NEO Red Cross CEO Honors WWII Veteran with Challenge Coin

She was one of 11,000 known as a SPAR

Semper Paratus.  Latin for “Always Ready,” the motto of the United States Coast Guard.  During World War II, 11,000 women joined the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve and were called “SPARs,” an acronym of the motto combining the Latin and English initials.

One of the women of the U. S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve was Virginia Conklin, the mother of American Red Cross Lake to River Chapter Executive Director Karen Conklin.

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World War II Veteran Virginia Conklin and daughter Karen Conklin, Executive Director of the American Red Cross Lake to River Chapter

Mike Parks, the CEO of the Red Cross Northeast Ohio Region and a retired U. S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral, recently presented Mrs. Conklin with a Challenge Coin, a military tradition meant to prove membership if challenged, or in recognition of special achievement.

“It is an honor and a privilege to meet a SPAR,” Mike said, adding, “What a remarkable lady, who at 92 years young is still an inspiration to all of us.”

During World War II, the U. S. war effort required more men at sea. Women were not yet integrated into the military, but to allow Coast Guardsmen to deploy, the Women’s Reserve was created to fill jobs the men had been doing stateside.

One of those jobs was resupplying “Liberty Ships,” 2,700 cargo vessels that were mass produced during the war.  (One Liberty Ship was named after Red Cross founder Clara Barton.)

“About every two weeks we would go out on a PT boat with supplies,” Virginia remembered.  “We’d have to walk the gang plank to deliver them.  And on the way back, we trolled for shrimp, which would be the night’s supper.”

She was stationed in Savannah, Georgia after training in West Palm Beach, Florida.  Virginia says the prospect of warm weather was one of the factors that motivated her to join the Coast Guard, after growing up in Chester, West Virginia.

Another motivating factor was her job.  She hated it.  She wanted to go to college, but without the money to pay for it, she went to work straight out of high school.  The Coast Guard was offering to pay for college following the service of those who enlisted, so Virginia Conklin signed up in 1944, despite her father’s misgivings.

“He hated it,” Virginia said. “He was a World War I vet, and he thought all we were going to do was smoke and drink.”   But dad finally relented, and signed the papers to allow his 20 year-old daughter to enlist.

After the war, things did not exactly go as planned.  Virginia Conklin married and had three children.  She was 48 years old when she finally got her bachelor’s degree from Youngstown State University. She earned a master’s degree at West Virginia University, and taught high school English for 18 years before retiring.

The SPARs lasted just 4 years. The Coast Guard disbanded the Women’s Reserve in 1946. Virginia Conklin served as a SPAR from 1944 to 1946. “The best two years of my life.”

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