Captain Dorothy C Stratton – Don’t be a spare, be a SPAR!

Few know of SPARs, the World War II Women’s Reserve of the United States Coast Guard, and their brilliant director—Captain Dorothy C. Stratton. Dorothy ingeniously named the organization after she was selected as director by a room full of admirals.

In 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama commissioned a coast guard cutter in honor of Dorothy Stratton. It was the first time in history that a Legend-class National Security Cutter was named after a woman, and the first time that a first lady sponsored a coast guard or navy ship. Today, the Cutter Stratton protects America’s shoreline.

First Lady Michelle Obama christens the USCGC Stratton
First Lady Michelle Obama christens the USCGC Stratton

Before the war, Dorothy was Purdue University’s first full-time Dean of Women. In the 1941 yearbook, Dorothy, age forty-one, was quoted, “To be interesting, do interesting things.” Dorothy lived to be 107, wholly living out her mantra.

For several nights after Dorothy was made director in 1942, she lay awake trying to think of a name for her coast guard women. Suddenly, it came to her from the motto of the coast guard—“Semper Paratus” (Latin for “Always Ready”)—SPAR.

The nautical meaning of “SPAR” means a supporting beam of a ship. That was the women’s reserve—a support. The women took over the men’s stateside military jobs, so the men were free to go overseas for combat duty. When the war ended in 1945, 11,000 SPARs had served.

115. Stratton boarding Clipper to Hawaii
Captain Stratton boarding a clipper to Hawaii


Dorothy assisted in selecting the Biltmore Hotel, known as the “Pink Palace”, in Palm Beach, Florida, as the training base for SPARs. Reputed as the most expensive building constructed in Florida, opulent features were replaced with functional, and walls were knocked out to accommodate six women per room. Graduates became storekeepers, yeomen, cooks, bakers, commissary stewards, dental or pharmacist mates, or recruiters.

The musical show Tars and Spars was performed at the training hotel featuring Sid Caesar in his first major gig as a comedian. A film version was made in 1946.

Recruitment posters displayed attractive SPARs and catchy phrases: “Your Duty Ashore . . . His Afloat”; “The Girl of the Year is a Spar”; “Make a Date with Uncle Sam”; and “Don’t Be a Spare . . . Be a SPAR.”


The black-and-white recruitment film “Coast Guard Spars” showed coast guard women filing papers, typing on Underwood typewriters, and chauffeuring high-ranking men as peppy marching-band music plays. An announcer stated, “There are many jobs the coast guard needs you for! The skills learned today could mean better jobs tomorrow. You won’t get to be an admiral, but you may be the admiral’s secretary!”

When the war ended, Dorothy became the director of personnel for the International Monetary Fund. Through the 1950s, she was the Executive Director of the Girl Scouts of America. She then served as the representative for the International Federation of University Women (IFUW) at the United Nations. Captain Dorothy C. Stratton passed away in 2006.

In Three Years Behind the Mast: The Story of the United States Coast Guard SPARS, Dorothy wrote a message titled “The Skipper Speaks”: “We shall always think of the Coast Guard with loyalty and affection. Our ‘Three Years Behind the Mast’ have been a never-to-be-forgotten experience, which we shall always cherish. A hearty wish for smooth sailing goes with our final salute and our ‘By Your Leave, Sirs’ as we bow out of your gallant company.”

Written for Sheroes of History by Angie Klink, who has written a book about Dorothy Stratton The Deans’ Bible: Five Purdue Women and Their Quest for Equality.

Find out more….

Angie’s book featuring Dorothy is available here. You can watch a trailer for the book here and there is even an online exhibition about the five women here.

You can see an online copy of Dorothy’s book Three Years Behind the Mast…” target=”_blank”>here.

Watch the Coast Guard SPARS 1943 film in this YouTube clip:

Sheroes of History is a weekly women’s history blog, telling the stories of inspiring women from history.

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