By André B. Sobocinski, Historian, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery
On this day in 1920, Rear Adm. Alene Duerk — the first woman to attain flag rank in the U.S. Navy — was born in Defiance, Ohio. This week, she will mark her 98th birthday from her home in Florida.
Duerk entered the Navy in January 1943, when the naval campaigns in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea were still in full-tilt and World War II stretched the Navy to its limits across the globe.
Initially serving as a ward nurse at the Portsmouth and Bethesda naval hospitals, Duerk would later be assigned to hospital ship USS Benevolence and deployed to the Pacific theater in support of Adm. William Halsey’s Third Fleet. Upon cessation of hostilities on Sept. 2, 1945, Duerk and the Benevolence would take part in the massive repatriation of American prisoners of war, an endeavor that would solidify her commitment to nursing and patient care.
Over the next several decades, Duerk honed her skills in ward management and surgical nursing at military treatment facilities in Great Lakes, Illinois, Long Beach, California, Philadelphia, Portsmouth, Virginia, Subic Bay, the Philippines, and Yokosuka, Japan. Whether as a military treatment facility charge nurse or as a nursing instructor at hospital corps schools in Portsmouth and San Diego, Duerk earned a reputation as a selfless, and tireless teacher dedicated to mentoring the next generation of Navy nurses and hospital corpsmen.
She instilled two key lessons in her students – teamwork and communication. As she would later relate, “Each of us must not only be able to communicate our knowledge and understanding to the other team members, but also our needs and the needs of our departments or services. In turn, each of us must listen as others talk with us. The listening side of communication is the most difficult.”
In May 1970, Duerk was appointed director of the Navy Nurse Corps. Over the next five years, Duerk provided astute and forward-thinking direction for the nurse corps, scrapping outmoded policies negatively affecting Navy medicine, expanding the sphere of nursing into ambulatory care, anesthesia, pediatrics and obstetrics/gynecology, emphasizing the value of the individual officer and increasing educational opportunities for nurses. In addition to new promotion opportunities and pay increases for nurses, the retention rate more than doubled during her tenure as director.
When a Department of Defense statute finally permitted women to serve as flag and general officers in the military, the selection of the Navy’s first female admiral was an easy decision for Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, then chief of naval operations.
Photos of Duerk flanked by Zumwalt and Secretary of the Navy John Warner at her promotion ceremony would be published in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States.
Her promotion coincided with Zumwalt’s Z-Gram #116 and the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). And as she would relate in an interview with nurse historians Doris Sterner and Lynn Dunn in July 1988, at that moment, she was expected to serve as a spokesperson for all Navy women.
“Overnight, I was supposed to be knowledgeable about that Z-gram and what it meant for the Navy. I was expected to go on television and radio and speak for women in the Navy and I did.”
Rear Adm. Duerk retired in 1975, but to this day, she has remained a wise counsel, strong advocate for Navy nursing, and a friendly voice to all.