by LCDR Dennis Branson (U.S. Coast Guard retired) and Ms. Betty Hansen, daughter of SK2 Mabel Johnson
For us, you are like our Founding Father. It’s like the opportunity to speak and talk to George Washington, or Alexander Hamilton, who created the Coast Guard. -RADM June Ryan, U.S. Coast Guard, 2018
The powerful words above were spoken by, now retired, Rear Adm. June Ryan, to Mrs. Mabel (Evensen) Johnson–a former Coast Guard SPAR.
Mabel Eleanor Evensen was born to Norwegian immigrants on November 4, 1914, on Staten Island, New York. Her father died when she was 13, forcing her mother to work as a housekeeper. At 17, Mabel realized she needed to do something to help support her family. She completed secretarial school and began an administrative job at Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in downtown New York City.
In 1943, as the Second World War blazed across the globe, a desire ignited in 28-year-old Mabel to do something. With that burning passion, she walked up Broadway Avenue, where she had recently seen the Armed Forces Recruiting Office, determined to enter the first service she came to. The recruiting sign “Coast Guard SPARS” caught her eye and, as the saying goes, “the rest is history.”
In October 1943, Mabel boarded a train from Grand Central Station bound for the Coast Guard SPAR Training Camp in Palm Beach, Florida. Many have heard of the World War II’s Women Reserves (the WACS-Army, WASPs-Air Corps and WAVES-Navy and Marine Corps); but few have heard of the Coast Guard’s Women’s Reserve or “SPARS.” Named by the first SPAR, Captain Dorothy Stratton, the acronym stands for “Semper Paratus, Always Ready.” The SPAR “boot camp” was at the iconic Biltmore Hotel, and then converted for training SPARS. Mabel joined Training Company #101 and began her Coast Guard journey.
Mabel began her Storekeeper training right after boot camp. With her administrative experience at Met Life, the duties of a Storekeeper (SK) proved a natural fit for her. The SK program was an eight-week intensive study with a variety of classes from 8:00 am until 5:00 pm, and examinations on Saturday mornings. Mabel and her roommates spent long evenings studying together forming a deep camaraderie. Mable maintained lifelong friendships from those first SPAR experiences in Palm Beach.
Following Palm Beach training, Mabel shipped out to the Coast Guard’s Ninth District Office in Cleveland to serve in the Pay & Personnel Division supporting personnel on the Great Lakes. Earlier, Mabel had fallen in love with a fellow Staten Islander Ken Johnson, then serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine Service. Ken made many dangerous trips across the Atlantic as a radio operator, and his safety was always a concern for Mabel.
In March 1945, Mabel was granted special leave to return home to marry Ken on Staten Island. Mabel still recalls how service women were required to wear their uniforms, but she obtained special permission to wear a white dress for her wedding!
As May 8, 1945, victory in Europe (VE Day) was declared. The Cleveland Coast Guard offices on Euclid Avenue were abuzz with activity. From a small radio, the staff had listened to the sad news of President Franklin Roosevelt’s death, but they now heard President Harry Truman declare that the war in Europe had ended. Bells were ringing, whistles were blowing and people–including Coast Guard men and women on the 16thfloor of the Keith Building–were throwing paper out of windows. Mabel recounted, “Euclid Avenue was knee deep in paper!”
After VE-Day, Mabel arranged a “mutual” transfer with a SPAR in New York City, so she could be stationed near her husband. SK2 Johnson continued to serve the Coast Guard in Manhattan until May 1946. She joined Ken, who was discharged from the Merchant Marine a month earlier and started a career in the auto industry.
The post-war era had begun. Mabel focused on raising their children, Ken, Jr., Elizabeth (Betty) and Gary. In 1991, Ken and Mabel moved to the Kansas City, Kansas, suburbs to live near daughter Betty and son-in-law Alan. In 2008, after 63 years of marriage, Ken “passed the bar.” Mabel continues to enjoy life in Olathe, Kansas, living with her daughter and son-in-law.