History: The Women’s Reserve, America’s backbone

This month’s history post comes to us from the Coast Guard’s 13th District and tells the story of some of the first SPARs to report for duty in the Pacific Northwest. The sacrifices made by the SPARs and their counterparts in the other military services were not only a direct contribution to the outcome of World War II, but also paved the way for the women who serve in today’s United States Coast Guard. Of special interest to some of our readers will be the little known fact that Edith Munro, the mother of Coast Guard hero and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Douglas Munro, served as a SPAR rising to the rank of Lieutenant.

"The Original Nineteen" (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

"The Original Nineteen" (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Post written by Petty Officer Third Class Tara Molle and Loreanne Switzer

Many people are familiar with the famous tagline ‘We Can Do It’ from a recruiting poster featuring Rosie the Riveter representing the women who worked in factories during World War II (WWII). This poster would become one of many seen throughout the war, recruiting women to take over jobs so that men could be sent to fight. While WWII was being fought by men overseas, much of their successes can be traced back to the women working in their absence on the home front. Every military branch would utilize women in various jobs throughout the war.

Semper Paratus Always Ready, better known as SPARS, was the United States Coast Guard Women’s Reserve created Nov. 23, 1942. The need for the women’s reserve was substantial. SPARS took many Coast Guard jobs such as telephone and radio operators so that they ‘could release a man to sea.’

On Feb. 24, 1943 the first five SPARS arrived in the Pacific Northwest and reported to then 13th Naval District office in Seattle. The women were originally Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service – U.S. Naval Women’s Reserve (WAVES) and were given the opportunity to transfer into the Coast Guard as SPARS. Seattle was then and remains today the headquarters for the 13th Coast Guard District encompassing all of Wash., Ore., Idaho and Mont.

Originally, the Seattle office had requested 175 SPARS from their boot camp training facility in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The class had only 150 women, so only 19 were sent. ‘The original nineteen’ as they were called, were the first group of SPARS to be assigned to the 13th Naval District from boot camp.

LT Edith Munro (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

LT Edith Munro (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

When the SPARS arrived in Seattle, they were informed that the housing situation was ‘very bad.’ Only a few rooms in the Earl Hotel had been obtained and it was only for a limited amount of time. Many of the women had to stay in the apartments of radiomen and communicators who were on leave or deployed. A few families in the Broadmoor District (a gated residential community) of Seattle had opened their homes to the SPARS. Some stayed in guest rooms while others had to occupy maid’s quarters or recreation rooms. In June 1943, the Coast Guard took over the Assembly Hotel giving a fully furnished and centralized place for the SPARS to call home.

Lt. Edith Munro had been assigned to be in charge of the SPAR barracks at the hotel. She was in charge of watching over the SPARS home lives. Munro was best known for being the mother of Douglas Munro, who joined the Coast Guard in 1939 and went on to be the only Coast Guardsman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions coming to the aid of 500 Marines trapped in the South Pacific , Sept. 1942.

Munro took the oath to join the SPARS two hours after accepting the Medal of Honor for her son. When asked why she joined the SPARS she said, “We are a Coast Guard family, through Doug. He loved his service. I am very happy to be eligible to serve in it.” Munro’s statement was released in an article by The Palm Beach Post, “Medal of Honor Goes to Mother,” May 28, 1943

She was commissioned a lieutenant junior grade and was then assigned to the 13th district in Seattle where her son had originally enlisted. That same year, Munro was also given the honor of being designated SPAR of the year.

LT Dorothy Bevis (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

LT Dorothy Bevis (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

Another SPAR of note in the Seattle office was Lt. Dorothy Bevis. She was assigned into the recruiting position for women and only one year later was promoted to be the Personnel Procurement Officer putting her in charge of recruiting both men and women into the Coast Guard.

Bevis began to work immediately in her new position by reaching out and speaking at various clubs and organizations to recruit more women to become SPARS. Her efforts paid off as businessmen began to quickly offer to pay for billboards and posters advertising for SPARS. As a result, 60 posters appeared throughout Seattle. This was the first time this kind of advertising appeared in the U.S.

Many SPARS conducted recruiting in their off time. They were required to give talks as they were the only ones who could relate their experiences and answer questions that arose about the special service. This task proved to be slightly more challenging as they were sent to speak in other Washington cities such as Anacortes, Bellingham and Tacoma in addition to their daily routines. Many times they would be out until 1-2 a.m., and were expected to be back on the job before 8 a.m. the next day. The SPARS were met with much curiosity. Since they were the first women to wear uniforms in Seattle, they were watched constantly not only by fellow military personnel, but by civilians as well.

In June 1944, a survey reported that 401 SPARS in Seattle were assigned positions and 249 men were released of their duties and sent to war. This did not mean that it took twice as many women to fill men’s positions, but the work was heavily increasing. In addition, only 17 men who already had SPAR replacements were still in the office. The turnover was happening rapidly. Almost as soon as a SPAR arrived, she was able to do the job needed so that the man could be sent to war.

Although there were a great number of SPARS already employed, the need for their help continued to grow. In Aug. 1944, there were 57 officers and 10 more were requested. For other positions, the Seattle office requested an additional 269 SPARS saying that they were utilized to better advantages in the 13th District than any other district around the U.S.

The 13th Naval District was famous for the fact that its women were rated and advanced. Ratings are general occupations that consist of specific skills and abilities. The District Coast Guard Officer (DCGO), believed in their abilities and saw to it that they were given responsibility. However, the responsibilities could not be given until a SPAR held the rating, so advancement became an issue. When the women joined the reserve they were not given ratings right away, unlike their male counterparts. The DCGO stated in a letter, “…in order to have contentment and efficient operation, there must be a flow of promotions.” (History of the Women’s Reserve: Thirteenth Naval District) In other words, the SPARS would work even better and would be happier if they had goals to reach promotion.

Once given the opportunity, the SPARS studied frequently. Men watched and said things like, ‘Never knew the Coast Guard had so many scholars!’ Women made their ratings and quickly advanced in them. Although they were quite proud of their ratings, many SPARS were afraid to show it by trying to conceal their badges because the men in their positions before them had been unrated seamen for long periods of time without being advanced.

Although the SPARS were short lived and were no longer needed by the end of WWII in 1945, they were able to pave the road for women joining the Coast Guard in later years. The SPARS had bittersweet, mixed feelings about departing their military lives and heading back to the traditional roles they would continue to play in society. Even in this, the SPARS left significant impressions not only in the13th Naval District but also in the Coast Guard as a whole.

“We have an esteem of the greatest depth for the Coast Guard and with mixed emotions we are happy and sad to depart. Though we leave the actual service, the common bond, which will make us swell with pride each time we see the Coast Guard shield or hear the Coast Guard mentioned, will always be a part of us.” (History of the Women’s Reserve: Thirteenth Naval District)

While the days of SPARS, WAVES and other women’s reserve units in the 13th District and the rest of the U.S. are long since over, they left a strong legacy and their sacrifices would not go in vain. Women have now become active duty members of every branch of the military working side by side with the men on the home front and fighting over seas. ‘We Can Do It’ just might have to be changed to ‘We Did It.’

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