Miami-Dade County

Watcher on the shore: Coast Guard veteran recalls wartime service in Miami

Clara Green 90, holds a photograph of herself in her U.S. Coast Guard uniform during World War II.
Clara Green 90, holds a photograph of herself in her U.S. Coast Guard uniform during World War II. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

When she saw the girl in the crisp Navy whites, Clara Green knew that was the life for her.

The 20-year-old coal miner’s daughter from western Pennsylvania marched into the recruiting office to sign up. It was early 1945, and helping her country wage World War II seemed immeasurably better than lifeguarding at the local pool.

The Navy spots were all filled, but the Coast Guard was happy to accept an enthusiastic recruit. The only thing standing in Green’s way was her age. She was only a few months shy of the age to enlist — 21. She needed a note from her mother, who wasn’t thrilled about her daughter’s desire to join the deadly war that had stretched out to its sixth and, unknown at the time, final year.

Green delivered an ultimatum: Sign the form or she’d leave for Philadelphia.

One signed form later, Green was on her way to basic training in New York, three stops away from Coney Island.

“I’d never been that far away from home, especially by myself,” the now-90-year-old woman explained from her Davie home, telling her own Veterans Day story. “That was a big adventure.”

Her 12 weeks of training were some of her happiest, she said. She liked the camaraderie between the women, the structure of a military lifestyle and the opportunity to lead as head of her platoon. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Women’s Reserve of the Coast Guard, which enlisted 12,000 women from across the country.

Getting used to the leadership life had its challenges. While marching to Green’s “left, right” cadence one day, a woman near the front of the platoon made a wrong turn, leading the whole group crashing into the chicken-wire fence encircling the compound.

The pileup elicited a rebuke from a higher-up: “If that was a boat, what would you have done? Fallen off the side?”

Unfortunately for Green, she never ended up at sea. After a spell of specialized training in New York City, she was assigned to Miami. She rode south on a fancy train “with a waiter and everything” before taking up residence in a hotel near the Venetian Causeway along with the rest of the Coast Guard.

Starting in 1941, nearly 70,000 Miami-area hotel rooms were filled with servicemen, said local historian Arva Moore Parks, author of Miami: the Magic City.

“They took over basically every hotel room in Miami Beach for the Army,” she said.

Green traded in the dusty jeans she wore during training for a clean, bleached white shirt and button-down top. She tied a dark ribbon around her neck and slipped into sturdy, sensible kitten heels. They made her feel important, she said, and professional.

Each morning, Green rose at 7, had breakfast and made her way by trolley car to the DuPont Building in Miami. She worked in the Admiral’s office on a regular 9-to-5, but part of her job included riding the elevator to the 14th floor to peer through high-powered telescopes and cameras.

Green’s New York training equipped her to spy the small dark spots in the endless blue horizon that marked the deadly mines, German U-boats and submarines.

“I went up every chance I got,” she said. “Most of the time you’re looking at water.”

Sailors were kept up at night imagining enemy subs creeping into Biscayne Bay, releasing a wave of “floating mines” that would drift in on the oncoming tide, she said.

Their fears weren’t unfounded.

In 1945 alone, Parks said Germans torpedoed more than 25 tankers off the coast of Miami — four in full view of Miami residents.

“There were more subs sighted off of Miami than other parts of America,” she said.

The flotsam and oil stained the white sand of the city’s famous beaches, and Parks said false rumors flew that German soldiers marched on Biscayne Boulevard and caught shows at the Olympia Theater.

The $25 a month salary Green earned covered her trips to the movies (25 cents) and her trolley ride to work (15 cents), with a little left over for treats, like fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice.

Green, who had only seen oranges in her stockings as a Christmas treat, remembered her first taste of the sweet, neon-colored juice.

When the war ended in September 1945, Green was shipped home, and her 16 months of service ended. She thought she’d never taste that fresh fruit juice again.

But all those cups of juice gave the boy behind the counter plenty of time to fall for the pretty Coast Guard girl, and a smitten Harold Green followed her home, where he proposed.

The couple moved back to Miami, where they endured hurricanes, started businesses and raised five boys — two of whom went on to have military careers.

“I came from a small town and I was very proud to serve my country,” Green said. “I got to see lots of the U.S. It was very exciting.”

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