U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
Interviewer: Victoria Miller
Date of Interview: 28 September 2005
Place: Fredericksburg, Virginia
MILLER: This is September 28, 2005 in the dining room, slash kitchen in the home of Michelle Musselman in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I’m interviewing Donna Ione Smith of Mount Vernon, Washington State, who was born July 18, 1922 and served with the SPARS during World War II. My name is Victoria Miller. I’m from the University of Mary Washington and I’m working in conjunction with the Veteran’s History Project and the United States Coast Guard. Also present are Michele Musselman and Mrs. Smith and myself. Ok. After the interview, I’m going to ask you to sign two separate forms. There is a Veteran’s Release Form. You can have a look at them now if you like.
SMITH: Well, I can’t read it so I’ll I just go ahead and sign it. But you’ll have to point out is where I have to sign.
MILLER: Sure. Sure. We’ll have you sign after the interview just because that’s the protocol.
MILLER: There's also another release form from the Coast Guard. And it will just basically give both the Library of Congress and the Coast Guard permission to use your words and quote you if needed.
MILLER: OK. I'll just…
SMITH: No problem.
MILLER: …put that over here and get it out of our way. OK. Alright. Let's start. So where are you from?
SMITH: Originally? I'm from Washington State. I was born in Spokane, but I grew up in my fourth generation of western Washington State, north of Seattle and that's where I grew up until I left to join the service.
MILLER: Great. What did you do before enlisting?
SMITH: Well, I was just shortly out of high school actually when the war started and all the fellows were leaving and I thought I want to go to. When they came along, the Navy was going to take women in as WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service]. I decided I would do that, which I did. And then later transferred to the Coast Guard when they were the starting the Coast Guard SPARS [Semper Paratus Always Ready--the acronym for the Coast Guard Women's Reserve] because they wanted to get started and they wanted somebody with their training and I thought it would be a good idea. And I enjoyed it very much. I was trained at Oklahoma A & M and it was there that somebody came when they were the starting the SPARS and wanted to get their start so they asked me if I would. I’m not sure how many decided to go into the SPARS at that time, but I was one of the first ones left to go because I didn’t have time to go on visit my home in Washington State. So I came on to Washington, DC and I never will forget when I arrived. Well, they said to take a taxi and ask to go to the Coast Guard Headquarters. Well, I got a taxi and I asked to go to Coast Guard Headquarters. They didn’t know where Coast Guard Headquarters where so they took me down to the river to a Coast Guard boat and they opened the doors and they let me out and here I stepped out with a couple of suitcases and all the fellows stopped what they were doing onboard ship and looked at me wondering what was going next. Because this was before women were first coming into the service and then a fellow did, from the ship, did get one of the service cars and did take me to Coast Guard Headquarters where I spent my time while I was in the service here.
MILLER: Wow. I’ll just turn up the volume just a little bit. What made you pick the SPARS?
SMITH: Well, I thought for one thing it was smaller group that I would probably – I don’t – it would be probably – probably get to know people closer. I’ve always been one that –more than a large group – I like smaller groups of people to be with so that I get to know them better, I think. I did. I found that to be true and I knew where I would be going. I think we were all going to Coast Guard Headquarters at that particular time and I thought that would be a good idea.
MILLER: So was going to Washington DC an additional draw for you?
SMITH: Pardon me?
MILLER: Was going to Washington, DC an additional draw for you, another reason why you wanted to join?
SMITH: Well, I had been there before visiting, but I thought it would be a place where I would be – could be very well used. It would be a good place to be during war time.
MILLER: Right. If you don’t mind, could we go back to your training? Could you tell me a little more about your training experiences?
SMITH: Well, it was all at Oklahoma A&M and I was trained as a yeoman at the university--college there and it was very good training. They really gave us - we really studied hard and they gave it to us and we did learn a lot. So it was not only about the training itself, but about the service and what was expected of us and everything. But at that particular that time, of course, the women were to take the place of men so men could go over seas. I mean, that was the idea. So we were mainly to go to, like, headquarters or offices and everything that was the whole. So mainly we were trained as Yeomen. At least where I was located.
MILLER: So what sort of things did you study in training?
SMITH: Well, it was a lot of history, but also all the Yeoman B typing and all of that and reports and forms that we would be using in the service. Of course, it was the same for the Coast Guard as it would be for the Navy. The only thing about the change is I did have to put the Coast Guard emblem on my uniforms.
MILLER: Do you remember any of your instructors?
SMITH: No I do not. I do not remember. Vaguely in my mind’s eye I do, but not names or anything I don’t.
MILLER: I know you already answered this, but after training you went to Washington, DC?
MILLER: And do you remember what exactly your job assignment was?
SMITH: Yes. I was assigned to Military Morale and Section and this covered all the benefits that were given to, I suppose you would call the dependents of people who were serving. We got mail from all over the United States with problems, you know, and dependents, which we had to answer and try to take care of and help them. And I worked with that from the very beginning and then later on I was transferred. Well, my mother contacted me and wondered what was going on because the FBI was going to people that I had given as references in our hometown area and she wondered what was happening or what was going on and it turned out that they transferred me to a station, which was totally sealed off and guarded and we had to go in and out of under privacy with a locked position and it was secret, but we handled the secret messages that went out of headquarters. Logged them and all over the world.
MILLER: So you did that after serving with the military morale section?
SMITH: No, no. When I was with the Coast Guard, but I don’t think it had a particular name or anything. It was just a secret, guarded area where all the messages that were sent out from Headquarters – secret messages – we had to log them. And it was a very secret area.
MILLER: And was that in Washington, DC?
SMITH: Yes. It was right at Headquarters. It was in the Headquarters building.
MILLER: Oh. Wow. So…
SMITH: That part was interesting.
MILLER: So you were transferred to that section after…?
SMITH: No. Well, yes. It was still in the Coast Guard Headquarters.
MILLER: Was it still under Military Morale or was it entirely different?
SMITH: No. It wasn’t under Military Morale. It would be – it was in a different section – but it was still in the building. The Coast Guard building was not that large. I think it was only about three or four stories and this was in the basement where I was at that time when that was going on.
MILLER: Do you have any memorable experiences from working at headquarters?
SMITH: Well, it was all very interesting. And I can’t say there was anything special except being the first woman there. I remember when I first went in it was about four days before I was afraid to look up, look around because of all the fellows that were involved. But, anyway, I did look at my husband one day about four days after that and I wondered if I could ever have a date with him, but I didn’t know how things were going to turn out. But that’s what happened. He was in Military Morale at that time, too. And we were married while we were both in that division on April 21, 1943. He later went on to Coast Guard Academy and became an officer and was sent overseas to be in the Pacific. Meanwhile, I became pregnant and was given an honorable discharge and went home so my military life was not that long, but it was wonderful while I was there and I appreciated it. And my husband did serve six years altogether. I’m proud of all his efforts.
MILLER: How did it feel to be a woman in the military? You said that you were sort of afraid at first.
SMITH: Well, I wasn’t afraid, but I was – what would be the word? Just that because we were new, I didn’t know what to expect perhaps. I was treated very well all the way through. No problems whatsoever. I enjoyed it all, but it was just that I think I didn’t know – I didn’t know what to expect. How the reaction would be to having a woman, you know, in the military there. But it turned out very, very well. Of course, more kept coming and that made it even better.
MILLER: Do you remember what you did on leave?
SMITH: Well, there wasn’t much we could do. We walked wherever we wanted to go. And we did go to some of the theatres and things like that, but I never left on a trip or anything like that. And we didn’t – say [unclear] the Washington, D.C. area there was a lot for us to see and one thing that was rather bad we had to eat all our meals out and it was hard to find places. I mean, every place was so busy and even breakfast you had to eat out and this was difficult, but we managed and when we first arrived we stayed in a hotel. The SPARS did and then they had a real home on Kalorama Road, which wasn’t to far fro headquarters and we walked wherever we wanted to go practically. So that was the only we had to get around.
MILLER: Who did you share the home with?
SMITH: Well, the home was – eventually there were about thirty, I would say, SPARS that lived in it.
MILLER: Oh. Wow.
SMITH: There were about four to a room. I don’t know what they – it was just a great big old home that they made into like a dormitory I would say. But there was no place to eat there. We just lived there with all. But that was the hardest part I would say. During the war and servicing there was the fact that we had to find our own places to eat and everything was so busy at that time also that it was difficult.
MILLER: Did you remain friends with any of the women you shared the house with?
SMITH: Pardon me?
MILLER: Did you remain friends with any of the other SPARS that you met?
SMITH: I did for awhile, but we gradually…so many of them were from this part of the county and I was out from near Seattle that I gradually lost track of them. The only one I did stay in touch with for great lengths of time was the one that was with us when we were married, but now I don’t. I’ve lost track of her, too, so I wish I could – I went up there yesterday and I think maybe, hopefully, maybe someone will get in touch with us with our address and everything. It’s in the magazine that they have or something. Maybe someone will contact us. I would love to get in touch with any one of them. It would be wonderful.
MILLER: Oh. Yeah. Was she your maid of honor?
SMITH: Yes she was.
MILLER: What was her name?
SMITH: V. Macy [re: Violet Macy] and she was very, very special. I know she went into writing and I think she worked for news up in New York City. I think is where she is still. If she’s still living, I’m just not sure.
MILLER: So you got married on April 24 – 21…
SMITH: April 21, 1943.
MILLER: What was it like?
SMITH: Well, it was just special. Actually, we just told the people that we were going to get married and we invited them all to come to the church to see us and it ended up that a lot of them came. And then they had this big reception for us afterwards at the Shoreham Hotel, which was a total, total surprise to us, you know. They had gifts for us and everything. In fact, have you seen the letter that was [At this point, Mrs. Smith showed me the letter, which was in a photo album on the table] written about the wedding?
SMITH: This was by the chief that gave me away.
MILLER: Oh. That’s great. So were you married in uniform?
SMITH: Oh yes [Mrs. Smith shows a photo]. In fact, the three officers that were from the section there were at our reception and wedding, too.
MILLER: I have to describe the photo for the tape. There are three officers in the left in the photo and then Mr. Smith is second from the right and Mrs. Smith is on the very right.
SMITH: And this Commander [James R.] Hinnant [USCG}, who was present there, was later killed in the Pacific [Mrs. Smith shows a newspaper obituary clipping].
MILLER: Oh my.
SMITH: He was a very special person.
MILLER: So the reception afterwards was a surprise?
SMITH: Oh definitely. We did not know anything about it.
MILLER: Did you have a chance for a honeymoon?
SMITH: No. No. We were lucky enough to find – my husband happened to run into somebody who he had known who was leaving and we found a little upstairs apartment in a private home because it was very, very difficult to find any kind of apartment at that particular time. So we did find that and stayed there and lived there. We never – no. We never got to go on any honeymoon or trip. I came on our – our fiftieth wedding anniversary we did go on a cruise.
MILLER: That’s amazing. So how long have you been married?
SMITH: Sixty-two years.
SMITH: And they said it would never last. I have one story to tell. When I left the service and was going home. My husband was going to the Academy and I was being discharged and sent home. I was still in uniform and everything and on the train back to Seattle, I was sharing – I had the upper booth or upper birth – and this nice woman had the lower birth in the Pullman Car there. And she was so nice to me all the way and she was so interested in a SPAR and how – how I became one and what it was like and everything. And so I told her all that I could, you know, and everything and all of that. And finally we were pulling into Seattle and she said “I think I’ll tell you now.” Up until that time, “Let’s just go by our first names and keep it very simple.” And when we were pulling into Seattle why she said, “I think I’ll let you know now who I am.” And she was [Vice] Admiral [Russell R.] Waesche’s wife. He was the commandant of the Coast Guard.
MILLER: Oh. Wow.
SMITH: This was by – she had kept that way, but I remembered that all my life as what a special way to treat people and not be overwhelming to people and, you know, it was a wonderful experience. She was a lovely, lovely lady.
MILLER: So do you remember the day you left the service?
SMITH: Well, it was June of 1943 that my husband, yeah, went up north to Academy and I went home.
MILLER: And you said you were given an honorable discharge?
MILLER: And what did you do after leaving the service?
SMITH: Well, I was pregnant. I went back to where – I went back and I stayed with my folks at that particular time.
MILLER: You went back to Washington State?
MILLER: And your husband, what did he do?
SMITH: Well, he went on to New London, Connecticut in the officer’s training then he was onboard USS Salvia (WAGL-400; right) ship for awhile in the Atlantic. Then he asked for a transfer to the Pacific because he said he’d rather be out off the west coast. And he spent the next years, all of during the war, in the Pacific. I did see him when he came out to the west. We met in California and then he went on board ship and he was on several ships in the Pacific for the Coast Guard and ended up on a LST (left). That was a landing ship. And he was involved in a number of things with that. So he spent his - until the end of the war - he spent in the Pacific as an officer. He was first an ensign and then a Lieutenant JG.
MILLER: Did you see him more than that one time in California?
SMITH: For the first three years we were married, I think we were together altogether about two-and-a-half to three months.
MILLER: How did you stay in touch?
SMITH: Oh. We wrote letters all the time. Actually, the mail service was not too bad. Except I knew when a battle was on or something because then the mail would stop coming. I don’t think stopped writing or anything, but it just wouldn’t go through. But I wrote everyday. I can’t remember if he wrote that often. I doubt it very much. Anyway, we kept very close touch. People said, like, it wouldn’t last when we got married, but it’s been a very good marriage all these years.
MILLER: Did you do anything while he was still serving or did you stay at home with your family?
SMITH: No. I stayed at home. Actually, when we did meet in California that one time I became pregnant again. So I ended up with two children by the time he got out of the service so that kept me kind of busy for that period of time.
MILLER: I’m sure.
SMITH: And then as soon as he got home we bought a home. And we’ve been happily married for a number of – a long number of years.
MILLER: What did your husband do after the war?
SMITH: Well, first, he became an electrician. Then he got involved in heavy construction and then he became a superintendent with Bechtel Corporation and we moved around the United States quite a bit. In fact, we lived back here when they were building a power plant over here in Maryland and that’s how Michelle, or daughter, ended up back here. She was just in high school when we made this move back here, but we lived in Mississippi and we lived in Michigan, but the Northwest was always our home. Even Bob, though he is from Michigan, enjoyed the Northwest. We always had a home there that we bought, that we kept and not one of daughters lived in it. That’s kept us occupied until retirement. He’s been in construction, as he was a superintendent with Bechtel Corporation, when he left there, when he retired.
MILLER: How many children did you have?
MILLER: Oh my.
SMITH: That kind of sad part is that they ended up kind of scattered around the country. It would be nice, especially now when it’s harder for us to travel, it would be nice to have them closer together. But that’s life. Today especially.
MILLER: How did your service and experiences during the war affect your life?
SMITH: Well, I wouldn’t say that it effected in any way down-matter in any way shape or form. I think it’s made me appreciate all the values of life that we have, but we can’t just ignore things. If things are going wrong, we need to try to straighten them out. I have – I know my husband is not sorry that he spent time in the service. In fact, he had a chance when he was leaving. They had an opening in Hawaii that he was eligible for and they wanted him so much with his experience and they would have paid our way out there. The family and everything. And he was willing to accept it and stay in the Coast Guard except he couldn’t get – they wouldn’t let him go from the one temporary assignment that he had at the time so that kind of fell through. He wouldn’t have minded staying in the service really, but then he decided he didn’t want to move the family around too much after being separated for so long. We both admire the service very much and the visit to Coast Guard Headquarters yesterday was very, very special. We enjoyed it. I never have seen so many officers together at one time and they let us cut the ribbon and it was very memorable.
MILLER: Do you want to go over the photographs that you have?
SMITH: Oh. [Mrs. Smith picks up the photo album] See, I can’t see very well.
MILLER: I’ll move over closer to you.
SMITH: Well, this is just different – this tells when we were married, of course. But I think…
MILLER: And that’s a newspaper clipping?
SMITH: If you just have any questions about them, is the main thing.
MILLER: Most of the photos are wedding photos. I’m just doing a description for the tape. This one at the top, this is the wedding party?
MILLER: You and Mr. Smith are center?
MILLER: And then the wedding party and then is this a newspaper clipping down here?
SMITH: Pardon me? That’s the same picture as here. Yes.
MILLER: OK. There’s a clipping of some sort where Mr.….
SMITH: That’s out of the paper.
MILLER: Oh. OK. Was that your local paper in Washington State?
SMITH: No. That was in Detroit paper.
MILLER: Oh. Wow. Mr. and Mrs. Smith – it’s the same photo as used for recruiting posters?
SMITH: This is the one they used – had a recruiting poster made out of.
MILLER: Oh. Wow. Mrs. Smith is on the left and Mr. Smith is on the right and they’re looking at each other. And there is a fourth photo where they are in the car leaving the wedding?
MILLER: And Mrs. Smith is on the right and Mr. Smith is on the left.
SMITH: I think, then this is the one with the officers that were present, our cake. Especially, we were proud to know Commander Hinnant. So sorry when he was killed. These are pictures that were taken yesterday up at the Headquarters. This is when they were cutting the ribbon.
MILLER: There’s a photo of the exhibit at the Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The exhibit is dedicated to Douglas A. Monroe. And there is a photo of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and an officer and his wife I believe in front of the exhibit?
SMITH: No. That’s – she was somebody who used to be in the Coast Guard, too, and she was there. She had a pin for me and she was really nice. She’d been in the Coast Guard Reserve for some time.
MILLER: That’s wonderful. Do you remember what your first date with your husband was like?
SMITH: Well, yes. It was probably not long after I arrived there that we just started – we would go through the park, like I say we didn’t do anything special because we didn’t have a car or anything. We would walk around and go out to eat together and go to the park together. We definitely fell for each other I would guess you would say.
MILLER: Well, before we conclude the interview, is there anything else that you want to add?
SMITH: No. I think it’s been so many years ago that I probably – of course, my service was not nearly as long as my husband’s or anything, but I’m certainly happy to have been a member of the SPARS and I feel very honored for having been one. And the first Coast Guard couple to be married was a specialty also. Now today there are so many women in the service, but I know I’ve been treated – the first – it wasn’t too long ago that I went to the V.A. about something back in Washington State. Several women came up to me and nurses and so on and they congratulated me and I didn’t know what they were talking about. “Well, you were one of the first women that opened up things for all the rest of the women.”
MILLER: Tape number two and I’m interviewing Donna Ione Smith and my name is Victoria Miller. You were telling me a story about a few years ago when several…
SMITH: Well, yes. It was maybe about five years ago regarding some health problems and they treated me so special and commented. The nurses came and one of the doctors – it was a woman doctor and everything. They were saying – they congratulated me – and said it was nice to meet me and they were so happy about it because of the fact that being one of the first one’s in the service or one of the earlier one’s in the service that we opened a whole new world for women in the united States and let them follow up. Now today there are a lot of women in the service.
SMITH: I had never thought about it before it was mentioned to me. So that was one thing I thought I would comment on.
MILLER: That’s great. Is there anything else?
SMITH: No I believe that is all, but after yesterday being up at headquarters and being treated so special. I’ve been very – It was a very rewarding feeling to us. I felt very sentimental about it all and very happy that we had been what we were. We want to be honorable all the way we can and we think a lot of the Coast Guard.
MILLER: That’s wonderful. OK. I’m going to stop the tape.
END OF INTERVIEW