Dr. Dorothy C. Stratton was serving as dean of women at Purdue University when she was recruited by friends to become one of the first officers in the Navy WAVES in 1942. Following World War II, she would return to a distinguished civilian career, including as the first director of personnel for the International Monetary Fund and national executive director of the Girl Scouts of America. She was awarded several honorary degrees in a remarkable life of 107 years. In 2010, the Coast Guard christened the third Legend-class cutter USCGC Stratton (WMSL-752) in her honor.
Following graduation from WAVES training, Lieutenant Stratton had a three-week tour at the University of Wisconsin radio operators’ school before being summoned back to Washington by the Navy. As she recalls in these edited excerpts from her Naval Institute oral history:
There I was taken into a room full of admirals. These were Coast Guard admirals. Admiral Russell Waesche was Commandant, a wonderful man.
Then I was asked a good many questions. They told me what they wanted and why I was there.
As it turns out, they needed someone to get the Coast Guard women’s volunteer reserve under way. The branch was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt on 23 November 1942 and authorized the acceptance of women into the reserve for the duration of the war plus six months.
After we got the legislation, I was sworn in as director on the 24th as a lieutenant commander and asked WAVES director Mildred McAfee if it would be possible to get a nucleus of WAVES officers to start us off. She said yes.
Then came the question, What are we going to call this unit? I tossed on that hard bed many nights trying to think. Then it came to me, the motto of the Coast Guard—Semper Paratus, Always Ready, SPAR!
I proposed it to the Commandant and his assistants. They accepted it. That was one thing I did.
I didn’t know anything about the Coast Guard. I asked to have an officer assigned to me. He was very handsome, Commander Jewell. I don’t know whether he liked the assignment, but he was tremendously helpful. Without him, I would have made many more blunders.
We had a decision to make almost immediately: where to do our SPAR officer training. We were the only service that would train women officers at the regular Academy. The standards had all been set for the male cadets. Here were these women, a lot of them in their thirties in the first groups, who were doing all these physical exercises, learning to shoot guns, doing all the things they weren’t going to be called on to do later.
I believe it was a good decision, training at the Academy. If you had had them training in a hotel somewhere, they just couldn’t have experienced that same feeling of the whole history and background of the Coast Guard.
Another early question we solved differently from the WAACs and WAVES was how to address our women officers. The WAACs called them ma’am. The WAVES said, “Good morning, Miss Jones.” We just decided since women were in the service, we would say, “Good morning, sir.” We used “sir” for everybody. That got us over one very awkward hump.
The SPARS would grow in numbers to 12,000, and their service would include assignments in Alaska and Hawaii. Stratton would rise to the rank of captain. Looking back, she recalled numerous funny incidents.
I remember one time I was down in Norfolk with a SPAR driver, a very good driver, who never saluted. The officer in charge had a little chat with her and said, “Look, this won’t do. You’re supposed to salute.” She said, “Well, I’ll tell you, I just don’t care very much for saluting.”
When I was out in Minneapolis to make a speech, my introducer said, “Captain Stratton always lives up to the motto of the Coast Guard—Seldom Prepared But Always Ready.”
Then there was the story of the little old lady across the aisle on a train ride to the West Coast. Finally, she couldn’t stand it anymore. She looked across and said, “Excuse me, but do you mind if I ask, are you WAAC, WAVE, or SPAM?”