For about four decades, the top ship commands for Coast Guard captains were “the big white ones,” the high-endurance cutter Hamilton (WHEC-715) and her 11 sisters. Ships of the class were named for secretaries of the Treasury, a legacy from the long era when that department was the parent organization for the service. In March 2011, the decommissioning process for the class began when the Hamilton was transferred to the Philippine Navy.
Replacements for these sturdy, long-serving ships come in the form of new national-security cutters, a fitting description now that the Coast Guard falls under the Department of Homeland Security. The new “big white ones” make up the Legend class. Scheduled to be commissioned in March 2012 is the third ship of the type, the Stratton (WMSL-752). She was christened by the first lady, Michelle Obama, and named in honor of the Coast Guard’s first female member, Captain Dorothy C. Stratton.
Stratton was dean of women at Purdue University in Indiana when the United States entered World War II. In a Naval Institute oral-history interview conducted in 1970, she explained that she decided to enter service as a means of aiding the war effort against Japan and Germany. In the summer of 1942, she received a direct commission as a Naval Reserve lieutenant in the fledgling WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). After initial training, she was assigned duty as exec of a radio operators’ school in Wisconsin. Shortly, she went to the badly overcrowded nation’s capital for a temporary assignment. In her oral history she recalled thinking, “Dear Lord, preserve me from being ordered to duty in Washington during the war.”
Soon after her arrival, at the behest of Lieutenant Commander Mildred McAfee, director of the WAVES, Stratton reported to Coast Guard headquarters. There she was interviewed by a roomful of admirals, led by Commandant Vice Admiral Russell Waesche. Stratton went back to duty in Wisconsin but only briefly, for she had made a favorable impression during her interview. On 23 November 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the law that created the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. The next day Stratton, as a lieutenant commander, was sworn in as the first director.
Her prayer to be spared Washington duty was not answered; she spent the next 3½ years there forming and guiding the new entity. There was a critical shortage of housing in the nation’s capital at the time, and her initial lodging was an enlarged closet that had a couch in it.
Getting the new women’s reserve up and running posed many challenges. Again Mildred McAfee was helpful, letting Stratton take a dozen WAVE officers to enter the Coast Guard Reserve. The WAVE uniforms were quickly adapted by substituting Coast Guard insignia for Navy, thus following the practice for male Coast Guard uniforms of the era. The new service needed a catchy name as well, and Stratton took that as a personal challenge. As she remembered in her oral history: “I tossed on that hard bed many nights trying to think what we’d call this organization. Sometimes when you just absolutely have to do something, you do it. Suddenly it came to me from the motto of the Coast Guard, ‘Semper Paratus, Always Ready’—SPAR.” Those four words are part of the ship’s crest of the new Stratton.
From the nucleus of a dozen female officers provided by the Navy, Stratton built her branch to formidable numbers by war’s end: 10,000 enlisted women and 1,000 officers. The philosophy at the time was to put women into jobs that would free men to fight. Thus they initially became yeomen and storekeepers and provided crews for loran navigation stations. Officer training for females was conducted at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, the only service academy to train female officer candidates during the war.
Significantly, Stratton’s title was director, not commander, for the SPARs did not have a separate chain of command. Her role was to organize, advise, persuade, publicize, recruit, inspire, and support—but not to issue orders. In that vein, she somewhat ruefully quoted Mildred McAfee’s observation after heading the WAVES for a while: “I thought it was very important to keep the reins in my own hands until I discovered that there were no reins.”
Stratton remained as director of the SPARs until 1946, by which time women’s accomplishments had made many inroads into previously all-male areas. Once she left the service, she was personnel director for the International Monetary Fund and later national executive director of the Girl Scouts. In retirement she observed ever-increasing opportunities for women throughout society. A separate women’s reserve ended in 1973, as females became eligible for the regular Coast Guard. Subsequently women became cadets at the Academy, were integrated into ships’ crews, became commanding officers of cutters and air stations, and were promoted to flag rank.
In June 2006, Vice Admiral Vivien Crea became the first female vice commandant of the service. Three months later Dorothy Stratton, who had started it all, died at the age of 107.