Calling herself “the luckiest girl in the world,” U.S. Coast Guard veteran Elizabeth “Gena” Fischle expressed her best wishes Sunday on her 98th birthday.
Organized by San Diego Honor Flight, a convoy of cars filled with friends and veterans passed by to sing Happy Birthday to Fischle, who served in World War II as a STREAM – an acronym for “Semper Paratus – Always Ready”, the women’s branch of the USCG reserve.
“It’s awesome,” Fischle said, sitting in a wooden chair outside Scripps Coronado Hospital. At the hospital for a short non-COVID treatment, Fischle was accompanied by her two daughters and son.
Holly Shaffner of Honor Flight San Diego said, “She saw a Coast Guard recruiting poster from Uncle Sam that said, ‘We want you,’ so she joined the service.”
Fischle enlisted in January 1943, two months after SPARS was formed to free up male servicemen for service at sea and replace them with women on shore stations. (In December 1973, the first enlisted women were sworn into the regular U.S. Coast Guard.)
Fischle attended boot camp in Sheepshead Bay, New York, and was later assigned as a storekeeper with a unit in Seattle. When the war ended, female members of the Coast Guard were sent home, but she said she would have been willing to pursue 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.
When 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’m so happy to be part of the Coast Guard family. As you can see, they never let you down.
During World War II, approximately 350,000 American women served in the armed forces. As many as 543 people died in war-related incidents.
Sherrie Steele, Fischle’s 72-year-old daughter, said her mother had a good attitude towards life, liked to walk and watched her diet.
“Mom cares,” Steele said. “She is very involved in the Coast Guard and its activities.”
Fische performed her honor flight in 2017 and in 2019 she was honored by U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Diego and the Women’s Leadership Initiative during Women’s History Month, Shaffner said.
(The Honor Flight takes World War II and Korean veterans to the nation’s capital to visit memorials in their honor.)
Calling Fischle “spirited, brave, quick-witted and loving,” Shaffner said Fischle has been very active in fundraising and helping find other veterans to catch their flights to Washington.
Steele appreciates that his 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 real birthday was Jan. 19.
“It’s such an honor that everyone is doing this,” she said. “It’s truly amazing what Holly and the Coast Guard are doing to promote the veteran. 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 tribute to Fischle.
When asked what led to her longevity, the veteran laughed and said she was surprised and delighted with how long she had lived. She highlighted her family – children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – as a positive.
Speaking of her military service, she said, “I’ve always been so proud to be an American, to raise the flag, to say ‘I’m American.’ I think I did a very small part, but I did it with heart.
Two other World War II veterans – Tom Rice, 100, and Walt Travis, also 98 – came to offer their birthday wishes.
Rice, who did a tandem skydive at Hotel del Coronado in October, turned to leave and told Fischle, “See you next year.”