For the love of her country

Coast Guard SPAR Vivian McRae in her San Diego home. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Terrell.

Coast Guard SPAR Vivian McRae in her San Diego home. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Terrell.

Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Terrell.

When then-first lady Hillary Clinton told former Coast Guard SPAR Vivian McRae she was brave, McRae struggled to keep from laughing.

America was in the midst of World War II when McRae served, but she wasn’t on the front lines fearing each day might be her last. She didn’t see bravery in what she doing.

“Bravery had absolutely nothing to do with it,” she told Clinton. “It was about patriotism.”

Looking back, McRae realized that wasn’t what the first lady meant – there is more to bravery than fighting on the front lines. Clinton meant that it was brave to do something few others were doing at the time, something some people may not like very much.

In the early 1940s women were just beginning to work outside the home and the idea of women serving in the military was still seen as taboo for many people.

Coast Guard veteran Vivian McRae meets first lady Hillary Clinton. Photo courtesy of Vivian McRae.

Coast Guard veteran Vivian McRae meets first lady Hillary Clinton. Photo courtesy of Vivian McRae.

McRae didn’t care what anyone else thought; she wanted to serve her country. On her 20th birthday in 1943, McRae headed to a recruiting office in Seattle and joined the Coast Guard’s first women’s reserve known as the SPARs – an acronym derived from the Coast Guard’s motto of Semper Paratus and its translation of Always Ready.

Growing up in the cold weather of Everett, Wash., McRae wasn’t prepared for the scorching temperatures and humidity she encountered at boot camp in Palm Beach, Fla.

“It was very physical,” McRae said. The instructors were under the impression we had to be prepared for battle – they didn’t know what the war would bring.

McRae said that the women engaged in the same kinds of training that the men did – they swam in the ocean, climbed over walls and ran through tires on the ground like they were in football training. Some women would fall and knock out their teeth.

After completing boot camp McRae went immediately into schooling to become a storekeeper. What the active duty male storekeepers learned in two years of school, SPARs had to learn in a mere six months.

“It was excellent training, though,” she said. “I really felt like I had accomplished something.”

After completing training, McRae was off to Cleveland, Ohio, where she ordered supplies for Coast Guard units on the Great Lakes.

McRae said she didn’t care too much for the area, but loved her job. She was always busy ensuring the commissary warehouses were stocked with supplies to outfit the Coast Guard’s newest cutters.

Coast Guard veteran Vivian McRae joined the SPARs on her 20th birthday in 1943. Photo courtesy of Vivian McRae.

Coast Guard veteran Vivian McRae joined the SPARs on her 20th birthday in 1943. Photo courtesy of Vivian McRae.

One day McRae spotted a flyer on the bulletin board at work for SPARs interested in transferring to Hawaii, Puerto Rico or Alaska. She jumped at the opportunity.

In 1944, McRae arrived at what would be her final duty station – Hawaii.

With her vast experience as the commissary manager in Cleveland, she was excited to get to work. However, once she arrived in Hawaii she learned the Navy, not the Coast Guard, ran the commissary there.

“They had no idea what to do with me,” McRae said. “I was so angry they took me away from such a productive job and put me somewhere I wasn’t needed.”

After a few days of uncertainty, McRae was finally assigned to work with the pay and supply department as the assistant chief pay clerk.

“It was a great job, but it was a job anyone could do really.”

Still, McRae loved her job.

One of her favorite parts of the job was delivering members’ pay to them after they pulled into port. McRae said they were always happy to see her because it meant they would have some cash for the few days they were in port.

Although she was living in what some consider paradise, McRae said there were constant reminders of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that had occurred only about three years before her arrival.

“We were living under martial law with curfews and always on high alert. From Honolulu to Pearl Harbor there were military installations one after another for miles. They tried to make it normal for us with dances and such, but every boat, plane and man was on high alert, waiting to deploy at a moments notice.”

Tensions finally began to ease after Japan’s surrender in 1945, leading to the end of the war and with that, an end of the Coast Guard’s need for the SPARs. They were disbanded in 1947.

Mementos from Vivian McRae’s service. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Terrell.

Mementos from Vivian McRae’s service. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Terrell.

After her time as a SPAR ended, McRae went to work in the medical field, married, raised two children and moved to San Diego. In San Diego, she joined a group of former SPARs and exchanged “war stories.” It never crossed her mind that she might return to Hawaii again. And it certainly never occurred to her that she’d meet the president of the United States and the first lady.

But one day in 1995, she received a call from the White House, inviting her back to Hawaii to represent the Coast Guard in an honor guard for then-President Clinton during the 50th anniversary of Japan’s surrender.

“I really thought it was a joke, but then I got about 50 more calls,” McRae said.

McRae and the four others on the honor guard – two of whom were Medal of Honor recipients – went everywhere with the president and first lady for five days.

“That was without a doubt the biggest thrill of my life,” McRae said.

At the age of 90, McRae keeps her travel more local but loves taking trips down memory lane of her time as a SPAR.

“I wish I could have stayed in,” said McRae. “Even today I have certain loves: my country, my family and the Coast Guard.”

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  • Laurie McRae

    My most gracious gratitude to Petty Officer 3rd Class Connie Terrell for showing such an interest in my Mom & her time as a Coast Guard SPAR and for sharing my Mom’s story & lifelong loyalty to & passion for the Coast Guard! Semper Paratus!

  • Becky Armstrong

    Love the story! As a SPAR myself, I am very proud of the women that served during such difficult times. I am very proud of the women that serve in these troubled times!
    Thank you for your service and for sharing this beautiful story.

  • Maureen Roepsch Heard

    I was blessed to meet her during the 1995 End of the War In the Pacific Commemoration in Hawaii. We still correspond which is a great joy for me.