C. Kay Larson, Historian, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary
Editor’s note: This brief essay is excerpted from former Auxiliary Historian C. Kay Larson’s submission to Coast Guard Magazinewell over 10 years ago. Larson’s research on Coast Guard women has led to the recognition of many female pioneers in the history of the Service, including Myrtle Hazard and World War II SPARs Olivia Hooker and Florence Finch.
In the years since Larson’s seminal research, historians have determined that Myrtle Hazard was the first active-duty female to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard.
For a more complete history of Myrtle Hazard’s career, visit Coast Guard author and historian William Wells’ (USCG ret) blog site “Simply Forgot Us” at: http://simplyforgotus.blogspot.com/
Approximately three weeks before the United States entered World War I, on March 14, 1917, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels ordered the recruitment of the first women into the naval reserves. The 1916 Naval Appropriations Act had established a reserve force in which “citizens” were to be enrolled. Since no gender was specified, Daniels grabbed the opportunity to induct female Yeomen (F) into the Naval Coast Defense Reserve and the Marine Corps.
During the war, among other positions, military women served as clerks, typists, secretaries, accountants, translators, decoders, telephone operators, radio electricians and operators, draftsmen, messengers, and assemblers at munitions and torpedo factories.
As an arm of the U.S. Navy in wartime, the Coast Guard also enlisted women. The service only comprised some 5,000 personnel and draftees were required to fill billets, so female volunteers were needed. A few women served at Coast Guard Headquarters, likely in administrative positions and as telephone operators. Brooklyn twins and “Yeomanettes,” Genevieve and Lucille Baker, transferred from the Navy to the Coast Guard. Yet until recently, that was all historians knew about World War I Coast Guard women. In fact, the popular Coast Guard history, Guardians of the Sea, makes no mention of women serving during World War I.
As a military historian, I had long suspected that more women might have enlisted. I believed that the German submarine threat along the Atlantic Coast was greater than generally known. Thus, if a substantial homeland defense had been required, likely more women volunteered.
Within the past few years, newspapers have digitized their historical archives to an extraordinary extent and made them available to researchers. Therefore, in November 2008, I culled Readex’s “America’s Historical Newspapers” database at the New York Public Library.
Having punched in the keywords “Coast Guard” and “women,” adding the years “1917 to 1918,” I immediately noted a Baltimore American newspaper article dated February 27, 1918. It featured a previously unknown Coast Guard woman. The entry was slim. Baltimore native, Myrtle R. Hazard, was cited as being the only woman electrician in the Coast Guard and one of the government’s few female radio operators. A photograph shows her to be a serious-looking brunette with short hair and large, dark eyes. She is apparently in uniform, as she wears a sailor’s collar with stripes.
Going to the New York Public Library’s genealogy database, I was then able to locate Hazard in the 1920 U.S. Census. She was living with her parents, Charles and Lilian Holthaus, in Baltimore’s Ninth Ward. Her birth year was listed as 1894, which put her age at about 24 years old during the war. No mention was made of her husband, but the 1910 census revealed an Edward W. Hazard, living in Ward 8 with his parents. Given their similarity in ages and proximity to each other, it is likely Edward was her husband. Since in 1920, which was two years after the armistice, Mrs. Hazard was living with her parents, the sad deduction is that she was a young war widow.
On December 12, 1918, Coast Guard Commandant Ellsworth Bertholf announced that during the annual reporting year ending June 20, the Coast Guard had rescued 1,250 persons from drowning and assisted 11,000 persons on distressed vessels. According to Bertholf, “Many of those rescued were from vessels sunk by German submarines off the Atlantic Coast.” This level of German activity indicates that Myrtle Hazard would not have been lazing about in her radio operator’s position.
These events and statistics also demonstrate that during World War I, America’s 12,000 female naval reservists not only supported the Service’s logistical network and released men for combat duty, but also served as an important part of the nation’s homeland defense. In this, Hazard’s role as a radio operator would have been a critical one.