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Loretta Perfectus Walsh – First Enlisted Woman in the Navy

By Denise Krepp, Director’s Action Group, Naval History and Heritage Command

In November 2020, CNO and Mrs. Gilday installed a new exhibit in the Tingey House highlighting the accomplishments of female Navy pioneers. The pioneers proudly served their country and this year the Naval History and Heritage Command will be sharing their stories.

One hundred and four years ago this week, Loretta Perfectus Walsh enlisted in the U.S. Navy. She was the first woman to serve in a non-nursing capacity in any branch of the armed forces.

Walsh was born in 1896 and she was a first generation American. Her parents were born in Ireland. Walsh grew up in Olyphant, Pennsylvania. Olyphant is approximately five miles northeast of Scranton and the area was known for its anthracite coal mining industry.

On June 28, 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were assassinated. World War I began shortly thereafter.  The United States didn’t enter the war until April 1917.  

Prior to the US entering the war, Congress drafted several important bills that impacted the Navy’s entry and actions in World War I.  These bills included the Naval Appropriations Act of 1916 which President Wilson signed into law on March 3, 1915.  The Act authorized the construction of 2 battleships, 6 destroyers, and 18 submarines; the creation of the position of Chief of Naval Operations; and the establishment of the U.S. Naval Reserve Force.

In early 1917, the Navy had 128,666 enlisted personnel and it needed more men, but men weren’t signing up.  Then Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels determined that there was no legal reason preventing the enlistment of women so Rear Admiral Leigh C. Palmer issued a memo to naval districts stating that women could enlist in the ratings of Yeoman, Electrician (Radio), or in such other ratings as the commandant may consider essential to the District Organization. 

Loretta Perfectus Walsh was employed as a civilian clerk at a Navy recruiting station in Philadelphia when she enlisted on March 17, 1917.  Walsh became a Chief Yeoman and her duty station was the Naval Shipyard in Philadelphia. The United States entered World War I a month later.  By the end of the war, over 11,000 women had enlisted in the Navy. 

In October 1917, Dr. Regina Akers published an essay entitled “A Historical Overview of the Yeomen (F)”.  The women, unlike their male counterparts, were all volunteers and Dr. Akers shares information about why they joined. For some, it was patriotism. For others it was an interest in the Navy providing equal pay for equal work.

Walsh left the Navy after the Armistice was signed and she married Frederick Bowman. Sadly, Walsh died at the age of 29 from tuberculosis. Her death in 1925 was reported on by The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pennsylvania) – “Mrs. Fred Bowman, who as Miss Loretta Walsh, of Olyphant, was the first woman to enlist in the U.S. Navy in the world war – and held the rank of yeoman – died earlier today.”

Walsh is buried at the Saint Patrick Cemetery in Olyphant, Pennsylvania. The inscription on her tomb reads – “ Woman and Patriot. First of those enrolled in the United States Naval Service. World War 1917-1919. Her comrades dedicate this monument to keep alive forever memories of the sacrifice and devotion of womanhood.”

Thank you for your service to our country Chief Yeoman Loretta Perfectus Walsh Bowman.