How This Veteran of 3 Wars Became the Navy's First Female Admiral

USS Sanctuary (AH-17). (U.S. Navy photo.)
USS Sanctuary (AH-17). (U.S. Navy photo.)

After reading the promotion orders and pinning on the rank insignia, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt kissed the new admiral -- perhaps not standard operating procedure, but perhaps understandable in 1972. The new admiral, Alene B. Duerk, was the first woman ever to be promoted to that rank.

Duerk had been director of the Navy Nurse Corps from 1970. A native Ohioan, she was a veteran of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. In addition to her combat duty, Duerk had been the first Nurse Corps officer to be assigned as special assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for health and environment, from 1966-1967.

For decades, women had been allowed to join the Navy and the Marine Corps, but in limited numbers and limited capacities. On Aug. 8, 1972, Zumwalt issued one of his famed "Z-grams," his messages to the entire Navy on policy. In Z-116, the CNO informed all hands that efforts would be made to "eliminate any disadvantage to women resulting from either legal or attitudinal restrictions." At a time when the Navy was moving to an all-volunteer force, Z-116 was meant to improve retention and to give women more opportunities.

Actions taken under this policy included women being admitted (in 1974) to the NROTC program, women serving alongside men for the first time (on the USS Sanctuary), and women being considered, for the first time, for promotions in all ratings. Duerk's promotion was a direct result of Zumwalt's "Z-gram."

When she retired from the Navy in 1975 (still as director of the Nurse Corps), Duerk became director of United Services Life Insurance Company in Florida, where she also served as director of the Visiting Nurses Association and Foundation for Central Florida.

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