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A trailblazer to the end: The Navy’s first female admiral passes away at 98

The Navy’s first female admiral, retired Rear Adm. Alene B. Duerk, passed away Saturday at the age of 98.

Born in Defiance, Ohio, in 1920, Duerk joined the U.S. Naval Reserve as an ensign in 1941 after completing nursing training at the Toledo Hospital School of Nursing, a Navy release said.

Her initial tours were spent as a ward nurse at Naval Hospital Portsmouth, Virginia, Naval Hospital Bethesda, Maryland, and at sea aboard the USS Benevolence, a Navy hospital ship. During that 1945 at-sea tour, Duerk would provide aide to wounded personnel returning from World War II and the fight against Japan.

Official portrait of Rear Adm. Alene B. Duerk. The first woman to attain the rank of admiral passed away Saturday at the age of 98. (Navy)
Official portrait of Rear Adm. Alene B. Duerk. The first woman to attain the rank of admiral passed away Saturday at the age of 98. (Navy)

The crew of the Benevolence also assisted in repatriating recently-liberated allied prisoners of war, the release said.

“The time I was aboard the hospital ship and we took the prisoners of war, that was something I will never forget," Duerk said years later. "That was the most exciting experience of my whole career.”

Duerk was released from active service in 1946 but returned in 1951 as a nursing instructor at the Naval Hospital School in Portsmouth. She would spend the next 20 years in hospitals in San Diego and Yokosuka, Japan, and in recruiting stations in Chicago and Washington.

In 1970, Duerk was appointed as the director of the Navy Nurse Corps, where she helped expand Navy medical capabilities in anesthesia, pediatrics, obstetrics, gynecology and ambulatory care.

President Richard Nixon approved Duerk’s selection to rear admiral in 1972, making her the first woman to be selected for a flag rank.

“It took 197 years and a forward-looking Chief of Naval Operations, Elmo Zumwalt, to break with tradition before Alene Duerk became the first woman admiral in the U.S. Navy,” Naval History and Heritage Command director Sam Cox said in the Navy release. “But the credit goes to Duerk. From the crucible of caring for wounded Sailors, Marines and prisoners of war during World War II in the Pacific, she blazed a trail of stellar performance in tough jobs, serving as an inspiration for an ever increasing number of women officers who have followed her path.”

Rear Adm. Duerk retired in 1975 and remained involved in Navy Medicine for the rest of her life. More information on Duerk’s stellar career can be found here.

“Alene Duerk was a strong and dedicated trail blazer who embodied the very principles that continue to guide Navy Medicine today,” Vice Adm. Forrest Faison, Navy surgeon general, said in the release. “She will forever be remembered as a servant leader who provided the best care to those who defended our nation, honoring the uniform we wear and the privilege of leadership.”

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