FIRST FEMALE TO ENLIST IN THE NAVY
The U.S. Naval Reserve Act of 1916 permitted the enlistment of qualified “persons” for service in the Navy. When the Secretary of the Navy asked whether this applied only to males and was told that it did not, the Navy began enlisting women less than a month later. Historical records reflect that on March 17, 1917, the first woman to enlist in the Navy was Loretta Perfectus Walsh. She was born on April 22, 1896, in Philadelphia and thus had the distinction of being the first woman to service in any of the U.S. armed forces in other than a nursing assignment. Until Walsh’s enlistment, women had served as Navy nurses but were civilian employees with few benefits.
Walsh, aged 20, was enlisted on March 17, 1917, as a Yeoman(F), all of whom were popularly referred to as “Yeomanettes.” During World War I a reported 11,274 female Yeoman(F) served in the Navy. The Yeoman(F) women primarily served in clerical positions. They received the same benefits and responsibilities as men, including identical pay ($28.75 per month) and were treated as veterans after the war.
On March 21, 1917, Walsh was sworn in as Chief Yeoman, becoming the first woman Chief Petty Officer in the Navy. She served her active duty at the Naval Shipyard in Philadelphia and when World War I ended, Walsh and all the Yeoman(F) personnel were released from active duty. As Walsh had enlisted in the Naval Reserve for a 4-year enlistment she continued on inactive reserve status, receiving a modest retainer pay, until the end of her enlistment on March 17, 1921.
Walsh fell victim to influenza in the fall of 1918 and later contracted tuberculosis. She died on August 6, 1925, at the age of 29 in Olyphant, Pennsylvania. After her death she was buried in Olyphant’s St. Patrick’s Cemetery under a monument that reads:
LORETTA PERFECTUS WALSH
APRIL 22, 1896 – AUGUST 6, 1925
WOMAN AND PATRIOT
FIRST OF THOSE ENROLLED IN THE U.S. NAVAL SERVICE
WORLD WAR 1917-1919
HER COMRADES DEDICATE THIS MONUMENT
TO KEEP ALIVE FOREVER
MEMORIES OF THE SACRIFICE AND DEVOTION
In memory of Walsh and her bold actions, the official history program of the Department of the Navy identifies March 21, 1917, as a date in American naval history. Annually, in recognition of Walsh’s historic service, a wreath laying ceremony is held at her gravesite on this date.
Submitted by CDR Roy A. Mosteller, USNR (Ret)