CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Ann Monaghan Witkowski grew up in northern North Dakota and later settled in Bismarck. After high school, she worked as a clerk for the state’s Office of Public Service Commission. Witkowski remembered the attack on Pearl Harbor as a “deep shock.” The economy was poor, and the country was “not ready” for war.
Nevertheless, the attack became a galvanizing force. “There was a rather depressing feeling,” Witkowski said, “but the patriotism came forth, and everyone wanted to do their best to help.” Many of her friends headed to work in factories, yet she herself could not envision such a life, as she wanted to see the country. Thus, Witkowski decided to enter the Coast Guard, which as a small service might offer more travel opportunities. She was accepted into the US Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, also known as the SPARS for their motto, “Semper Paratus: Always Ready.” Like their parent organization, the SPARS were a relatively small group, numbering 12,000 members.
Witkowski travelled by rail to Chicago to meet her group, and then to Palm Beach, Florida, for training. During the ride, a chaperone oversaw the women. The curtains were drawn and talking was forbidden. Witkowski had never visited the Deep South before, but she did not experience culture shock; the people were very hospitable. Her SPARS soon arrived at their lodgings, the Biltmore Hotel. Unfortunately, the hotel had been in disuse for some time, meaning that their first assignment was to clean it!
Witkowski appreciated her free time on the Atlantic Ocean, which she had never seen before. The women enjoyed beach calisthenics, were overseen by two SPAR lifeguards, and they would take a dip in their one-piece government-issued bathing suits. However, Witkowski did not venture too far out; despite being a Coast Guardswoman, she explained with delightful irony, “I could float, but that was about the extent of my swimming!” (Swimming was not a required skill then.)
After several weeks of general training at Palm Beach, and another few at yeoman school, Witkowski used a brief leave to take a “very exciting” trip home. Subsequently, she was posted to Charleston, South Carolina. Witkowski enjoyed describing the city’s historic feel and hospitable atmosphere. On leave, she visited the offshore islands nearby. Witkowski described the base at Charleston, which supported hundreds of personnel and operated coastal anti-submarine patrols and buoy tenders.
Witkowski recalled seeing more integration than division on base. The officers and enlisted were assigned to separate areas, and there were limits on intermingling, but fraternization was nevertheless encouraged. Though she knew racial segregation was present, she did not see much personally, and later in the war she worked alongside minorities. Regarding gender, personnel were fairly integrated. The men and women ate in the same mess hall and earned equal wages. “We were very, very well accepted and very respected in the service,” Witkowski remarked.
Witkowski and the women lived in a house on “the Battery,” about half a mile from the harbor. (Later, she rented an apartment.) There was an officer in charge of the house, and occasionally home inspections took place. The building featured a kitchen, but Witkowski rarely cooked. Each morning, she left at 8 a.m. and took a troop truck to the base for breakfast.
Mess hall discipline was relaxed, but things were stricter elsewhere. There were weekly inspections, though unfortunately some people collapsed in the extreme heat. Witkowski once forgot to don her cap and was reprimanded. More often than not, however, she was the one disciplining others. Since Witkowski had been a drill team commander in high school, she was made an acting platoon commander, leading about 50 women. Her position did fuel some resentment: “Later I found out that some of the people I became friends with, they thought I was terrible,” Witkowski said, “because I had to keep them in step.” Nevertheless, she enjoyed attending classes alongside her subordinates, and has even maintained relations with one. Despite her increased responsibility, Witkowski did not earn more pay.
The SPARS offered many job fields, including storekeepers, clerks, photographers, and cooks. Witkowski was a secretary, and her first boss was the base’s executive officer. She noted that he was surprised to have a SPAR as a secretary, and called her by surname instead of rank (yeoman). Nevertheless, Witkowski was “satisfied” with her position. She also enjoyed her second assignment, working for the commanding officer of the base. In addition to secretarial duties, Witkowski was a planner for the morale department, where she organized parades, outings, and other events. Furthermore, she sometimes helped at the officers’ club.
As the war raged on, the general mood remained positive. Witkowski kept in touch with global events through newspapers and radio. She remembered that some Coast Guard personnel fighting overseas returned to the base after D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. Fortunately, there was never much fighting near Charleston (though a German submarine did once approach the base). For Witkowski, hurricanes were a greater cause of confusion than enemy action. Though combat raged far away, the war impacted her closer to home through her relatives. She had a brother in the Army, who was stationed in Virginia and then Chicago, and another in the Coast Guard, who was once able to visit her on base. Witkowski also knew men from high school who were killed in action.
Witkowski was on leave in New York when the war ended, giving her the opportunity to attend the iconic VJ Day celebrations in Times Square. Commenting on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she “felt it was a necessity… While we didn’t really like it, it was something that had to be done to end the conflict.” Witkowski was scheduled to attend Officer Candidate School, but with the war over, she was discharged in December 1945.
Witkowski met “some wonderful people,” in the military, most importantly her future husband. One day he had asked her to the movies, which she agreed to, thinking he was joking. As it turns out, he was serious, and thus began their relationship. After the war, they married and settled in Jersey City.
Following her service, Witkowski initially worked at Mohawk Carpet Mills in New York City, before deciding to pursue her childhood dream field of dietetics. She used her GI benefits to attend university at NYU and Rutgers, earning three degrees. Witkowski then worked full-time as a dietician at a hospital in Jersey City, and then oversaw food services at St. James’ Hospital in New York. Finally, she became a training service officer at the NJ Department of Public Health. Witkowski credited her good health to this career path.
After retiring, Witkowski became more active in veteran events and organizations. At the time of her interview, she was a member of the American Legion and the Navy League, and was regional commander for WAVES National. On the 50th Anniversary of VJ Day, Witkowski marched with fellow SPAR veterans at a parade in Hawaii, also attended by both the president and Bob Hope. She was present for the groundbreaking of the Women in Military Service in America Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. “It means that women are honored for their service to the country,” Witkowski remarked about the ceremony, “and future generations can certainly go and see what happened.”
When asked what she remembered most about her service, Witkowski replied, “close working conditions, good comradeship, [a] feeling of doing something for the country, and doing your part.” As she proudly emphasized, “I would never give it up for anything in the world… It was the most wonderful experience of my life.” Witkowski also implored others to consider military service. “If they want adventure… if they want to help the country, that’s the way to go.”
Ann Witkowski passed at the age of 97 on May 28, 2016 after a short illness.