As told to Mary Louis
I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio to Ben and Cecelia Veronica Upchurch in 1923. Shortly after, my family moved to Manhattan, New York, where my brother, Robert was born three and a half years later. My father traveled a lot because he was in the Merchant Marines but the family always stayed put. It wasn’t until graduation from high school that I moved to Annapolis, Maryland for business college at Annapolis Business College, or ABC for short.
My father, Ben Upchurch, was an inspiration to me. He was in the Merchant Marines, and when war was declared the Coast Guard took over the Merchant Marines in both WWI and WWII. Because of his lengthy experience with the Merchant Marines, he was made a Commander in the Guard. My sharpest memory of my father in his military uniform was while I was attending college in Annapolis.
While attending ABC, I met Joe Thoms, a sailor during a fun time while I was out “with the girls” from school. We married when I graduated from business school. He was shipped out by the Navy shortly after our marriage. Before he left he made arrangements for me to move to San Bernardino, California to live with his folks.
A woman named Melba Siefert befriended me while I was looking for work. I was grateful for her because I knew no one on the West Coast. She helped me find a job. I worked as a bookkeeper for a coal company. After a year’s deployment of sea duty in the Atlantic, Joe joined me at his parents. Joe worked as a pharmacist at a Navy hospital.
I was home for lunch and heard the news of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941. Right away I determined that I wanted to help in the war effort. I went to a Coast Guard recruiting office within a day or two. There was no question in my mind as to which branch of the service to join. Of course, it had to be the Coast Guard, like my father! The Coast Guard was not accepting women yet into their service but I completed letters of interest with them anyway. Meanwhile I continued working at the coal company.
But just filing papers of intent with the Coast Guard created problems for me on the home front. Joe’s parents disapproved of enlisted women so they encouraged Joe to divorce me. While visiting him at the hospital where he was assigned, he explained how upset his parents were with my enlistment, and that he thought a divorce would be better.
Finally, I received word that the Coast Guard was accepting women. I enlisted on March 1, 1943. My marriage ended due to in-law interference and my determination to serve my country in active military duty.
The divorce that was forced upon me was probably one of the best things that happened in my life, because otherwise I might have ended up in a lengthy marriage to a “mamma’s boy.” I was glad to escape the atmosphere of disapproval in Joe’s parents’ home and the dirt of the coal company. My parents were supportive of me when I divorced because they felt I married too young anyway. They were proud of me wanting to contribute to the war effort in the service. My father was especially proud because I chose the Coast Guard.
My brother, Robert, later enlisted in the Army for his own contribution to the war effort. Our parents were proud of his enlistment also. They held no hard feelings that he chose the Army over the Coast Guard.
I was sent to boot camp at Hunter College in New York City. That suited me fine, as most of my growing-up years were in Manhattan. I remember our “quarters” were in a seventh-floor walk-up. The drill sergeants seemed to enjoy blowing a whistle on the ground floor so everyone would come running down the stairs only to be told to return to quarters back upstairs. That was in addition to the regular drilling every day.
I was happy in boot camp because I enjoyed the camaraderie with the other young women there. There was also some sadness due to the war, which was ever present in our minds because we had to pull down the blackout shades before dark every night. The gang showers took a little getting used to, but boot camp did teach taught me to obey orders and to mingle with people from all walks of life. I still write to my first roommate, Norma, from boot camp, and we talk on the phone.
Celia and friend Thelma, NY, 1943
After boot camp I went for continued secretarial training in military and medical terminology as a Yeoman (Gal Friday) at Oklahoma A & M University.
We women were officially known as the “Spars” from the Latin “Semper Paratus,” meaning “Always Ready.” Oklahoma might have been fine except that the training was from June through August. It was extremely hot! We would wet towels in the cool water fountain and then lay them on ourselves at night in order to sleep. This was our air conditioning!
We also honed our marching skills while learning to take orders. Being short, 5’ 1 ¼”, I was always first in line as the Right Guard. One time there were two dogs who were joined together as we marched in formation straight for them. I had to decide what to do as we headed their way. Some servicemen laughed at our predicament. Fortunately, the dogs finished their business by the time we reached them and ran away.
A good summary of boot camp and training is that I survived.
Contributing to the War Effort
After my Yeoman training, I returned to Southern California at Long Beach and worked with inventorying medical supplies and doing clerical work in medical clinics. I was also involved in recruiting for the Coast Guard and selling war bonds. During one of the war bond drives I met Lucille Ball who was lending her star power towards this effort.
From Long Beach I was transferred to Philadelphia. That situation was called a “subs and quarters” assignment at the Ben Franklin Hotel. We were given money for our meals and had to eat out all the time, which actually got a little boring. I continued working in the clerical medical field there. I was able to see my father in Philadelphia for dinner one night, which was nice.
I remember being warned by my supervisor against dating officers. They might have been interested in me, but when I referred to the gentleman with a Commander’s braid on his uniform in an elevator packed with midshipmen as “Daddy,” that ruined any chance of involvement with them.
From Philadelphia, I moved to Cape May, New Jersey (yes, the resort town!). I continued with my medical clerical work. I was in Cape May when Franklin Roosevelt died. That was a sad time.
The Long Train Ride
My next orders were for Alaska. To reach Alaska, I had to travel to our departure point at Port Townsend, Washington by train. The trip took four days and three nights from Philadelphia to Port Townsend. This train trip was memorable for several reasons. Most importantly, I met a young sailor who was en route to his next assignment in Seattle. We hit it off pretty well. Little did I realize that Dwight Johnson would become my future husband. He was a good-looking blonde and his shy, quiet demeanor appealed to me. He was fresh off the farm in Nebraska, and that also attracted me. I had had enough of New York city slickers.
There was other entertainment on the train to distract me too. One night there was a well-known comedic group on board. Apparently one of them remembered my name. After his routine he enjoyed himself with a few drinks and went through the train cars calling out, “Celia, Celia!” I was grateful for the privacy of my berth and that he didn’t find me, because I was much more interested in a certain young sailor bound for Seattle as a carpenter’s mate.
On a more serious note, one morning I awakened and raised the shade of my berth to look out the window. Next to our train was a train heading the opposite direction full of military troops and heavy equipment. That gave me pause when I saw how young the men looked, and I wished them well in my heart.
Another poignant memory of that train ride is that I traveled with a number of young brides (mothers or mothers-to-be) who were going to meet their husbands to see them off to war. I thought, “I wonder if my going will help their husbands return and stay with their families, or is my enlistment taking them away from their families?” What a long and tedious trip for them.
Lincoln Rock Lighthouse, photo courtesy Lighthouses Digest Magazine
In Alaska, I thought that at last I would have some adventure. I was stationed in Ketchikan, Alaska. My job was totally different from previous duties. I was part of a survey team that inspected Coast Guard Lighthouses in the Ketchikan and Sitka areas.
[The Japanese had attacked some of the Aleutian Islands and taken Aleutian and Caucasian prisoners from Attu. The prisoners were taken to a tiny island just off the northern tip of Japan. Some of the prisoners died from starvation, hard work, and exposure. Those that did survive were returned to Alaska at the end of the war. It was feared that the Japanese might proceed up the Aleutian chain or make landfall on the mainland. The Coast Guard lighthouses were important for the defense of Alaska and “the lower forty-eight” by detecting incoming aircraft and providing assistance to U.S. military ships.]1
This assignment was different in another respect too. We were allowed to wear trousers. For all of my previous jobs in the Guard, I wore the female uniform of blouse, skirt, jacket, hat, stockings, and low pumps. Thankfully, practicality prevailed with the allowance of the trousers.
We were housed in barracks in Ketchikan, one for the men and one for the women. There were 20 to 30 women stationed there with me. It was July of 1945 when we arrived.
While the Coast Guard men never disrespected we service women, the men had fun teasing the “girl scouts” (as they called us). We were sent out on a small Coast Guard vessel to lighthouses. This was an old minesweeper. I think the name of the Coast Guard ship was the Hemlock.
[The Hemlock “was commissioned as a Lighthouse tender in 1934 and was assigned to the 16th Lighthouse District and operated out of Ketchikan, Alaska.” During WWII she was also assigned to the Navy in Search and Recovery (SAR) to rescue several ships as well as the lighthouse tender duties. She was decommissioned June 17th, 1958 and sold on August 2, 1961 to a ship museum on the Great Lakes.]2
The Hemlock could not reach the rock shore. Usually three of us Spars were boarded onto a smaller boat (dinghy or rowboat) which was then lowered overboard to the water.
The men enjoyed letting the ropes zip through the winch until we thought we were going to crash into the ocean or onto the rocks on shore. Then suddenly the lines would stop just above the water and ease us down the rest of the way. Sometimes I felt my heart was in my stomach.
The men would then row us over to the lighthouse rock island, where another winch would pick our rowboat up and swing it onto the rock platform. There, we were met by the Coast Guardsmen tending the lighthouse.
All of us would proceed to the storeroom. The Spars took inventory, recording what was there in our notebooks. If outdated or broken equipment was found, it was discarded for appropriate replacement. This careful documentation would take all day. At day’s end we were transferred in our dinghy back to the Hemlock.
The Spars conducted the inventories because many times the men in the lighthouses were not allowed to leave their duty station. We would take our information about the supplies that they needed back to Ketchikan. The supply replenishments were then sent back to the lighthouses. I think that another reason the Spars performed this duty was because this was a non-combatant duty that they could do to contribute to the war effort.
I know this was an important duty and not just “busy work” for a bunch of women, because the men in the lighthouses had to be properly equipped to detect enemy aircraft or submarines and to receive signals from ships in distress. One thing I learned about Coast Guard vessels was to stay on top and not to go below to prevent seasickness.
I met some Russian women from other ships while in Alaska. They were very large and their hands looked enormous compared to mine. They had to do men’s work aboard their ships; it was really stevedore’s work, very laborious. I was grateful that we Spars were not required to do such strenuous manual labor.
[Russia cooperated with American the war against Japan. The Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease program cut the delivery of supplies for our military from 13,000 miles via the Middle East to 1900 miles from Great
Falls, Montana to Siberia. Supplies were trucked (via the Alaska-Canadian –AlCan—Highway) or flown from Montana to Fairbanks. Russian pilots would then fly the supplies to western Alaska
ports for shipping to Siberia. There was a refueling stop in Nome. With the supplies Russia could attack the Japanese from their shores while the U.S. was attacking the Japanese fleets and bombers
from the Bering Sea and our Western most ports in Alaska. Also Russian ships were sometimes loaded in and around Alaskan Southeast waters.]3
While in Alaska, Dwight and I courted by correspondence. He wrote from Seattle and I wrote from Ketchikan.
Depending upon where I was stationed, there was always plenty to do to keep me occupied during my leaves, usually one to two days a week. On base, the USO brought entertainers. At one USO dance, I remember, the Spars were not allowed to dance with the servicemen. I remember having to sit in the balcony and watch as “town girls” danced with them. That was irritating.
There were also wrestling matches on base in Alaska and I watched with a girlfriend of mine as we cheered for her boyfriend. Card games were another amusement in the evenings. When we had time to leave base, we went to movies and dances in town.
One dance I especially remember was from an earlier time, while I was still in Philadelphia. I danced with a soldier and when I put my arms around his neck, my finger slipped under what was a full head mask. Apparently, his face was so disfigured from his battle wounds that he had been fitted with this mask. It was so well made that I did not realize he was wearing a mask until my finger accidentally slipped under it. We danced every dance that night and in parting, I thanked him for asking me to dance. Even now this makes me weepy.
While I was in Philadelphia and in Ketchikan, I used to volunteer at local hospitals in the nursery. I especially fondly remember the cute little native babies in Alaska.
While in Cape May, a group of us organized a trip, which took us to Washington, DC and Maryland. We saw a lot of history on that trip.
The place that I could not leave base was in Oklahoma because that was my training period. We were told that there was nothing “good” off base anyway.
After the Service
The Coast Guard flew me to Los Angeles where I had enlisted in the service. I made my way back to San Bernardino to look for work. I initially found work as a secretary to a Colonel on an Army base near San Bernardino. Dwight continued writing me there. He had moved back to Nebraska upon discharge from the Navy. His parents needed his emotional support because his brother had been killed in the war while serving in Germany. After I found work, Dwight joined me in San Bernardino and we were married in 1946.
We moved to San Leandro where I worked as a secretary at Frieden Calculating Machine Company. Dwight worked in construction. We had two children, Cathleen and then Ralph. Dwight became ill and was eventually admitted to the Palo Alto VA hospital with a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. To be near the hospital, he was boarded in a furnished apartment. He was also helped in finding a job repairing radios. He remained there until his death 13 years later from a brain tumor. The children and I visited him every weekend during his illness. I was working as the chief admitting officer at Eden Hospital and then Laurel Grove Hospital in Castro Valley.
Following Dwight’s passing, I moved to South Lake Tahoe to manage an orthopedic clinic. I worked there for 18 years. I met Don Seubert at a Basque restaurant in Gardnerville while having dinner with friends from work. We dated awhile and then married. When I retired from the orthopedic clinic, I was given an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. I thought it was better than a gold watch!
Upon retirement, I moved to Ashland, Oregon and worked in a motel coffee bar. I found that enjoyable because I was able to continue meeting the public. Also, I volunteered as a “pink lady” at a 503-bed hospital – Rogue Valley Medical Center in Medford – for a total of 4,817 hours over a period of 17 years.
I have known some sadness in retirement. A year after I settled in Oregon, my daughter, Cathy, passed away at the age of 37 from a lengthy illness, in the Bay Area where she lived. My husband, Don also passed away. And just a year ago, my brother, Robert, passed away in Ohio.
It might be true that a rolling stone gathers no moss, but after moving to Tuolumne County, I knew I had moved my last time. I moved to Sonora because my son, Ralph, lives locally. I have kept busy by volunteering at the Senior Center for the last nine years.
My daily life in the Guard served to mature me. I was able to keep in touch with my family and Dwight through letters. The food was fine except for that brief period in Philadelphia when I had to eat out three times a day every day.
Mrs. Celia Seubert, 2011
I can’t say that I experienced much stress because women were not allowed in combat during those days. Only when the men tried to give us surveyors the thrill of our lives by dropping us in the rowboats with the winches did I experience a few scary moments.
I did not need any good luck charms to survive my contributions to the war effort. A good sense of humor and a few stern words in appropriate situations were all I needed.
I have attended one service reunion but I did not know anyone there so I never attended another one. I went to the VA Clinic here in town but saw so many young men that were obviously very badly injured, that I thought they need the help more than I do. I just receive my health care from private resources.
When asked about my feelings about war, I think it is terrible. I had a very good experience in service to my country but when I see so many young service personnel return now with such problems, I wish there could be no war. The only positive about war is that it provides jobs not only for those who enlist but for those at home too.
I am a realist. Until people can treat each other with respect, there will always be war.
1 Information from “When the Wind Was a River: Aleut Evacuation in World War II,” by Dean Kohlhoff, published by University of Washing Press, 1995.
2 Information, picture and quote from “U.S. Coast Guard History Program” internet site.
3 Information obtained from “The Thousand Mile Warm World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians,” Brian Garfield, Bantam Books, pp. 160-161, January 1982.
Mrs. Seubert was interviewed in 2011 by volunteer Mary Louis through the Tuolumne Veterans History Project, an all-volunteer effort to record Tuolumne County veterans’ memories of their wartime experiences.