In the southeast end of Cape Cod, Massachusetts perched on the cliff above the Atlantic is the quiet, picturesque lighthouse station known as Chatham Light. The original facility was built in 1808, much closer to the edge of the cliff than the present structure. This was the second lighthouse built on Cape Cod, the first being the Highland Light in Truro. The original construction erected two forty-foot towers. The primary intent for this facility having two towers was that the two lights could line up to guide mariners through a safe channel.
The original wooden towers were replaced in 1841 by brick structures that met their demise by erosion of the cliff. The first tower slid down to the beach in 1879 and the second suffered the same fate less than two years later. However, in the face of impending disaster, new brick-lined metal towers had been erected. One tower was later moved over to Eastham and became known as Nauset Light.
The event of special interest to me came in 1939 when the United States Coast Guard took over the lighthouse, as they did many others, in the interest of national security. When World War II was in full swing, brainstorming took place to find a way to staff the lighthouse station and allow the men to go to sea for the war effort. The answer was Public Law 722, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed November 23, 1942. This legislation initiated the creation of the Women’s Reserve for the USCG. Women were recruited to serve in the SPARS. The name was derived from the Coast Guard motto: Semper Paratus - Always Ready.
They were well received by the men of the service, performed jobs that could not be handled by civilians and became a valued part of the military.
Bored with her office job in Worcester, Massachusetts, Helen Abrahamson was enticed by talk amongst her peers of enlisting in the war effort. With hopeful anticipation, she went to see the Navy recruiter in the local post office. By chance, the recruiter was out to lunch. Disappointed and having to return to her own job without waiting, Helen started back to the office. On the way, Helen came upon the Coast Guard recruiting station and went in. Hearing of interesting work, travel and being among the first in the field, Helen quickly filled out the paperwork and began the process of joining up. However, being just under age 21, parental permission was required.
This would prove to be a challenge. The Ambrahamsons were still overwhelmed with concern that their eldest son had reenlisted in the Navy at the start of the war, and the paperwork sat on the table at home for nearly two weeks before Helen’s parents relented. “Well, I guess you’re old enough to know the difference between right and wrong,” was her father’s only comment as he signed his name.
On September 16, 1943, Helen headed for boot camp at the Biltmore Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. Nineteen years later she would be traveling from Cape Cod to Miami to visit her brother and stop in Palm Beach to show the still standing facility to her husband and five children. I was the second of those five children. After the war, the Biltmore was returned to a hotel. Today it is a luxury condominium facility.
With the necessary training complete, Ma was sent to Boston, where she found herself in a job not unlike the one she left behind in civilian life. The women were assigned clerical duties in huge offices. While the work wasn’t as exciting as she’d hoped for, Ma was still caught up in the excitement of her new military experience. Her patience paid off.
One day a request for volunteers came through and Ma jumped at the opportunity to do something new. A small group of women was selected to go to the Massachusetts Institute for Technology for special training that would enable them to operated secret equipment. When the two-month course was complete, Ma was thrilled to be stationed at the Chatham Lighthouse, where 11 SPARS replaced 100 men and were assigned to operate the secret LORAN equipment. This Long Range Aid to Navigation system came into use in October of 1942. With the signals from this system, ships at sea were able to plot their positions offshore. Because of the secrecy of this operation, the SPARS on duty were required to have a gun in the operation room.
I was an adult before I came to know that my mother was a crack shot with a handgun. The SPARS trained at a pistol range set up in the basement of a building in downtown Chatham. While all of the women stationed at Chatham Light were proficient with the handguns, some attained high marksman status. I was quite surprised to learn that my mother had this talent. It just didn’t fit with the image of my mother I grew up with.
What an exciting time it must have been to be amongst the first women in the Coast Guard, performing important and secret operations during wartime.
Further travel and training would ensue. Some of the SPARS went to Pennsylvania to learn how to repair the LORAN
equipment. With most of the men at sea, capable women were given a great deal of training and responsibility during the war. Ma says that while she enjoyed the training due to her penchant for technical and mechanical things, she was happy to return to her post in Chatham. Further training opportunities came as time went on. Ma recalls a time when she was housed in New Jersey and had to take the train into New York for training.
The station was without a male presence. While there was a female lieutenant to oversee the SPARS, the area commander was a man - a requirement of military policy. There was also a male radio operator who remained at the station with separate quarters. In our discussions, I agreed with Ma that while there were different rules for the different sexes, those were, in many ways, better times. There were separate quarters and when the women went out they traveled in pairs or groups for safety. The women did not go to sea or into combat with the men. The women did not have a reputation. There were no scandals to reveal, no sexual harassment cases to try and both sexes understood what was expected of them.
During those war years, Cape Cod was sparsely populated and quiet. A USO facility provided opportunity for recreation for the SPARS when they were off duty. Often they would go off-Cape for weekend leave. Ma remembers going to New Jersey and Atlantic City and meeting the families of her co-workers. It was an adventure for “this farm girl.”
Today the Chatham Lighthouse stands proud and functional, still under the auspices of the USCG. While the facility is not open to the public, it remains an attraction for the thousands of tourists who visit the Cape each year.
Ma is now 81 years old and makes her home just a few miles from the lighthouse that was her home during the latter years of World War II. She remembers and relates her experiences with fondness and a touch of sadness as she recalls that she is one of the few SPARS from her unit still living. I am proud of my mother for her service to our country and the patriotic spirit that she helped foster in her children as we were growing up on Cape Cod. I feel a part of our nation’s history vicariously through my mother.
For more information about Chatham Lighthouse, please be sure to visit www.lighthousedigest.com
This story appeared in the
November 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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