By Eleska Aubespin, Catholic News Service
HOUSTON — Seaman 1st Class Shirley H. Reagor once boarded an Italian submarine to perform her military duties as an enlisted member of the U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve.
It was during World War II, and Americans had captured the submarine off Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Once Italian sailors were sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, Reagor’s job was to conduct an onboard inventory of the vessel.
As it turns out, she was among more than 11,000 women who served in the Women’s Coast Guard Reserves, known as SPARs, an acronym for “Semper Paratus — Always Ready.”
In November 1942, Congress allowed the Reserve to accept women as commissioned officers and at the enlisted level. Its purpose was to make more men available to serve at sea by assigning women to onshore duties during the war, primarily in clerical roles, according to Britannica.
“We performed traditional roles, mainly administrative and logistical functions that included communication and transmissions of orders, order processing, and supply inventory at shore stations,” Reagor, a Houston resident, told the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
“I received training on the Coast Guard boats, learning the various positions, as well as operating and docking. But our roles were primarily administrative and logistical. Some women drove jeeps and folded parachutes,” she added. “The women played a critical behind-the-scenes role in the execution of missions, campaigns and national defense.”
Reagor joined SPARs shortly after she said farewell to her brother and their friends in New Jersey as they prepared to embark as part of the North Africa and Sicily, Italy, campaigns of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army.
At that time, out of seven siblings, three brothers were actively serving in the military, and three others were working in defense plants.
Reagor knew some would not come back and felt compelled to serve, which she did with her enlistment to the SPARs from 1943 to 1946. She was discharged as seaman 1st class, as the rank was known in World War II.
“She joined to defend her country and play an important role in the war effort,” said her daughter, Patricia Samsel. “She was proud and concerned about her family and wanted to do her patriotic duty.”
The benefits of military service during WWII far outweighed the challenges and risks, noted Samsel, who lives in Houston and Milan, Michigan, with her husband, Jim. The couple provides care for Reagor, who recently turned 100 years old.
“Mom met and served with women from all over the country, becoming acquainted with different cultures and customs, nationalities and religions. She made lifelong friends. She acquired new administrative, inventory and organizational skills, as well as excelled in communications,” Samsel said.
Prior to her military service, Reagor worked as a “Rosie the Riveter” — the iconic wartime image symbolizing women factory workers — at the Timiken Roller Bearing Factory in Akron-Canton, Ohio. She helped produce bearings for war machinery. Thousands of women did the same as the men fought.
After the war, SPARs and other military branches for women were largely demobilized. Reagor found money issues and the sexism of the time kept her from getting a college education. She went to New Orleans and worked as a medical secretary.
Since those days, Reagor has been recognized for her achievements and military duty.
Recently, Reagor received the Living Legend Award from the Women in Military Service for America, an organization she wished received more funding and recognition.
For her 100th birthday, Reagor was thrilled when the U.S. Coast Guard Houston-Galveston Sector honored her with a boat drive-by, unit coins and a letter of appreciation from them and the admiral of the Coast Guard. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner also declared her birthday “her day.”
Reagor has seen much in her lifetime — the emergence of technology and women’s expanded roles in the workforce and military.
“She is concerned that with the expansion, responsibilities and pressures have increased as women struggle to balance work-home issues while still receiving lower pay,” Samsel said.
“Secondly, she is amazed at the acceleration and integration of technology in everyday life, like family Zoom sessions, FaceTime, virtual doctor appointments and so forth. She has participated in all of these.”
Besides a daughter, Reagor has a son who is a priest: Father Scott Dugas, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Woodville, Mississippi, in the Jackson Diocese. He also works with local veterans’ organizations in a chaplain’s capacity.
Born in Franklin, North Carolina, and initially raised as a Southern Baptist, Reagor has always been deeply involved in the Catholic Church in some form or another.
While living in New Orleans, she married a Catholic. The couple sent daughter Patricia and son Scott to Catholic schools for their spiritual and academic educations. They were both baptized and confirmed.
“Later, as my brother’s vocation evolved, she supported him and would visit his various parishes sharing her motherly wisdom. Her conversion happened over time as she observed us and so many other Catholic witnesses,” Samsel said. Reagor became a Catholic at age 95.
In Houston, after the death of her second husband and with her grown children away, Reagor was impressed by the spiritual and emotional support she received from St. Cyril of Alexandria Church in Houston and its parish ministries. This led her to join the church.
“She was even baptized by her son,” said Beatriz Green, youth minister and coordinator for Hispanic ministry at St. Cyril.
Green recalled that day as “amazing,” adding: “I told her that she has been with us all of these years, likely knows more about the Catholic faith than anyone, but here you are just now joining the church.”
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Reagor, like many churchgoers, now attends Mass through St. Cyril’s livestream and other broadcasts.
Green calls Reagor a true inspiration — for her decision to become Catholic but also for her military service. “Back then it must have been pretty hard for a woman to be accepted among the ranks and among her peers. Women didn’t have it easy, but she went for what she was looking for, and nothing stopped her.”