WOMEN AFLOAT … A SUPPLY CORPS (AT) SEA STORY

By retired Rear Adm. Daniel McKinnon Jr., SC, USN COMMANDER NAVAL SUPPLY SYSTEMS COMMAND AND 36TH CHIEF OF SUPPLY CORPS (REPRINTED FROM 04 AUGUST 2010)

I recently received a “Flash from the Chief,” from Rear Adm. Mike Lyden, announcing that one of the first women officers going aboard a submarine as ship’s company would be a Supply Corps officer. The Navy has changed since I retired in 1991. At that time, women had been allowed to go aboard non-combatants since 1978, but it would not be until 1994 that they could serve aboard combatants.

Women graduating from the Naval Academy asked for the Supply Corps in large numbers because we could offer real sea duty. It was not always that way. The history of the law changes of the past three-plus decades is well known. What is less well known is the impact that former Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. “Bud” Zumwalt and the Supply Corps had on sending the first woman to sea as ship’s company.

It was 1972 and I was director, Sea and Overseas Detailing in the Office of Supply Corps Personnel (OP). Our office was told that USS Sanctuary (AH 17), a hospital ship, was going to be recommissioned and put into service as a floating naval station. Adm. Zumwalt wanted to forward base Navy ships in northern and southern Europe. The Sanctuary was to be placed in Piraeus, Greece to serve families of a carrier battle group. Aboard would be a commissary, a Navy Exchange, a hospital, and family services. (Adding the exchange and commissary caused the ship, under rules of the Geneva Convention, to remove its red cross.)

OP was tasked to provide a three officer supply department. The Navy Supply Corps School (NSCS) ensign detailer was Capt. Herb Robertson. I told him that Sanctuary could handle women as ship’s company and we should try to detail a woman, maybe as a disbursing officer. At that time, OP policy was to have two women per battalion at NSCS, really a token introduction to women in the Supply Corps. Since the billets and training for ensigns were for sea duty, that is all we could afford. The Sanctuary could be a breakthrough. I called the prospective executive officer and said that we were about to assign officers to his ship. I asked if he would object if one were a woman. Being familiar with the ship from DaNang, Vietnam, and its accommodation for women nurses, I saw no problem. He agreed.

There were two young women in the battalion at NSCS and the commanding officer was Capt. Ed Gaetz. He had only recently returned as the senior supply advisor in Vietnam. Capt. Gaetz interviewed the ensigns and asked if one would like to go to sea. Female Supply Corps ensigns always went to shore duty, usually foreign shore duty. One volunteered for Sanctuary, Ens. Rosemary Nelson of Walla Walla, Washington. We were excited.

In those days, there was an assistant chief of naval personnel for women in the Bureau of Naval Personnel, or “Head WAVE” as we called her. Capt. Robertson and I told her about our plans and asked if there was a problem. She did some research and told us that the law prohibited women from going to sea except on transports and hospital ships. She also said that women had never been assigned as ship’s company, that when at sea on hospital ships it was always on temporary duty as part of a medical detachment, and when on transports, especially in World War II, it was on temporary assignment to help troops, families, and children. That was the law. No women had ever been assigned to sea duty as ship’s company in the United States Navy. That did not mean that our Navy had never seen women serving afloat. In the 19th century, many had hidden their female identity and served heroically at sea.

Capt. Robertson and I thought the Supply Corps was about to send the first woman to sea… officially. It was exhilarating. A Supply Corps first. The school and our office were preparing some exciting publicity.

Then we got a call from the CNO’s ombudsman Rear Adm. “Chip” Rauch. The CNO had heard what we were doing. We had to hold our publicity. Adm. Zumwalt wanted to use Sanctuary to make a statement about women in the Navy. He also established a task force to “look at all laws, regulation and policies that must be changed in order to eliminate any disadvantages to women resulting from either legal or attitudinal restrictions.” We had to withhold announcing our orders until one of his famous Z-grams, Z-116 of Aug. 7, 1972, titled “Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women” was issued. In it, the CNO said, “women in the Navy have historically played a significant role in the accomplishment of our naval mission… we can do far more than we have in the past in affording women equal opportunity to contribute their extensive talents and to achieve full professional status.”

An office was established to identify unmarried and qualified women to go aboard Sanctuary. Initially, it was to be 21 women in a ship’s company of 338, in addition to a hospital detachment. The ship’s company women could serve in every department except engineering.

In the next two years, 19 women officers and 97 women enlisted would serve as ship’s company on Sanctuary. There were many firsts. Ens. Nelson was the first Supply Corps officer and Lt. j.g. Ann Kerr was the first female line officer assigned to shipboard duty. The first woman to actually report aboard was Personnelman 3rd Class Peggy Griffith on Sept. 8, 1972. When the ship was decommissioned in January 1975, Lt. Cmdr. Susan Canfield had become the first female line officer to be an executive officer of a United States Navy ship.

Leaving the west coast in October 1973 for a homeport in Mayport, Florida, Sanctuary conducted a three-month “handclasp cruise” to Colombia and Haiti with medical personnel and Navy Seabees embarked. About that same time, having left OP, I accompanied Rear. Adm. Wally Dowd, our 32nd Chief, to Athens and Piraeus to review homeport locations. For two years, Sanctuary waited for orders to serve overseas; they never came. The overseas homeporting plan was cancelled the next year. The ship was decommissioned a third and final time in January 1975. It would be three more years before women would again be ordered to sea duty, four years after Adm. Zumwalt’s retirement.

The CNO’s Z-116 did other things to bring women as full partners into the United States Navy. It authorized “limited entry of enlisted women into all ratings.” It also announced the opening of all branches of the staff corps to women, including the chaplain and Civil Engineer Corps, which did not have women officers.

I have wondered if this one Supply Corps ensign detailed to Sanctuary set in motion a chain of events that resulted in bringing women into our fellow staff corps. Should female Seabees and chaplains say “thank you” to Ens. Nelson? The Z-Gram also said that women should become qualified for the complete range of challenging billets. It also opened the NROTC program and provided for women selection to Joint service colleges.

Although Sanctuary was called the “women-at-sea pilot program,” it paved the way for the changes we have seen since then to bring women in as full participants in all things Navy.

Regardless of who walked aboard first, I say that the Supply Corps led the way to getting women to sea. Our idea… our first set of orders. The final press release said, “The pilot program indicates that women performed their assignments with equal ease, expertise, and dedication as their male counterparts in the same assignments.” It also said, “the women performed their assigned duties in an excellent manner.”

I’ll bet it was better than that.

Epilogue: Ultimately Ens. Nelson became a captain, had a wonderful career primarily in acquisition contracting, married, and now has a daughter at sea in the United States Navy.

Lt. Britta Christianson, Gold Crew supply officer for the guided-missile submarine USS Ohio (SSGN 726), is congratulated by her former commanding officer, Capt. Dixon Hicks, after she was presented with her submarine Supply Corps “dolphins” during a ceremony at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Christianson is the first female supply corps officer to qualify in submarines. –photo by Chris Calnan