried a lot of responsibility, as in the case of Doris McMillan. McMillan enlisted in January 1943 and was assigned to the busy port of New Orleans, Louisiana. Upon arrival, approximately 20 percent of the staff was female, but within two months nearly all the staff was SPARs. McMillan experienced a rather unusual form of gender discrimination. While on leave, an older woman began screaming and hitting her with an umbrella. Apparently she was upset at her son being sent to sea and blamed young McMillan. By early 1944, McMillan was a yeoman second class, supervising 16 clerks and working five-and-a-half days a week until the end of the war.
Florence Finch became the only SPAR decorated for combat during World War II. Born in the Philippines to an American father and Philippine mother, Finch worked with the resistance during the Japanese occupation and was captured, tortured, and imprisoned before being liberated by U.S. forces. In July 1945, Finch enlisted in the SPARs at Buffalo, New York, and was awarded the Asiatic-Pacific campaign ribbon for her services. After the war, she was presented with the Medal of Freedom.
The Women's Reserve was disbanded in June 1946. However, these women paved the way for future generations of women in military service. On December 3, 1973, women were permitted to serve as regular, active-duty members of the U.S. Coast Guard, and in 1976 the U.S. Coast Guard Academy became the first service academy to admit women.
See also: African American Women; Asian American Women; Finch, Florence Ebersole Smith (1915–); Stratton, Dorothy Constance (1899–2006); Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES); World War II (1941–1945).
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