The Long Blue Line: A letter from Christmas past

This Christmas letter was created using quotes from Hamerschlag’s narrative in the book “Three Years Behind the Mast”, quotes from newspaper articles, and stories relayed by the descendants of Unit 21 SPARs.

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By Donna Vojvodich, U.S.Coast Guard volunteer, and MKCS Tina Claflin U.S. Coast Guard Ret.

During World War II, the Coast Guard established the Women’s Reserve. The women who joined were known as SPARs, which stands for Semper Paratus Always Ready. Recruited and trained to “release a man for sea,” the SPARs served in a variety of shore jobs, including clerical, recruiting, radiomen, parachute riggers, drivers, pharmacist’s mates and cooks. A small contingent served in more novel roles. In 1944, a group of SPARs led by Ensign Vera Hamerschlag arrived in Chatham, Massachusetts, replacing all the men at Unit 21, a top-secret LORAN monitoring station. This Christmas letter was created using quotes from Hamerschlag’s narrative in the book “Three Years Behind the Mast”, quotes from newspaper articles, and stories relayed by the descendants of Unit 21 SPARs.  

1944 WAS A VERY BUSY YEAR FOR UNIT 21!

From Ensign Vera Hamerschlag, Commanding Officer:

“In the summer of 1943
, Headquarters decided that LORAN Monitor Stations within continental United States should be manned by SPARs. LORAN is one of those alphabet names meaning Long Range Aid to Navigation – a system developed at the beginning of the war whereby radio signals, transmitted from two shore-based stations, are picked up by a certain type of receiver-indicator installed in ships and planes, enabling them to calculate their exact position. The monitor station is equipped with the same type of receiver-indicator, but being a fixed station, is able to check the accuracy and general operations of the transmitting stations. The SPAR operators had to stand watch 24 hours a day, taking and recording these measurements every two minutes. Having worked as an assistant to the Naval Liaison Officer for LORAN at Radiation Lab and thereby becoming familiar with the LORAN System, I was selected to be in charge of the first SPAR monitor station at Chatham, Massachusetts. One enlisted SPAR and I were assigned to a two months’ course at M.I.T. in LORAN operation and maintenance of receiving equipment. We were the only women in the whole LORAN section of the Naval Training School and, needless to say, caused comment. Later, 10 enlisted SPARs were assigned to a one-week course in operations only. The selection of these SPARs was unique to say the least. LORAN was so “hush-hush” that not even the Training Officer had any conception of what the duties of these SPARs would be, nor what their qualifications should be. The Engineering Officer had laconically said: ‘Ability to keep their mouths shut.’ 

No one outside of the 12 women at Unit 21 knew its mission. During training “[a]ll of our class work, paperwork and notebooks had to be confiscated every day and secured. Even when we went to the station, it was still carried in a secure pouch.” ~RADIOMAN THIRD CLASS MARION WITHE (Previously employed by the telephone company)

“Everybody hated us. They thought we were snobs because we couldn’t talk to anybody.” ~RADIOMAN THIRD CLASS ANITA FREEMAN (Previously employed by General Electric, she told the Coast Guard she’d worked on radar)

(On arriving at Chatham in January, 1944):

“Unit 21 was manned 100 percent by men and the idea was for them to leave for overseas assignments as quickly as we were capable of taking over. We did this within one month – 100 percent SPARs with the exception of one male radio technician who was a veritable ‘man Friday’ to us all. He acted as instructor as well, and left six months later when we felt qualified to accept the responsibility of technical maintenance.”

I was apprehensive about serving under a woman commanding officer because I was not sure how to act. I missed Chatham after I left, especially the free lobsters given us by local lobstermen. ~RADIO TECHNICIAN FIRST CLASS RAYMOND RATHJEN

Loran Monitoring building in foreground Copyright © 2019 Loran-History.info
Loran Monitoring building in foreground Copyright © 2019 Loran-History.info

“The station consisted of one small building about 50 feet long and 30 feet wide. This provided sleeping quarters, recreation room, office space, operations room, repair shop and storage space!…I was operations and engineering officer, medical officer, barracks officer, personnel officer, training officer – and even Captain of the Head. I had to learn the intricacies of plumbing, of a coal furnace, of a Kohler engine that supplied emergency power when the main line was out – and being on the Cape where nor’easters are frequent, the times were many. I remember the feeling I had when I looked at the 125’ mast for the station’s antenna and wondered which SPAR would climb the riggin’ if something went wrong. I asked the CO whom I was replacing who took care of it. His nonchalant answer was not to worry since nothing would happen to it short of a hurricane.”

On the night of September 14, 1944, the Great Atlantic hurricane hit Chatham with winds up to 105 miles per hour. The CO was worried about the mast toppling over and smashing one of the buildings. Operations were suspended and the evacuated SPARs were moved around from building to building while guesses were made as to which building might be damaged. ~RADIOMAN THIRD CLASS ANITA FREEMAN 

Hurricanes were not the only threat. U-boats patrolled the coast and German agents were a concern. All the SPARs were issued firearms, and the lighthouse was the backdrop for target practice.

We were“ordered to shoot anyone who entered the LORAN building without authorization.” ~RADIOMAN THIRD CLASS ANITA FREEMAN 

Vera Hamerschlag and her puppy.

The monitor room was locked at all times. One night we heard a noise in the entry area, and called out asking the person to identify him or herself. There was no answer, so we armed ourselves. I was shaking. Could I really shoot someone? No shots were fired, as we determined that the intruder was the CO’s dog. ~RADIOMAN THIRD CLASS MARION SIMMONS

“The esprit de corps of Unit 21 was outstanding. We were a family unit. I remember the church wedding we had for one of our members.” 

Marion Simmons portrait

Wearing my uniform, I married Ray Simmons on May 6, 1944 at the Methodist church, and all the townspeople turned out for it. My CO gave me away! After our reception at the New Yorker Restaurant, we honeymooned in Boston. A few days later, I was back to work at Unit 21. ~RADIOMAN THIRD CLASS MARION SIMMONS

“The thought that we were participating in a system that was playing such an important part in winning the war gave us a feeling of being as close to the front lines as it was possible for SPARs to be.”

Merry Christmas and Victorious New Year!

Christmas Card from Unit 21
Portrait from Unit 21's Christmas card.

2 comments on “The Long Blue Line: A letter from Christmas past”

  1. Wonderful article. Wish more people were aware of the SPARs as well as what they and the whole Coast Guard did during WWII. My father served in the CG during WWII at the Battery in NYC.

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