Author’s Preface: When reading this post, bear in mind that we are discussing the conditions that existed in 1979-1981. I recognize that there have been many developments since that time.
In October 1978, the Navy launched a “Women in Ships” program which provided for the assignment of women to noncombatant ships, such as destroyer and submarine tenders, oceanographic and research vessels – based on a court ruling that overturned statutes that had forbidden women from serving aboard ships. The initial program consisted of 55 officers and 375 enlisted personnel assigned to 21 ships. This post describes my experiences with one of the first groups of woman officers assigned to shipboard duty. Women were not allowed to serve on combatant ships until 1994.
In 1978, the Navy promoted me to the grade of captain. The following year, I received a letter from the Bureau of Personnel informing me that I had screened for major command. After some negotiations with my detailer and my wife, I agreed to assignment as the commanding officer of the USS Puget Sound (AD 38), a destroyer tender. At the time, the ship was stationed in Norfolk, VA. However, the Navy then informed me that the ship planned to go over to Gaeta, Italy, in June 1980, to relieve the cruiser USS Albany (CG 10) as the flagship for the Sixth Fleet commander and his staff.
Destroyer tenders (AD) were large ships designed to provide a variety of services for up to four destroyer-type ships tied up alongside. These included repair and maintenance, temporary berthing, medical, dental, and a variety of other services. All destroyer tenders are no longer in service.
I assumed command on 24 August 1979. At the time, the ship had approximately 50 officers and over 1,100 personnel on board. Our woman officer contingent consisted of only four officers who lived in staterooms located in a common passageway aft of my cabin. Two additional female officers came aboard before we left the ship in June 1981. We planned to receive 100 enlisted women shortly after I left. But all I had time to do was set aside and prepare a berthing space for them.
Fortunately, Puget Sound had plenty of excess berthing facilities. The ship had originally had a single 5″/38 gun mount located on the forward part of the ship that came off because of the Women in Ships program.
I spent the first few weeks interviewing all of our officers, male and female. In the process, some things became apparent to me. It was vital that the women not be viewed as “poster girls.” We should hold them to the same standards as male officers of the same rank and experience. None of the women officers had (yet) been assigned to any collateral duties, virtually all of which (earlier) were assigned to a single male ensign. I directed my executive officer to change this policy to create equity among the officer complement.
The four women officers were assigned to different departments: supply, deck, engineering, and administrative. Each presented various issues which are worth mentioning on a case by case basis.
- The officer assigned to supply had the same billet as any male Supply Corps officer of her specialty would have been. At various times, she served as Disbursing Officer and Food Services Officer.
- The female Third Division Officer was in charge of the spaces, decks, and equipment in the after part of the ship. She became our first woman and one of the first in the Navy to qualify as an Officer of the Deck (OOD). Later she served as operations officer and navigator.
- The Engineering Officer had no formal engineering training, so we sent her to basic engineering school up in Newport, Rhode Island. She later became my Damage Control Assistant (DCA).
- Our only female lieutenant initially served as an administrative First Division Officer. After about two months she was reassigned as Administrative Officer, which gave her department head status.
At the time, I assumed command of the ship when she underwent an overhaul at the Horne Brothers Shipyard in Newport News. After a brief sea trial, we entered the Norfolk Naval Shipyard for a four-month flagship conversion after which we had to undergo refresher training at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. We finally set sail for Gaeta in May 1980.
One of my earliest encounters with our Third Division Officer was when I conducted an inspection of her sailor’s berthing compartment and found awful living conditions, with toilets backed up and bunks in disarray. It turned out that part of the problem was the fact that she was reluctant to enter the compartment to conduct an inspection because there may have been sailors taking showers. I told her to set up a time for daily inspections with the compartment cleaner who would ensure that everyone in the compartment was covered.
Shortly after that, we discovered that she had a knack for standing bridge watches and our Operations Officers billet was vacant. So I assigned her duties as the Operations Officer and Navigator and qualified her as an Officer of the Deck (OOD) underway, one of the first women to be eligible for this role in the Navy. One day, I discovered that she had to stand on a box to see over the bridge wings. When I asked her how tall she was, she said, “My physical exam record says that I am 5’4.” That was obviously not accurate, but I did not let her lack of height have an impact on her qualifications. One minor problem that I had was the fact that she was (sometimes) a distraction to foreign harbor pilots who had never seen a woman officer before.
One time when we were conducting a family cruise over in Italy, my wife came up to me and said, “All that is up there on the bridge driving this great big ship is that little girl.” I responded that the “little girl” was very responsible and I knew and trusted that she would call me if she encountered any difficulties. My response probably got my wife even more alarmed because many people thought of airline pilots and ship drivers as “steely-eyed supermen.” Obviously, she knew that I was not one of them as she was familiar with all of my faults.
Our Damage Control Assistant (DCA), Ensign Elizabeth Bres, faced entirely different issues. We had just had to fire her male predecessor for a variety of reasons and were about to go down to Guantanamo Bay for refresher training where a DCA had to play a big part. Along with the requirement to correctly set a material condition, we would be required to perform a large number of drills. Fortunately, one of our repair department officers had served as an officer in charge of the firefighting school in Norfolk, so I assigned him the responsibility for training her for her new assignment.
Bres had a unique style of management which involved a great sense of humor. She required her subordinates to refer to her as “Ma.” One time while she was debriefing me on her day’s activities the lights went out during engineering casualty control exercises. She said “I can’t think of any nicer place to be than with the captain in the dark. My response was “Out, Out.” Both of us were only kidding. She and her sailors performed superbly during the training period. We could not have asked for better accomplishment.
My detailer informed me that he had sent me one Lieutenant for assignment as our first lieutenant. The detailer gave me an impossible assignment, as the young woman had no previous sea duty. It was a critical billet that would be required to oversee the flagship transition, which would prove to be a real challenge later on. In the end, she became my Administrative Officer, which gave her department head status. She proved to be a valuable resource in that capacity.
Note that I have not mentioned any instances of sexual harassment or fraternization associated with our ship’s woman officer program. I cannot say that it ever occurred, but nothing was ever brought to my attention.
In May 1980, we finally headed over to Gaeta, Italy where we became the Sixth Fleet Flagship. We relieved the cruiser Albany (CG 10) as the Sixth Fleet flagship on 28 May 1980. From there our responsibilities became much more complicated as we had to accommodate the Commander Sixth Fleet and his staff – including approximately 200 additional male personnel and we had to move from port to port around the Mediterranean about every two weeks. Our women officers made their share of contributions to these transitions.
A few other items are worth mentioning here. My mother and grandmother had raised me always to hold the door for women when they passed through it. This presented a bit of a dilemma. I finally solved it by agreeing that I would hold open the door for them when we were in civilian clothes, and they would hold it for me when we were in uniform.
One day we were holding a cookout on the flight deck. As I proceeded aft, I heard a lot of yelling going on. What was going on was the ladies’ division of the arm wrestling championship. It turned out that they were unable to utilize the table that the guys had used because they were not tall enough. So they sprawled out on the deck. The other officers were just poking fun at each other however our Admin Officer was just trying to prove that she could beat the others at arm wrestling. She might have been able to compete in one of the men’s divisions.
At one time we had a sailor restricted to the ship awaiting an administrative discharge. One evening, he went up and sat in the Admiral’s helicopter. He pulled a distress marker off the bulkhead and managed to set it off. The helo was fitted with a VIP kit that included carpeting which caught fire. Our firefighting party under the direction of the DCA came through beautifully, and there was no damage to the ship.
We were subject to periodic visits from the human goals officer from Naples. I received a very nasty letter from her boss about the attitudes of our women officers who she claimed had all been given “special privileges” which was untrue. I believe that she just could not adapt to the idea that they were full team members. The DCA one day (always kidding) stated: “Captain if you are not nice to me I will tell her (the human goals officer) on you.”
A few lessons learned that still apply today:
- Female officers should be required to perform the same duties as a male officer of their experience and pay grade.
- They require adequate training to perform the duties associated with their billets.
- They should not be regarded as “Poster Girls” and given no special privileges.
- They will be accepted by the male officers once they had proven themselves as productive team members.
- They should perform their share of collateral duties.
- They would bear full responsibility for the performance of their subordinates.
- The same rules apply to both male and female officers.
As a final item, I have been in touch with our former Administrative Officer of 35 years ago by email in recent years. I told her (her name is Portia Baird) that she was welcome to refer to me as “George” in her emails. Here was her reply:
“Well if you don’t want me to call you “Captain,” then I must call you ‘George.’ Whereas the title may be unnecessary now, it is a sign of respect. I have always respected you as a man and a Naval Officer; so bear with me if I continue to use the honorific [. . .] And thank you for your service and the role model you represented to us all very green and scared female surface ship drivers.”
I consider this to be one of the highest compliments that I have ever received. And I believe all of my experiences with the program to have been positive.
George W. Stewart is a retired US Navy Captain. He is a 1956 graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. During his 30-year naval career, he held two ship commands and served a total of 8 years on naval material inspection boards, during which he conducted trials and inspections aboard over 200 naval vessels. Since his retirement from active naval service in 1986 he has been employed in the ship design industry where he has specialized in the development of concept designs of propulsion and powering systems, some of which have entered active service.