The Navy’s first female admiral, Rear Adm. Alene B. Duerk, died on July 21, the Naval History and Heritage Command announced on Wednesday. She was 98.
Duerk was a seasoned battlefront nurse who broke barriers in 1972 when she became the first woman to achieve the rank.
“It took 197 years and a forward-looking Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, to break with tradition before Alene Duerk became the first woman admiral in the U.S. Navy,” NHHC director Sam Cox said. “But the credit goes to Duerk. From the crucible of caring for wounded sailors, Marines and prisoners of war during World War II in the Pacific, she blazed a trail of stellar performance in tough jobs, serving as an inspiration for an ever increasing number of women officers who have followed her path.”
Duerk, born in 1920 in Defiance, Ohio, became a nurse at the Toledo Hospital School of Nursing in 1941 and joined the U.S. Naval Reserve. She was commissioned as an ensign in the Nurse Corps in March 1943 and soon after found herself providing critical care to treat and comfort countless wounded and sick combat troops and repatriated Allied prisoners-of-war during World War II. She served as a ward nurse at Naval Hospital Portsmouth, Va., and Naval Hospital Bethesda, Md. She served at sea aboard the hospital ship USS Benevolence (AH-13) in 1945 when the ship, anchored off Eniwetok atoll, received sick and wounded troops.
“The time I was aboard the hospital ship and we took the prisoners of war, that was something I will never forget . . . that was the most exciting experience of my whole career,” Duerk said in an oral history for the Library of Congress’ Veteran’s History Project, according to the NHHC.
After the war ended, Duerk worked at Naval Hospital Great Lakes, Ill., before she left active duty in 1946. In 1951, she returned to active duty. She was a nursing instructor at the Naval Hospital Corps School in Portsmouth and served as the inter-service education coordinator at Naval Hospital Philadelphia. Her career stretched another 20 years, where “her skills in ward management, surgical nursing and mentoring would be put to use” while working at hospitals in San Diego and Yokosuka, Japan, with Recruiting Station Chicago and in Washington, D.C., the Navy said. Her latter assignments included assistant for nurse recruitment in the office of the deputy assistant secretary of defense for health affairs and as assistant head of medical placement liaison for the Nurse Corps at the Bureau of Naval Personnel.
In May 1970, the Navy appointed Duerk as the director of the Navy Nurse Corps. “Over the next five years, Duerk provided direction for the Nurse Corps, updating policies affecting Navy Medicine and expanding the sphere of nursing into ambulatory care, anesthesia, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology,” the Navy said.
On April 26, 1972, then-President Richard Nixon approved her selection to rear admiral, effective June 1, 1972. With Zumwalt looking on, then-Navy Secretary John Warner pinned on the star on Duerk’s collar. Zumwalt, in his decision, acknowledged the significance of her advancement, which came at a time when the nation was debating equal opportunity and the workforce role of women. In a message, one of his famous “Z Grams” – he detailed new actions to level the field for women that included this: “Offer various paths of progression to flag rank within the technical, managerial spectrum in essentially the same manner as we are contemplating for male officers.”
Duerk retired in 1975. Her service and reputation extended to the wider nursing community, both military and civilian. She joined other nurses for the unveiling of a bronze statue of the bespectacled nurse displayed in 2013 at the University of Central Florida’s College of Nursing. Vice Adm. Forrest Faison, the Navy’s surgeon general, in a statement remembered her as “a strong and dedicated trailblazer who embodied the very principles that continue to guide Navy Medicine today. She will forever be remembered as a servant leader who provided the best care to those who defended our nation, honoring the uniform we wear and the privilege of leadership.”