WWII Coast Guard veteran Gena Fischle's 98th birthday

Calling herself “the luckiest gal in the world,” U.S. Coast Guard veteran Elizabeth “Gena” Fischle soaked in well wishes Sunday for her 98th birthday.

Organized by Honor Flight San Diego, a convoy of cars filled with friends and veterans drove by to sing Happy Birthday to Fischle, who served in World War II as a SPAR — an acronym for “Semper Paratus — Always Ready,” the women’s branch of the USCG Reserve.

“This is awesome,” said Fischle, who sat in a wooden chair outside Scripps Coronado Hospital. In the hospital for a short non-COVID treatment, Fischle was accompanied by her two daughters and her son.

WW II veteran Gena Fischle salutes an active duty Coast Guard service member. Photo by Chris Stone

Holly Shaffner of Honor Flight San Diego said: “She saw a Coast Guard recruiting poster of Uncle Sam saying, ‘We Want You,’ so she enlisted in the service.”

Fischle, then named Macres, enlisted in January 1943, two months after the SPARs was formed to release male servicemen men for sea duty and to replace them with women at shore stations. (In December 1973, the first female enlistees were sworn into the regular U.S. Coast Guard.)

Fischle attended boot camp at Sheepshead Bay, New York, and later was assigned as a storekeeper at a unit in Seattle. When the war ended, female Coast Guard members were sent home, but she said she would have been willing to make a career in the military.

Her late husband served in the Navy Construction Battalion, better known as the Seabees, and later became a banker, according to Steele.

Asked why she enlisted, Fischle said: “I was able to raise the flag with the help of so many wonderful people who meant what they said and did it. And I am so glad to be part of the Coast Guard family. As you can see, they never let you down.”

During World War II, about 350,000 U.S. women served with the armed forces. As many as 543 died in war-related incidents.

Gena Fischle, then known by her maiden name Macres, as a member of the SPARS in World War II. Image via Honor Flight San Diego

Sherrie Steele, Fischle’s 72-year-old daughter, said her mother has a good attitude on life, enjoys walking and has watched her diet.

“Mom cares,” Steele said. “She is very involved with the Coast Guard and activities.”

Fischle went on her Honor Flight in 2017, and in 2019 she was honored by U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Diego and Women’s Leadership Initiative during Women’s History Month, Shaffner said.

(The Honor Flight takes WWII and Korean veterans to the nation’s capital to visit memorials in their honor there.)

Calling Fischle “feisty, spunky, quick witted and loving,” Shaffner said Fischle has been very active fundraising and helping find other veterans to go on their flights to Washington.

Steele appreciates that her mother was a stay-at-home Mom, who was always there for the family. Fischle was active in PTA and school activities.

Steele said she was very proud of her mother, a Coronado resident whose actual birthday was Jan. 19.

“It’s such an honor that everyone is doing this,” she said. “It’s really amazing all that Holly and the Coast Guard do to promote the veteran. The veterans really need to be recognized for their service in trying to protect the rest of us.”

Just before the parade of cars, a Coast Guard helicopter circled the hospital in a tribute to Fischle.

Asked what led to her longevity, the female veteran laughed and said she was surprised and pleased by the length of her life. She pointed to her family — children, grandchildren and great grandchildren — as a positive element.

Speaking of her military service, she said: “I was always so proud to be an American, to raise the flag, to say ‘I am an American.’ I think I did a very small part, but I did it from the heart.” 

Two fellow World War II veterans — Tom Rice, 100, and Walt Travis, also 98 — came to offer birthday greetings.

Rice, who did a tandem parachute drop at the Hotel del Coronado in October, turned to leave and told Fischle: “See you next year.”