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Rosie Stories: Semper Paratus - Always Ready by Diane Zelenakova — Rosie’s Daughters

Rosie Stories: Semper Paratus - Always Ready by Diane Zelenakova

by Matilda Butler on October 1, 2014

Post #64 - Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

We have a number of fantastic stories of women who helped America win World War II. Today, we are pleased to share with you the following history of Diane Zelanakova’s mother, Genevieve Zelenak. Diane has written this in her mother’s voice.

Semper Paratus – Always Ready: The Bug Bit Me and I Went

By Diane Zelenakova, with history and quotes from her trailblazing mother, Genevieve

My Mother, Genevieve Zelenak, at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT Summer 1943

My Mother at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Summer 1943

As a Coast Guard officer, I was privy to information regarding a particular ship returning to San Francisco with prisoners of war from the Bataan Death March. My supervisor, the Assistant District Coast Guard Officer, asked me and another SPAR officer to go down to the pier, near our office, and greet these heroes. Members of the other women’s services were also there. For two hours we applauded, waved, and threw kisses to these brave men who were suffering from malnutrition, disease, and amputations. Some had canes or crutches and others were on stretchers – gaunt, emaciated, their skin yellow from malaria. Many of them returned our waves. On the way back to my office, I broke down and cried: this was the saddest experience of my service. The men were taken to Letterman Army General Hospital for R&R.

Upon our return to the office, the Captain asked us to attend a get-together that evening with some of the ambulatory officers at the Officers’ Club at the Fairmont Hotel, located across the street from my residence at the YWCA, to cheer them up and so they would not be alone their first night back. Each female officer was seated at a table with three men – at my table, they were from Oklahoma. They wanted to know what I was doing for the war effort, and I told them I got mail where it needed to go. They were proud of me that I was “helping out” and said they appreciated my efforts. Imagine – my efforts! It was hard for me to keep my composure, and after this encounter, I went home and again cried.

Years earlier, I had received a scholarship to the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, but had no money for room and board. I had originally wanted to become a nurse, but after graduation would have been too young to dispense medications because I skipped first grade and graduated high school at 17. I therefore attended Detroit Business University and received a Bachelor of Commercial Science degree, then got a job at Detroit Osteopathic Hospital in the radiology department, where I worked for three years. I was secretary to a Navy medical officer who gave SPARS their physical exams, so in that way was exposed to the idea of joining the military. The Coast Guard was under the Navy at that time, and my Navy boss referred to it as the “hooligan navy.” But I was a pacifist at heart, so that’s why I chose the Coast Guard – the Navy had guns, and I didn’t want to be around fighting.

In February 1943, when I had applied for acceptance to the Cadet program, the recruiting officer informed me that plans were being finalized for the SPAR (Semper Paratus – Always Ready) cadets to take their entire training at the Academy in New London, Connecticut, and she hoped that I would be accepted for that historic “first.” The officers in the WAC (Army), WAVES (Navy) and female Marines did not receive their training at West Point or Annapolis where male officer candidates were trained. At the time, the SPAR officers received their training with the WAVES at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, with some spending their final week at the Academy.

At the time I entered the Coast Guard at age 23 on June 27, 1943, I became a member of the first Cadet Class to be trained and commissioned at a military academy – the New London, Connecticut U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Because of my college degree, I had been accepted into Officer Training School. I began training 25 years to the day after my father began Army training in WW I – he was so proud of me! One of my brothers joined the Marines, and the other the Army.

The SPAR cadets were quartered in a wing of Chase Hall, where a bulkhead had been built to separate us from the male cadets. The buildings were constructed in 1932 in the Georgian style of architecture. Some of the classes I took were Correspondence and Communications, Ships and Aircraft, Personnel, Organization and Duties, Law, History, and Public Speaking. We marched between classes, to mess, to the boat docks, and to perform calisthenics every Monday afternoon (after we had received our immunization shots) on the grounds of Connecticut College for Women located across the road. From the docks, we launched our crew boats and rowed up and down the Thames River. I recall the blisters we received on our hands hoisting the boats out of the water at the end of our twice-weekly cruises.

I was commissioned an Ensign on August 6, 1943. My orders directed me to proceed to the 12th Coast Guard District Office in San Francisco, where I was appointed the first Office Services Supervisor. I was one of the first two female officers assigned to that office.

Having never been west of Chicago, I had thought that California would have a lot of warm, sunny beaches. When I got to San Francisco, I was surprised at how windy and cold it was! But, being a city girl, I loved it – it had what I call “class.” For living quarters, the recruiting office referred me to the YWCA at 940 Powell Street (Chinatown). It cost $45 per month each for double occupancy, which included breakfast and supper. I initially had a roommate, but she got pregnant and left, so I then lived by myself and paid $60 per month.

We were required to be in uniform all the time, and I never felt like I was off-duty: it was a 24-hour job. We wore a hat and white gloves, and rayons (not nylons). We had a black coat and white scarf for cool weather. We wore a rain hat cover called a havelock whenever it rained, since we were not allowed to carry or use an umbrella; our right hand had to be free to salute, and our left had to remain at our side.

During the peak of the war effort I supervised one SPAR ensign, 14 enlisted SPARS and four Coast Guardsmen. I developed and maintained a system for the dispatch of all outgoing mail and for the receipt and distribution of all incoming mail in the district office. I also processed all office-related requisitions; kept a record of space allocations; was responsible for supervising the operation, repair and maintenance of office furniture and equipment; operated the supply storeroom; and developed plans for improving filing procedures. My work also involved assisting in problems with office procedures that arose in the various offices.

In 1944, approximately 30,000 letters were handled by the office. In addition, approximately 50,000 pieces, consisting of health records, pay records, service records, invoices, etc., were sorted, logged, and delivered. In 1945, the section handled more than 70,000 letters and 100,000 miscellaneous pieces. Distribution of publications was made weekly to 200 shore units and vessels.

SPARS campaigned for the bond effort and marched in parades to boost morale. I was appointed the drillmaster, and led the SPARS in every parade held in San Francisco and its environs. I also appeared in many publicity photos taken by the Public Relations Office for newspapers and recruitment articles.

Since I was fluent in a Slavic language (Slovakian, my father’s native tongue), right after my arrival in San Francisco, I was ordered to learn Russian. I read and interpreted communications when they arrived at the supply/communications office. When Russian ships came in, I read the manifest (cargo list). And when Russian men came by the ship, I had to be able to communicate with them. American men opened the cargo; I checked the contents against the manifest, and sometimes they did not match up. They tried to sneak stuff in. Here I was, a petite 5’2” woman, saying to huge Russian men, “Nyet! Nyet!”

It was just plain interesting: everything, everyone, every place! The experience taught me a lot about what I was capable of and who I was – I really grew as a person. I liked everything about the military: especially San Francisco. I really had a good time while I was there. There were many parties and dances, and sometimes I had four dates in one day – lunch, before-dinner cocktails, dinner, and then dancing.

At one point I was dating a Coast Guard officer assigned to our legal department. He suggested we stop at an officers’ club recommended to him by some friends. It was located in an out-of-the-way area on Russian Hill and we had to take a cab. The address was a huge mansion with no sign—suspicious! A woman about 55 years old, buxom, dressed in a long black dress, with a long string of pearls, opened the door. After looking at him, and then me, she said, “Oh, we have our OWN girls to entertain the boys!” and slammed the door. Bob and I laughed and laughed. Obviously, his friends had played a trick on him.

I was eventually assigned to conduct a Records Disposal Survey of the District files, which resulted in the disposition of 22,700 cubic feet of records. For this special achievement, I received a Letter of Commendation from L.T. Chalker, Acting Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, dated September 8, 1944.

I was promoted to Lieutenant (j.g.) on November 1, 1944.

In late April 1945, my Captain supervisor phoned me and said he had two tickets to the Opening (Plenary) Session of the United Nations Conference on April 25 at the San Francisco Opera House. I was thrilled! Seated on stage were U.S. Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., Soviet Union Foreign Minister Vyacheslav M. Molotov, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, and South African Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts. Alger Hiss served as Secretary General of the conference, and serving on the U.S. delegation were Adlai E. Stevenson III and Ralph Bunche. The International Secretariat included Claiborne Pell, a young U.S. Coast Guard officer whose father had been the chief American diplomat in Lisbon during the war. During the afternoon recess I attended a matinee performance of Harriet (Beecher Stowe) starring Helen Hayes. After dinner at my residence I went to the Mark Hopkins Hotel, Top of the Mark – famous for its views – for socializing. I saw many foreign dignitaries with their ladies. Russian and Chinese men were in uniform and the Russian women wore low-necked, slinky black dresses and black silk stockings, with pearl necklaces. How I envied their black lacy hose!

V-J Day: August 15, 1945, San Francisco: Upon hearing the long-awaited good news about 4 p.m., we were dismissed and told to go home. En route, I stopped at Old St. Mary’s Church, which was filled with worshipers, to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. The streets of downtown San Francisco were filled with revelers.

On September 9, 1945, I was the commander of a company of 100 SPARS marching in a Victory Parade in San Francisco, from the Ferry Building to the Civic Center. The parade lasted almost four hours and was viewed by more than 500,000, according to a press release.

As my term of service drew to a close, I wanted to reenlist. However, I met an air force officer to whom I became engaged, and thus I was released to inactive duty on April 26, 1946. Decorations I received were the American Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.

In the 1990s, I donated two of my military uniforms – one to the U.S. Coast Guard Museum in New London, Connecticut, and another to the Women’s Military Museum in Washington, D.C.

I am proud and honored to have been a pioneer in breaking ground for women service personnel. To this day, I’m still glad I served in the military. If it hadn’t been for that experience, I honestly do not think I would be here today.


Genevieve Zelenak died in 2009

Diane, thank you for sharing this story of your mother.

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