Finding Greatness: The Navy’s First Woman SCUBA Diver

By Mary Ryan, Curator, Naval Undersea Museum

As a society, we love stories about ordinary people who find greatness in themselves when tested. They remind us that greatness lies within all of us if we are brave enough to step outside our comfort zones, dream big, and work hard.

Kati Garner prepares to make a dive during SCUBA school. She credited her mental preparation and stamina for her success during the course.

Kati Garner prepares to make a dive during SCUBA school. She credited her mental preparation and stamina for her success during the course.

Kati Garner, the Navy’s first female SCUBA diver, was an ordinary girl from Colorado who discovered greatness in herself during four weeks in November 1973.

Kati joined the Navy at age 19 in 1972 when roles for women were at a crossroads. Women had served since the establishment of the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908, but with limitations. Until 1948, they could only serve as nurses or during wartime through the Women’s Reserve doing administrative work. Women couldn’t serve aboard ships until 1961, and even then they were restricted to hospital or transport ships.

The 1970s brought significant changes for women in the Navy. Most critically, in August 1972, Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt Jr. committed to expanding opportunities for women, including opening sea duty billets, command opportunities, all ratings, and all staff corps to female Sailors. This decree changed Kati Garner’s life.

Kati was working in the Enlisted Personnel Office at San Diego’s Recruit Training Center in 1973 when she learned the Navy was seeking women to attend diving school — a direct result of Admiral Zumwalt’s pledge. Kati volunteered immediately, tired of days spent typing at a desk.

Kati charges SCUBA tanks. Students had to carry the 90-pound tanks with one arm, a challenge that took Kati two days to master.

Kati charges SCUBA tanks. Students had to carry the 90-pound tanks with one arm, a challenge that took Kati two days to master.

She found a trainer and mentor in SCM(DV) Robert Diecks, Swim Coordinator at the Recruit Training Center.

Chief Diecks created a conditioning program to prepare Kati for the rigors of dive school. For three months, Kati met Chief Diecks every morning at 6:00 AM to run, swim laps, and do pushups, sit-ups, flutter kicks, and calisthenics.

By the time SCUBA school began on November 5, Kati was ready. “Bob Diecks had prepared me for the absolute worst,” she remembered. “He told me what they would do to me and prepared my attitude for that.” She slogged through four weeks of physical tests — all the exercises she practiced during her conditioning and more, including mud runs and games of leapfrog.

The most challenging aspect was the rigorous “pool time” sessions where instructors harassed students and fouled their gear to gauge their reactions and prepare them for real-life mishaps. The stress caused another female student in the class to quit, but Kati persevered. “I was getting so tired, I think I was in bed about 7 o’clock every night. But I knew I was going to finish it because I couldn’t see myself dropping out.”

Personnel Seaman Kati Garner receives her SCUBA qualification pin from coach SCM(DV) Bob Diecks, 30 November 1973.

Personnel Seaman Kati Garner receives her SCUBA qualification pin from coach SCM(DV) Bob Diecks, 30 November 1973.

Kati graduated on November 30, 1973, qualifying as the Navy’s first female SCUBA diver. Five years away from the opening of sea duty billets to women, Kati found shore-based positions that put her diving skills to use. She would work an instructor at the Navy’s Water Survival Department at Naval Air Station North Island, teaching survival skills to pilots and crewman, as well as the Navy Marine Mammal Program.

Her success would pave the way for more women to enter the Navy diving community. Hull technician Donna Tobias became the first woman deep sea diver in 1975, and four women — Linda Hubbell, Sue Trukken, Martha Herb, and Darlene Iskra — would qualify as diving officers before the decade ended. Learn more about these female divers who found greatness in themselves in our online exhibit, Women Divers: Part of the Navy Team: http://www.navalunderseamuseum.org/women-divers/.

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