Her living room boasts of an accomplished life; books, pictures and knickknacks line two walls. The lace curtains are drawn, letting in just enough sunlight to reveal stacks of papers in one corner; a few boxes in another. Some might see clutter and mess, but those who truly know her see a lifetime of achievements and memories.
In the center of the room sits a faded couch that is pushed against a wall abundant with shiny plaques, college degrees and family pictures. On that couch, a woman sits ready to tell her story, a smile never far from her lips.
“I didn’t know anything about military life,” said Dr. Olivia J. Hooker, her eyes beaming with excitement. “When they told me to go to basic training, I took a trunk with all my luxuries in it. The seven other girls that went when I went all had duffel bags.”
At 98 years old, Hooker recalls her experiences as one of the first African American female members in the Coast Guard SPAR program during World War II.
On Nov. 23, 1942, legislation approved the implementation of the United States Coast Guard Women’s Reserve; the program known as SPAR – the acronym derived from the translations of the Coast Guard’s motto, ‘Semper Paratus, Always Ready’ – became the foundation for women in the Coast Guard today.
Hooker began teaching the 3rd grade in Columbus, Ohio, after earning her bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University. Hooker applied to the Navy multiple times but was denied due to a technicality. After writing to the Navy to dispute her rejection, Hooker was accepted, yet had already made up her mind to join the Coast Guard in February 1945.
“The Coast Guard recruiter was just so welcoming,” said Hooker. “She wanted to be the first one to enroll an African American.”
All SPARs were required to fill out numerous forms, be interviewed and take tests that measured their physical and cognitive abilities. Hooker said she did very well on the exam, but was almost discouraged when a woman came to interview her, determined to verify Hooker’s dedication to the military. She told Hooker that the military would probably just have her scrubbing floors and washing dishes. Since those are chores she normally performed at home, Hooker replied that she was up for the challenge.
On March 9, 1945, Hooker headed to boot camp. She recalled waking up at 5 a.m. every day and exercising one hour before she ate. After breakfast, she and her shipmates had to polish the floors and accomplish any other chores required of them. The SPARs had to attend classed and pass exams. Basic training was held in Manhattan Beach, N.Y., and lasted six weeks.
While Hooker was one of only five African American females to first enlist in the SPAR program, she never felt discouraged in her duties because of her color. Once, an admiral addressed Hooker in person and told her to come to him if she ever had problems. Hooker said that she was very glad to have made that kind of connection in the military.
Upon graduation from basic training, Hooker specialized in the yeoman rate and remained at the training center in Manhattan Beach for nine more weeks. Once she completed yeoman training, Hooker spent her entire service time stationed in Boston. Hooker worked in the separation center, typing discharges and doing paperwork.
“I didn’t know many people that were not of my hue,” said Hooker. “It was good for me to mix with other people and find out how they thought and what they were like. It (the military) taught me a lot about order and priorities.”
In June 1946, the SPAR program was disbanded and Hooker earned the rank of petty officer 2nd class as well as a Good Conduct Award. Hooker said she was one of the last yeomans left in the office and she had to type up her own discharge.
Hooker went on to earn her master’s degree in psychological services from Teachers College at Columbia University, then received her doctorate as a school psychologist from the University of Rochester. Working as a professor in New York, Hooker had a remarkable career, finally retiring when she was 87 years old.
“I would like to see more of us realizing that our country needs us,” said Hooker. “I’d like to see more girls consider spending some time in the military. It’s a good idea to have people from different kinds of orientations and experiences because it’s amazing what you can do with a different point of view. The world would really prosper from more of that.”
Hooker’s long and unforgettable life gave her an appreciation for her fellow man and a dedication to her country. The impression she has left on our society and the amazing contributions she has made will never be forgotten.