WWII Vet Loved Regimented Routine of Coast Guard

U.S. Coast Guard
U.S. Coast Guard

As World War II raged in 1942, Gina Becker was trying to find a way to continue her education after graduating from high school in Libby.

There was no money for college in those years following the Great Depression. It was a hardscrabble life, though her family, the Petrushas, always had enough to get by.

"I didn't know there was a depression until I was an adult," Becker, 92, said with a laugh.

One day as she contemplated her future, a U.S. Coast Guard recruiter "came through little Libby," she recalled. "And I thought, 'hmmmm.'"

The recruiter promised she'd be able to further her education while serving in the military. Persuading her father to let her join the Coast Guard was another matter.

"He just had a cow," Becker said. "He said, 'oh, no, absolutely not.' Then the recruiter talked to him and changed his mind."

As it turned out, one of Becker's cousins from Idaho -- another young woman looking for opportunity -- also decided to enlist in the Coast Guard at Becker's suggestion.

When they arrived at the Biltmore Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, where the women's barracks were located for Coast Guard recruits, Becker thought she'd won the lottery as she surveyed the famous hotel that had once been a playground for the rich.

With a typing speed of 94 words a minute, Becker quickly found her niche doing office work at the Coast Guard Air Station at Port Angeles, Washington, at the end of the Ediz Hook spit. During World War II the Air Station expanded to include a gunnery school that trained aerial gunners and local defense forces.

Becker also made herself useful as a driver because many of her male counterparts -- to her disbelief -- couldn't drive a stick shift, and she could.

Her rural upbringing came in handy during basic training when it came to marksmanship, too.

"I could shoot as good as anybody," she said, recalling how her mother thought nothing of asking her to shoot a half-dozen grouse for dinner if she headed outdoors. Becker was the oldest of eight children.

"I loved my time in the Coast Guard," she reminisced. "It was regimented, everything ran on time. That's the way I raised my kids. We were treated very well."

Becker served as a yeoman in the Coast Guard, a member of a vital, but behind-the-scenes component that handles the day-to-day functions of that branch of military. She earned two stripes during her service time.

That recruiter made good on his promise. Becker was able to attend business college during her time in the Coast Guard, which greatly enhanced her office skills.

There was the matter of falling in love and getting married during the war, too. Becker and her fiance Robert -- "the best man they ever built," she says with fondness -- were childhood sweethearts who dated during their senior year in Libby.

Robert had entered military service in 1941 and was gone by the time Becker decided she was headed to military service, too.

"He had no choice but to accept me in the Coast Guard. I hadn't heard from him for some time. It was difficult to keep in touch," she said.

They got married in Port Angeles because Becker had used up all her leave. When she wanted to leave the Coast Guard she found out she couldn't be discharged because the U.S. was at war.

Her supervisor confided, however, that if Becker were to get pregnant she could be released from duty.

"So I said 'hello David,'" Becker said referring to her oldest child who became her ticket home.

Military service was a big part of the Petrusha family. She had four other siblings who served in the Armed Forces.

"My mom was a five-star mother," she said proudly.

She and her beloved husband, who died in 1989, raised six children in Libby. Those offspring have produced 19 grandchildren, 35 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

"I have two great-grandsons in the Marines right now," she said.

A grandson, Shane, was killed in the Iraq War in the early 2000s as he returned for a third tour of duty with the Army. That was a difficult loss for the entire family.

Last week American Legion Post 72 Commander Mike Shepard presented Becker with her first membership to the American Legion. The post pays the membership dues for World War II veterans who want to become members.

Becker continues to be surrounded by loved ones as she resides at the Montana Veterans Home in Columbia Falls. The spry, quick-witted nonagenarian loves to play pinochle.

Amid walls covered with family photos, her military portrait sits on a window sill alongside her husband's military photograph, a remembrance not only of the war but the love that spanned a lifetime.

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World War II