When Dolores (Denfeld) Schubilske enlisted in the Coast Guard, the United States was already into its third year of World War II. Bloody battles were being fought throughout Europe and the Pacific while hundreds of thousands of men were giving their lives in different parts of the world to combat the spread of tyranny.
Meanwhile, all across America, women were doing their part contributing to the war efforts by collecting rationed goods, selling war bonds, and working in factories building much-need parts and equipment for the war.
Women were also enlisting in the armed services to fill roles here at home to allow more men to serve overseas.
Schubilske, born in 1924 in Wausau, Wis., grew up with three brothers and one sister on her parents’ farm. After high school, she moved 200 miles southwest to Milwaukee, where she landed a job as a seamstress, sewing parachutes. Throughout her stint of almost two years with the company, she thought her hard work of repairing the material was for servicemen who jumped out of airplanes. In reality, she later learned what the parachutes she and the company were making were really used for.
“It wasn’t until much later when I learned that the parachutes were used to slow the fall of the bombs while the aircraft safely escaped the blast areas,” Schubilske said.
While living and working in Milwaukee and seeing Coast Guard Station Milwaukee on occasion, Schubilske developed an interest in the Coast Guard. So much so that on Aug. 4, 1944, on her 20th birthday and on the 154th birthday of the Coast Guard, she joined the Coast Guard’s Women’s Reserves – SPARs – created by Congress in November 1942.
Like everyone else who joined the service, Schubilske went off to boot camp. Not your traditional boot camp, though. She shipped off to Palm Beach, Fla, to the Biltmore Hotel, one of the most fashionable resorts in the country at that time. However, the War Department had taken over the Biltmore and other upscale hotels in Florida during the war and transformed them into training facilities and hospitals. The Biltmore was used for the first dedicated school for SPARs, and then in mid-1945, as a naval hospital. By the conclusion of the war, more than 7,000 SPARs had been trained at the Biltmore.
The Biltmore was anything but a resort for Schubilske and 39 other women.
“We spent six weeks marching, crawling, training, exercising, and swimming, among other things. Everything you would do at a boot camp”
Straight from her training, she reported to “A” school in Lakehurst, N.J. where, because of her experience as a civilian with parachutes, she entered the parachute rigger rating. She was one of only six women among 200 members in her class.
After three months in “A” school, Schubilske, then a parachute rigger third class, landed at Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., where she spent the next several months until the end of the war with about 15 other parachute riggers, all women, packing parachutes for jumpers and for air sea rescue packages that were dropped from the back of airplanes. There were only 18 women in the entire Coast Guard rated as parachute riggers.
“We had to climb up a ladder everyday to get to the top deck to where we packed the chutes,” Schubilske remembered. “Our instructors eventually tested the chutes we packed. We were not allowed to jump out of planes in order to test the parachutes. They were the only ones who could do that.”
Asked if she would have jumped if given the opportunity, she replied, “I definitely would have.”
World War II ended in 1945 beginning with Germany’s surrender in May and Japan’s surrender in September. In the subsequent months as servicemen returned home from overseas, servicemembers here at home were also being demobilized, including the SPARS. The Women’s Reserve was originally established to augment the Coast Guard during the war and remain active for six months afterward.
Schubilske was honorably discharged in Detroit on March 21, 1946 along with many other men and women.
“I was disappointed that the Coast Guard would not allow women to remain,” she said. “I could have joined the Navy at that time because they were allowing women to remain affiliated, but I didn’t want to join the Navy.”
Schubilske moved back to Milwaukee where she married and started a family. When her husband passed away of cancer when they were both in their late 40s, she raised three boys and three girls by herself in the same house she lives in today.
Almost 70 years after being discharged, Schubilske still speaks highly of the Coast Guard and is extremely proud of her involvement as a member of the Women’s Reserve and her service to her country. You can see it in her eyes, and hear it in her voice as she proudly displays photo albums and tells stories of her days as a SPAR.
Today, she remains active with other service personnel from the Navy, Coast Guard and Marines as a member of a local WAVES organization – Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service – the Navy’s reserve organization for women during the war.
She also volunteers at a local senior citizens’ house, enjoys a hobby of cutting stones and making them into jewelry, and at the age of 89 she still travels extensively with family and friends. In 2010, she traveled to Pascagoula, Miss., to attend the christening of the Coast Guard Cutter Stratton, named after Capt. Dorothy Stratton, the first woman to serve as a commissioned officer in the Coast Guard. Two years later, she was present in Alameda, Calif., for the cutter’s commissioning. Although inclement weather on Coast Guard Island during the commissioning caused the SPARs to remain on buses, it was an event and a moment to remember.
“It was a thrill to be part of the commissioning and to have our picture taken with the first lady, Michelle Obama,” recalls Schubilske. “It was so nice of her to come onto our buses and spend time with us.”
Earlier this year, Schubilske elected to ensure her legacy remains an important part of Coast Guard history by donating her uniform back to the Coast Guard, where it will soon be on display at the Coast Guard 9th District offices in Cleveland. She said she didn’t want to give it to an organization or museum and risk having it just sit in a box.
As a major milestone approaches next year, you can be sure Dolores Schubilske will continue to remain active with her family, friends and country, proudly sharing cherished memories as a parachute rigger in the U.S. Coast Guard.
We honor you, Dolores Denfeld.