It wasn’t until 1939 that all three of the U.S. Coast Guard’s predecessor agencies – the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, the Lighthouse Service, and the Life-Saving Service – were merged into the same organization, but women served in some of these mission areas long before then, and in fact, long before the United States became an independent nation. Most of these women served as lighthouse keepers.
In 1776, Dr. John Thomas, the keeper of the twin lights at Gurnet Point, in Massachusetts’ Plymouth Colony, raised a regiment of volunteers to join the Continental Army and fight in the Revolutionary War under his command, leaving his wife, Hannah, to take over his lightkeeping duties. After Thomas died of smallpox during the invasion of Quebec, Hannah assumed his duties permanently while continuing to raise their three children. She served for 10 years, on at least one occasion taking fire from a British frigate.
The task of lighthouse-keeping required isolation and focus, and was often a family affair, which accounted for the number of women who ended up doing it: Like Hannah Thomas, many early women lightkeepers were widows or daughters of men who died or became incapacitated. With few or no options to continue supporting their families, these women stepped into already-familiar roles. By 1830, women were receiving official assignments as lighthouse keepers – probably the first female federal employees, and the first American women to serve in supervisory positions.
Probably the most famous Coast Guard lighthouse keeper was Ida Lewis, who began helping her parents tend the Lime Rock Lighthouse in Rhode Island’s Newport Harbor in 1857, when she was 15 years old.
About 140 women received appointments as lighthouse keepers between 1830 and 1947, and they did more than double duty, caring not only for the lights, signals, and facilities but also their children, homes – including the plot of land assigned to sustain the family – and visitors. The work required dedication, independence, stamina, and courage. Lighthouse keepers often rescued people who were shipwrecked or in danger of drowning, and several achieved heroic status. On Matinicus Rock, a barren granite outpost 6 miles off the coast of Maine, Abbie Burgess, the oldest daughter of Samuel Burgess, learned the task of lightkeeping early in order to free her father to fish for lobsters and run errands. In January 1856, when both her father and brother were off the island, Abbie noticed a storm coming, and moved her invalid mother and three younger sisters into the light tower. The Great Gale of 1856 swamped the island, destroying the Burgess home and stranding the girls in the tower for three weeks. Abbie, at 17 years old, kept the light burning, and kept her mother and sisters alive on a daily ration of cornmeal and one egg. She even managed to wade out one day in frigid knee-deep water to the chicken coop and save all but one of the family hens. “Under God,” she wrote later to a friend, “I was able to perform all my accustomed duties as well as my father’s.”
One of the longest light-keeping careers belonged to Kate Walker, the German immigrant wife and assistant to John Walker, keeper of the Sandy Hook Light in New Jersey. In 1883, when her husband was transferred to the Robbins Reef Light in Lower New York Harbor, Kate threatened to leave him. Unlike the shore-based Sandy Hook Light, there was no garden to tend at Robbins Reef; the light was an isolated sparkplug tower that sat by itself a mile off the Staten Island shore. Gradually, however, she grew accustomed to life on the reef, and when John died of pneumonia in 1886, she became the interim keeper. Lighthouse officials were hesitant to give her the job because of her size – 4 feet, 10 inches tall – but four years later, after several men had declined the position, they offered it to Kate. She spent the next 33 years living and working on the island, rowing her children to and from school – a mile each way, twice a day – tending the light, and maintaining the tower and living quarters. She retired in 1919 at the age of 73 after being credited with saving the lives of 50 people.
Probably the most famous Coast Guard lighthouse keeper was Ida Lewis, who began helping her parents tend the Lime Rock Lighthouse in Rhode Island’s Newport Harbor in 1857, when she was 15 years old. Her father was an invalid, and Ida, the oldest of four children, rowed her siblings to and from school every weekday and fetched supplies from town. In 1879, Lewis received an official appointment and an annual salary of $500, and continued at her post until 1911, when she died at the age of 69. Throughout her decades of service, she was credited with saving 18 lives, though her celebrants argue the number was surely higher. One of her most famous rescues was in 1869, when she saw two soldiers and their pilot, a 14-year-old boy, capsize in a snowstorm, and ran out to her rowboat without putting on her coat and shoes. The boy was lost, but with the help of her younger brother, Lewis hauled the men aboard and brought them to the lighthouse. In February 1881, two soldiers crossing the frozen harbor on foot suddenly fell through the thin ice, and without hesitation, Lewis ran out onto the ice and threw them a rope, hauling one of the men out before her brother caught up and helped her with the second. She performed her last recorded rescue at the age of 63. The most decorated lighthouse keeper in history, Lewis received the Congressional Gold Lifesaving Medal and the American Cross of Honor, whose society proclaimed her “The Bravest Woman in America.” After her death, the rock and the lighthouse (now the Ida Lewis Yacht Club) were renamed in her honor.
The development of steam signals and their coal-driven boilers, followed by the introduction of heavy-duty combustion engines, transformed lighthouse-keeping into a demanding physical labor that led to the phasing out of women in these positions. The last of the women lighthouse keepers, Fannie Salter, retired in 1947, after working Chesapeake Bay’s Turkey Point Light, at first with her husband and later alone, for a total of 45 years.
Yeomanettes to SPARs
The U.S. Coast Guard was officially established by a Jan. 28, 1915 law merging the Revenue Cutter Service and Life-Saving Service (the duties and authorities of the Lighthouse Service were added in 1939). The new multi-mission agency would operate under the Department of the Treasury during peacetime, but its people and assets would fall under the authority of the Navy in time of war – a provision that became effective soon after the service’s creation, when the United States entered World War I.
The 20th century and its world wars introduced a new era for women performing Coast Guard duties. Lighthouse keepers such as Kate Walker and Ida Lewis had thrived in their roles because they lived and worked apart, geographically and socially, from a world run by men. Many achieved distinction by doing work nobody else wanted to do. The reserve corps of Coast Guard women who served in the world wars worked mainly to support an effort conducted by men – but it was a change of venue for Coast Guard women, who were now onshore and in the mainstream of society. It would be decades before they would compete with men for the most sought-after Coast Guard positions. But it was a start.
The military buildup preceding Congress’ April 6, 1917 declaration of war on the German Empire generated a mountain of paperwork, a problem confounded by the fact that the enlisted men assigned to complete it soon would be called overseas. The Navy and Coast Guard both used the enlisted rating of “yeoman” for those performing administrative or clerical duties, so the Navy authorized the enlistment of women into the Naval Reserves, with the rating “Yeoman (F).” The use of “yeomanettes” to assist in administrative and clerical work was extended to the Coast Guard, and the first women to wear the Coast Guard uniform, 19-year-old twins Genevieve and Lucille Baker, were transferred from the Naval Coastal Defense Reserve and reported to Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The 20th century and its world wars introduced a new era for women performing Coast Guard duties.
Several additional yeomanettes would transfer to the headquarters building before war’s end, but Coast Guard personnel records of the period are scant. Celebration of the Baker sisters as the first Coast Guard women is mildly controversial today, as some prefer to recognize Myrtle Hazard, a young mother who, after graduating from a radio and telegraphy class at the Baltimore YMCA, applied for a position in the regular Coast Guard as an electrician (there was no radioman rating yet for the Coast Guard). She became the service’s first female electrician on Jan. 21, 1918, and worked at headquarters as an electrician’s mate 3rd class. She was later promoted to electrician, 1st class, before being demobilized after the war’s end.
American mobilization for World War II involved a more significant effort to recruit women for service at home. Every branch had its women’s reserve during the war, and on Nov. 23, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed a law creating a Coast Guard analogue modeled after the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), which had been created a few months earlier. The purpose of the new women’s reserve was to replace male officers and enlisted men at shore stations, releasing them for sea duty.
Organizing a large contingent of young women was something the armed forces had never done before, and the Navy turned to an academic, the former dean of women at Purdue University, for help. Navy Lt. Dorothy Stratton agreed to transfer to the Coast Guard and, with the rank of lieutenant commander, to direct the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, which she’d decided would be called the SPARs, both a nautical term and an acronym based on the Coast Guard’s motto “Semper Paratus – Always Ready.”
The Coast Guard estimated it would need 8,000 enlisted women and 400 women officers in its reserve. There were several eligibility requirements: Applicants had to be between 20 and 36 years old (a maximum age of 50 for officers); to have completed two years of high school (two years of college for officers); and to either be unmarried or, if already married, not married to anyone in the Coast Guard. Getting married or pregnant during service in the SPARs would be grounds for dismissal.
More than 12,000 women volunteered for service in the SPARs, and throughout the war they served in every district except Puerto Rico. They were subject to two restrictions passed down from the WAVES: They were not to serve outside the continental United States, and could not, whether officer or enlisted, issue an order to a male service member of any rank. These two restrictions would prove impracticable by war’s end, and were later rescinded.
While the Coast Guard fell under the Navy’s wartime authority, it had a unique mission requirement and culture. At first, the SPARs wore a slightly modified WAVE uniform, and consisted solely of transfers from the WAVES; the Coast Guard recruited women with WAVES publicity materials, and indoctrinated their recruits on college campuses chosen by the Navy.
By 1943, it was clear that selling the SPARs to recruits meant selling the Coast Guard, and the service withdrew from its arrangement with the Navy and began interviewing and enlisting women at Coast Guard recruiting stations and training enlistees at its own training centers. In June 1943, the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, admitted its first class of women officer candidates, a group of 50 women enrolled in a six-week accelerated course. The Coast Guard was the first of the armed services to admit women officer candidates to its academy, and more than 700 of the 955 SPAR officers commissioned during the war were trained there.
The vast majority of enlisted SPARs worked as clerks or stenographers, though around 70 percent of them received some specialized training. A few enlisted personnel were employed, at least for a short time, as jeep drivers or parachute riggers. By the end of the war, SPARs held 43 different ratings, from boatswain’s mate to yeoman. Most SPAR officers held administrative and supervisory assignments.
In 1942, after the United States and Canada rolled out their top-secret radio navigation system for ships and aircraft, the Long Range Aid to Navigation (LORAN) system, a select group of SPAR officers and enlisted women were assigned to work at LORAN monitoring stations in the continental United States, including the facility at the Coast Guard station near the Chatham Lighthouse on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Eleven SPARs served at the Chatham LORAN station, Unit 21, under the command of Lt. Vera Hamerschlag. Unit 21 is believed to have been the only all-female station of its kind in the world.
The Coast Guard officially announced its acceptance of African-American women in October 1944, but it wasn’t until 1945 that the first five African-American SPARs – Olivia Hooker, D. Winifred Byrd, Julia Mosley, Yvonne Cumberbatch, and Aileen Cooke – entered service.
The first Pacific Island-American woman to wear a Coast Guard uniform was Florence Ebersole Smith Finch, the daughter of a Filipina woman and a U.S. veteran of the Spanish-American War. Finch married Charles Smith, a Navy sailor stationed in Japanese-occupied Manila, in August 1941, but Smith was killed in action in February 1942, not long after the United States had entered the war. She then joined the Philippine underground, diverting Japanese fuel supplies, arranging acts of sabotage, and smuggling food and medicine to prisoners. After being caught in October 1944, she was imprisoned, tortured, and sentenced to three years of hard labor. After the Philippines were liberated by American forces in February 1945, Smith moved in with an aunt in Buffalo, New York. In July of that year, she joined the SPARs, to continue the struggle against the enemy who’d killed her husband. She served until the end of the war and was later awarded both the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Ribbon – the first woman to receive the award – and the Congressional Medal of Freedom.
The SPARs had signed up for a term of “duration plus six”: however long the war lasted, and then six months afterward. Recruitment to the SPARs all but ended in December 1944, and shortly after the surrender of Japan, the women’s reserves in all branches began to demobilize. Several women stayed on to help administer this drawdown, and a few remained long enough to finish the projects they were working on, but the remaining 12,000 SPARs returned to civilian life. On July 25, 1947, the SPARs were officially inactivated.
Women in the Regular Coast Guard
In 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act enabled women to serve as permanent, regular members of the armed forces – the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, as well as the recently established Air Force. Because the Coast Guard was officially housed in the Department of Treasury in peacetime (it would later be transferred to the newly created Department of Transportation), it wasn’t covered under the act. For the time being, the only way for former SPARs to remain in service was in the Coast Guard Reserve.
The Coast Guard didn’t mobilize former SPARs for the Korean Conflict, from 1950-1953, but about 200 volunteered for active duty anyway. Most left service after the war ended. Within a few years, women all but ceased to exist in the Coast Guard: By 1956, among thousands of Coast Guard personnel, there were nine enlisted women and 12 women officers in the service. Unlike the other armed forces, the Coast Guard had no explicit policy regarding women, and the service entered something of a Dark Age. When Elizabeth Splaine, the first of the former SPARs to re-enlist after demobilization, passed the warrant officer qualification test in 1957, her superiors told her the only way for her to be promoted would be to leave the service and join the reserve – that there was no place in the regular Coast Guard for a female warrant officer. She fought this decision for months before convincing her superiors of its arbitrariness, and later became the Coast Guard’s first woman chief warrant officer, serving as administrative assistant in the Office of Reserve until her retirement in 1971.
The Coast Guard’s brief lapse in recruiting and retaining women came to an abrupt end after the 1970 appointment of reform-minded Adm. Chester Bender as Coast Guard commandant. Bender steered the service through a turbulent period in which the Coast Guard, like its counterparts in the armed services, adjusted to several converging national issues, including the end of the Vietnam War and a burgeoning women’s rights movement.
Under Bender, the Coast Guard became a leader in American military policy regarding women. In 1973, under a new federal law, the service officially ended its Women’s Reserve and allowed women to join the regular and reserve Coast Guard components. Those already in the Women’s Reserve were grandfathered into the Coast Guard Reserve without loss of grade, rank, or benefits earned. In the same year, the Coast Guard became the first of the armed services to open its officer candidate program to women. The first group of women to graduate from this program were commissioned ensigns, and five of them trained during a cruise aboard the cutter Unimak, making them the first Coast Guard women to see service afloat.
In December 1973, the Coast Guard’s first women enlistees were sworn into the regular Coast Guard, and within a year, the service had instituted mixed-gender basic training for its recruits. In early 1974, the Coast Guard opened up its first enlisted ratings for women.
Adm. Owen Siler, who succeeded Bender as commandant, continued these reforms. In 1975, the Coast Guard’s active-duty component contained 420 enlisted women and 32 female officers, and Siler announced that women would join the Corps of Cadets at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut – the first time in history that a U.S. military academy would offer appointments to women applicants. Seven hundred of the 10,000 applicants to the academy’s class of 1980 were women, and 38 of these women reported to the academy in June 1976. Fourteen of them went on to graduate.
The role of women in the service has come a long way since Hannah Thomas took charge of the Gurnet Point Light in 1776.
Coast Guard women overcame many gender barriers and demonstrated their ability to perform any job in the service throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In October 1977, the high endurance cutters Morgenthau and Gallatin became the first to feature mixed-gender crews. Ten enlisted women and two female officers were initially assigned to sea duty aboard the cutters, and in 1979, one of these officers, Lt. j.g. Beverly Kelley, became the first woman to command a Coast Guard cutter when she took command of the Cape Newagen, a 95-foot patrol boat homeported in Maui, Hawaii. Twenty years later, Kelley would make history again as the first woman to command a medium endurance cutter, the Northland. Another woman pioneer in sea duty, Diane Bucci, became the first enlisted woman to command afloat in 1988, when she became officer in charge of the Coast Guard tugboat Capstan, patrolling the upper Chesapeake Bay.
The first female aviator in the Coast Guard was Ensign Janna Lambine, a reservist who graduated from flight school in March 1977. Her first assignment was piloting HH-3F Pelican helicopters at Air Station Astoria on the Oregon coast. The service’s first fixed-wing female pilot, Vivien Crea, was designated a Coast Guard aviator a month after Lambine, and began her career flying four-engine C-130 Hercules transports out of Hawaii’s Air Station Barbers Point (Crea was also qualified to fly the HH-65 Dolphin helicopter and the Gulfstream II jet). The service’s third woman aviator, Lt. Colleen Cain, was a Coast Guard reservist and the first woman to fly the HH-52 Seaguard amphibious helicopter. She became a Coast Guard aviator in 1979 and earned the Coast Guard Achievement Medal in 1980 after her participation in the rescue of a 3-year-old boy. In the early morning hours of Jan. 7, 1982, Cain co-piloted a helicopter that departed Barbers Point in response to a distress call from a sinking fishing vessel. About an hour later, the helicopter crashed into a steep mountainside on the island of Molokai. The entire crew – Cain, Lt. Cmdr. Horton Johnson and Petty Officer 2nd Class David Thompson – were killed. To honor the sacrifice of the service’s first woman killed in the line of duty, the Coast Guard Reserve Training Center in Yorktown, Virginia, named its 100-room dormitory Cain Hall.
One of the service’s highest-profile and physically demanding jobs officially opened to women in 1986 when, after completing the rigorous 18-week training program, Kelly Mogk Larson became the first female Coast Guard rescue swimmer. Larson would earn the Air Medal and personal congratulations from President George H.W. Bush after her first rescue, in January 1989 – that of a downed Air National Guard F-4 pilot who was badly injured and entangled in his own parachute in rough seas off the Oregon coast. Larson would later graduate from Officer Candidate School in Yorktown, earn her wings as a Coast Guard helicopter pilot, fly rescue and supply missions in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and retire in 2009 with the rank of lieutenant commander.
The Upper Echelons of Service
While the late 20th century saw Coast Guard women assigned virtually every duty to which their ranks entitled them, the transition into the 21st century has been a new era, a time when women have achieved virtually every rank their Coast Guard service has earned. New opportunities in male-dominated Coast Guard roles continued on the heels of the service’s “Women in the Coast Guard” study, commissioned by the commandant and released in 1990. The study found a lack of equal opportunity among the service’s upper ranks, and led to a systematic effort to support the recruitment and retention of women.
In the Gulf War of 1990-1991, three port security units (PSUs) with female personnel were sent to the Persian Gulf, the first combat assignments for Coast Guard women. Reservist – and grandmother – Sandy Mitten manned the aft .50-caliber machine gun of a PSU Raider boat. At the same time, a growing number of female officers received afloat commands, and in 1998, Diane Bucci and Patricia Stolle became the first enlisted women to advance to command master chief. Stolle assumed duties as command master chief of the Eleventh (Pacific Southwest) Coast Guard District in June 2006. Beverly Kelley became the first female commander of a high endurance cutter, the Boutwell, in 2000.
Coast Guard women, after decades of honorable service, have attained the service’s highest officer positions. Crea, among the first women to graduate from officer candidate school in Yorktown in 1973, became the first woman to achieve flag rank in the Coast Guard in 2000, when she was promoted to rear admiral. She became the first female district commander two years later, taking command of the First (Northeast) Coast Guard District, overseeing all Coast Guard operations from Maine to northern New Jersey. In 2004, Crea received a third star and assumed command of Coast Guard Atlantic Area, an operational area spanning five Coast Guard districts and 14 million square miles from the eastern to midwestern United States. Vice Adm. Crea became the first woman to hold the Coast Guard’s second-highest position, vice commandant, in 2006 – the highest rank achieved by a woman in any service branch. She served for three years before retiring in 2009, and in 2010 became the first Coast Guard aviator to be inducted into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame.
Crea’s distinguished Coast Guard career has not been an anomaly for women in the service. In 2009, Vice Adm. Jody Breckenridge assumed duties as commander, Coast Guard Pacific Area, an area of operations encompassing more than 73 million square miles throughout the Pacific Basin and Far East. Her previous assignments included assistant commandant for human resources; commander, Eleventh Coast Guard District; and director, Strategic Transformation Team.
Current Deputy Commandant for Mission Support Vice Adm. Sandra Stosz graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1982 and became the first woman to command a Great Lakes cutter, the icebreaking tug Katmai Bay, in 1990. In 2009, Stosz became the first female academy graduate to achieve flag rank, and was chosen in 2011 by Adm. Robert Papp, commandant of the Coast Guard, to become superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy – the first woman to lead a United States military academy.
Technically, the highest-ranking woman in Coast Guard history was Vice Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara, who received her commission from officer candidate school in 1975 and over her long career commanded both the Fifth (Mid-Atlantic) and Fourteenth (Hawaii) districts, commanded Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) West, and served as deputy commandant for operations. In May 2010, she became the second woman to be appointed vice commandant, and just a month before her retirement in 2012, Brice-O’Hara temporarily assumed command of the entire Coast Guard while Papp recovered from surgery.
The role of women in the service has come a long way since Hannah Thomas took charge of the Gurnet Point Light in 1776. Today, about 15 percent of the Coast Guard’s active-duty component are women, but the gender gap often doesn’t seem as conspicuous as in other service branches; since active recruiting and training began in the 1970s, women have served in every enlistment and achieved virtually every rank except one: commandant. And due to their pioneering work, that rank seems increasingly within a woman’s reach. Women have played a crucial role in shaping the unique culture and traditions of the modern Coast Guard, and they’ll no doubt play an even greater role in writing its 21st century history.
This article first appeared in the Women in the Armed Forces: A Century of Service publication.