• Rich Honiball

Today in Brand History: The US Navy


In 1775, the first US Navy formed when the Continental Congress ordered the construction of a naval fleet. An advisory committee made up of John Landon of NH, Silas Deane of NH and John Adams of Massachusetts made the recommendation to Congress that a fleet be built to protect American trade from the British blockage and work to intercept British ships transporting supplies for the King’s forces in North America. Within hours, Congress approved the recommendation, which including arming current merchant ships. Congress also authorized the purchase of four additional ships of war, it expanded the Naval Committee to seven men, and finally it authorized building a naval force south of New England extended to Georgia “for the protection and defense of the United Colonies.” The first incarnation of the US Navy met with challenges, including attacks and capture by the Barbary pirates and being weakened by the Articles of Confederation in 1781, which turned over most governing powers to the states. However, the fledgling US Navy was a key to the success of winning the Revolutionary War and in 1794, a new commitment was made to building a stronger naval fleet, and its first officers were installed. By the end of 1797, the United States, the Constellation, and the Constitution, the Navy’s first true warships were completed and entered service. Work continued on the next three frigates, the Congress, the Chesapeake, and the President. In 1798, John Adams, an original advocate for building a naval fleet and now one of its biggest advocates signed into law the Congressional act establishing the new Department of the Navy, with the power to issue contracts, disperse funds, and manage the growing fleet. By the end of Adam’s presidency in 1801, the US Navy fleet strength had increased to fifty ships.

The story of the US Navy is extensive, inspiring, and highlights those who built, protected, and served it and our country with a high degree of passion and often personal sacrifice. However, as the proud dad of an 18-year-old daughter and proud to serve as a US Navy civilian, in pulling from the vast history of the US Navy, the history of women in the US Navy is particularly inspiring as many fought not only for our nation, but also the right to do so. Each of their stories is incredibly inspiring, and below is a handful of the many inspirational women who served in the US Navy. Women started working as nurses for the Navy during the Civil War, including Ann Bradford Stokes who worked on the navy hospital ship, the USS Red Rover. She was granted a pension of $12 a month in 1890, making her the first American woman to receive a pension for service in the military.

The “Sacred Twenty”, the first women to formally serve as members of the US Navy as part of the US Navy Nurse Corps, established in 1908. The navy did not provide room or board for them, so they rented their own house and provided their own meals.

Loretta Perfectus Walsh, who enlisted on March 17th, 1917, the first day that then Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels allowed women to enlist in the regular Navy. She also became the first female petty officer when she was sworn in as Chief Yeoman four days later.

Lieutenant Commander Mildred H McAfee, USNR, became the navy’s first female line officer after President Franklin D Roosevelt signed into law the creation of the US Navy Women’s Reserve Program, or Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service WAVES, in 1942. In 1943, Thelma Stern became the first woman assigned to a US Navy ship, performing duties as an engineering draftsman. In 1944, the first African-American woman sworn into the Navy and the Navy Nurse Corps was Phyllis Mae Dailey, a graduate of Columbia.

On 15 October 1948, the first eight women were commissioned in the regular Navy. Joy Hancock, Winifred Collins, Ann King, Frances Willoughby, Ellen Ford, Doris Cranmore, Doris Defenderer and Betty Rae Tennant took their oaths as naval officers that day. Anna Der-Vartanian served in the WAAC then WAVES during WWII while her brother served in the US Army, and her mother, who originally wanted to join the Navy, decided to serve by volunteering with the Red Cross. After several assignments, in 1959 she was assigned to the Global Strategy Office at the Naval War College in Newport, RI where she became the first woman in the armed services promoted to the rank of E-9.


Another enlistee during WWII, Alene Duerk was commissioned as an Ensign in the US Navy in 1943. In 1945, she joined the USS Benevolence, anchored off Eniwetok receiving the sick and wounded brought back from operations against Japan. After the war, she joined the ready reserves and continued to advance until 1972 when she was appointed the first female admiral in the navy in 1972. Duerk was followed by RADM Fran McKee who enlisted in 1950, became the first of two women selected to attend the regular curriculum at the Naval War College, and in 1976 became the first female unrestricted line officer appointed to the rank of flag officer in 1970.

The 1970’s saw several “glass ceilings” shattered as women reached new heights. In 1972, Roseann Roberts became the first female helicopter plane captain in the navy.Lieutenant Junior Grade became the first navy woman to earn her wings in 1974 and in 1979, LT Lynn Spruill became the first female naval aviator to obtain carrier qualification.


The list of shattered ceilings, innovations, and firsts is far more extensive and continues even today. It is worthy of far more than I am writing here today as we celebrate the birth of our nation's Navy and will be the source of many more stories in the future...

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