Lenah Higbee: A Continuing Legacy and Trailblazer for Navy Women

Editors note: The following blog was originally published in iDriveWarships.

Women’s History Month provides the opportunity to highlight the achievements of many women that were trailblazers in their respective fields. Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee , one of the original ‘Sacred Twenty’ women to join the newly established Navy Nurse Corps in 1908, was one such trailblazer.

Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee at her desk, photograph by Harris & Ewing, 1918.

Higbee was the first woman to receive the Navy Cross.

Facing continual stalwart resistance and institutionalized discrimination from the male-dominated medical community, Higbee rose from her position as a rank-less nurse paid considerably less than her male peers to become the second superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps. She grew the NNC from 160 to over 1300 nurses, served on multiple healthcare committees to prepare the Red Cross for the impacts of World War I, began training hospital corpsmen, and survived the Spanish flu epidemic. She also lobbied for expanded healthcare for military dependents, and formalized Navy nursing uniforms bearing the oak leaf and acorn over an anchor. Her efforts in shaping the NNC caused one paper to conclude “the most needed woman was the war nurse,” and defined her as “a soldier, fighting pain, disease and death with weapons of science and skill.”

A call to action for nurses to join the Red Cross, posted in a newspaper 9 June, 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

“Every qualified nurse released for military duty brings upon her community the honor of having given another soldier to the defense of the country. She may be the only woman from her community who will face the actual dangers of war and is entitled to distinction as such.” – The Sun, 9 Jun 1918

Higbee passed away in 1941 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery beside her husband, Lt. Col. John Henley Higbee (USMC). Her impact on both the Navy Nurse Corps and the Surface Navy continues to be seen today.

In 1945, the Navy commissioned USS Higbee (DDR 806 and later reclassified DD 806), homeported in San Diego, Calif. USS Higbee was the first combat warship to be named for a female member of the U.S. Navy . In keeping with its namesake, the ship earned one battle star in World War II and seven battle stars in the Korean War. The “Leaping Lenah” screened carriers as their planes launched heavy air attacks against the Japanese mainland. Higbee also helped clear Japanese mine fields. Following World War II, Higbee made two peacetime Western Pacific cruises and continued to participate in fleet training exercises.

In 1950, Higbee continued its carrier screening duties off the coast of Korea as part of the Fast Carrier Task Force 77, as well as supported the shore bombardment at Inchon. Although the ship returned to San Diego in 1951, Higbee completed two more deployments to Korea to support carrier operations and shore bombardment.

USS Higbee (DD 806) at anchor, circa 1945-1948. Higbee is configured as a radar picket ship, and was redesignated DDR 806 in March 1949.

Higbee also supported carrier duties in Vietnam, becoming the first warship to be bombed in the Vietnam War in 1972.

By the time she was decommissioned in 1979, USS Higbee held the record for highest score for Naval Gunfire Support of any ship in the US Navy and was featured in the Surface Warfare magazine.

In 2016, the spirit of Lenah Higbee reared up once more to impact the U.S. Navy. Then Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced plans for USS Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee (DDG 123) announced plans for USS Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee (DDG 123). In November, the new Higbee’s keel was laid at Huntington Ingalls Shipyard. The new warship will be configured as a Flight IIA destroyer, equipped with the Navy’s Aegis Combat System. DDG 123 is planned to commission in 2024.

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