Women in the U.S. Navy (and its sister services) served on the frontlines during the Vietnam conflict, but they had to patiently push for official policy to achieve this long coveted combat role in the ensuing years that followed. Just as in earlier wars, due to the Navy’s wartime commitments and fleet expansion, the Navy found it had a manpower shortage. And just as before, women volunteered and answered the nation’s call to service.
The escalation of U.S. operations in South Vietnam in the early 1960s created a manpower shortage. Similar to the stress on operations in the Korean War and World War II, Navy women were again needed to supplement manpower to release men for overseas duty, according to a history compiled by Naval History and Heritage Command, “Navy Women in Ships - A Deployment To Equality,” by ITCM James L. Leuci, which is an excellent chronological account of women serving in the Navy.
Administrative ceilings on the number of women in the regular Navy and Naval Reserve allowed for 1,000 officers and 10,000 enlisted in January 1966. The actual onboard personnel numbered only 508 officers (including 8 warrant officers) and 5,302 enlisted, according to Leuci’s research. The primary legal constraints on the role of Navy women derived from the 1948 Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act — Title 10 U.S. Code Section 6015.
Section 6015 stated: “Women may not be assigned to duty in aircraft that are engaged in combat missions nor may they be assigned to duty on other than hospital ships and transports.”
The 1948 two percent cap on the total female end-strength along with other restrictions, such as the highest permanent rank of commander allowed for women at the time, also remained in effect.
In fall 1966, Capt. Rita Lenihan, Assistant Chief of Naval Personal for Women (Pers-K), recommended an increase in the number of women naval unrestricted line officers from 500 to 600. The increase of women were to be used to replace pilots in squadrons serving ashore in non-flying billets and to fill shore billets allowing male officers returning from Vietnam to be assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School, according to Leuci’s research.
Additionally, numerous instructor billets were available in areas, such as counterinsurgency, that could be filled by qualified women officers. These instructors would teach pre-deployment indoctrination of officers going to South Vietnam, Leuci wrote. Interestingly, the request for additional women officers also served as an effort to get the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Manpower) to recognize that women officers and enlisted women could be utilized as an “effective adjunct to manpower.”
Subsequently, the Chief of Naval Personnel authorized a 20 percent “increase in the strength of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), to be programmed over a period of five years” on March 6, 1967. Recruiting quotas for women URL officers increased from 130 to 150 over the next five years. Enlisted quotas also rose by 200 per year to 2,400.
Vietnam – No Navy Women Allowed
The Officer Personnel Newsletter, Vol. 10-No. 4, April 1966 stated: “Numerous inquiries have been received regarding the assignment of women officers to Vietnam. There are no current plans to send
women officers with 1100/1105 designators to this area. If at a future date the Navy deems it necessary to make such assignments, voluntary requests will be solicited.”
The “present and foreseeable” accommodations in Vietnam were considered as “not adequate for female military personnel” by the Chief of Naval Personnel in winter 1966, Leuci wrote. Commanders received direction to ensure that “no orders are issued on a Navy uniformed woman to an in-country assignment to Vietnam without specific approval of the Chief of Naval Personnel. Only two women officers, both Navy nurses, were serving in Vietnam at this time.
In early January 1967, stateside newspapers were reporting that the Army would soon be deploying two female enlisted soldiers to join a company of 90 Women’s Army Corps (WAC) enlisted clerk-typists in Southeast Asia. The company’s primary mission, to handle administrative duties, was expected to eventually require 120 WACs, Leuci wrote.
Undeterred by naval policy and eager to serve, Navy women continued to volunteer for duty in Vietnam. Eventually, the Navy began to consider sending a few women officers to serve in logistical support roles in-country. The Public Affairs Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense released a statement Feb. 10, 1967, announcing that Lt. Elizabeth Gordon Wylie had received orders to report in June to the Staff, Commander Naval Forces, Saigon. (Wylie was the daughter of Rear Adm. Joseph C. Wylie, Deputy Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe.)
A year later, two more women officers received orders for duty in Vietnam. Lt. Sally L. Bostwick, a resource management analyst, and Lt. Susan F. Hamilton, a historian, joined the staff of Commander Naval Forces Saigon for year-long tours, according to Leuci’s research.
Cmdr. Elizabeth M. Barrett became the first senior female officer to serve in Vietnam in a command billet — in a combat zone. In 1972, Barrett became Commanding Officer, Enlisted Personnel of the U.S. Naval Advisory Group. The command consisted of approximately 450 personnel working in special services, clubs and messes, customs and shore patrol, Leuci wrote.
While the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps played an important role in the conflict beginning in 1963, apart from nurses, only eight Navy women — all officers served in Vietnam. Four Navy nurses were awarded the Purple Heart after they were injured in a Viet Cong bombing of officers’ billets in downtown Saigon Christmas Eve 1964. They were the first female members of the U.S. Armed Forces to receive that award in the Vietnam War, according to the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation website.
Other Women in the Vietnam War
Although little official data exists about women Vietnam War veterans, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation estimates that approximately 11,000 military women served in Vietnam during the conflict. Nearly all of them were volunteers, and 90 percent served as military nurses, though women also worked as physicians, air traffic controllers, intelligence officers, clerks and other positions in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps, U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marines and the Army Medical Specialist Corps. In addition to women in the U.S. Armed Forces, an unknown number of civilian women served in Vietnam in the Red Cross, United Service Organization (USO), Peace Corps, and humanitarian and religious organizations. There were also a number of women foreign correspondents reporting about the war for various newspapers.
Rocking the Boat: Navy Women Continue to Push for Change
By the late 1960s, the role of Navy women began to change. In 1967, the Women’s Armed Service
Integration Act of 1948 was amended. Public Law 90-130 eliminated the 2 percent cap on women’s end-strength. The change also allowed women to be permanently promoted higher than the rank of commander and to be appointed (vice selected) as flag officers. But the restrictions associated with Title 10 Section 6015 barring women from combat and sea duty remained in effect.
The passage of the Equal Rights Amendment of 1972 provided equal rights protection to women, but still proved to be another beginning in the continuing push for equal treatment for women in the workplace.
Just as cultural changes were questioning the roles of women across America, “the Navy of 1970 was in such a state of flux and social change that sometimes it seemed to border on chaos,” Leuci wrote. The controversial war in Vietnam continued to require long deployments for 7th Fleet assets in the Pacific. At the same time, the U.S. military also was preparing for the end of the draft and the start of the All-Volunteer Force.
For years the military could count on the draft to ensure it could meet its manpower requirements. One of the outcomes of the divisive war in Vietnam was the recognition that the draft was unfair to lower income males who could not afford to attend college and thus be exempted from the draft. In addition, many young men joined the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army infantry and sent to Vietnam. But with the end of the draft, the number of available 18-year old males, as potential Navy recruits, dramatically declined. However, new ships under construction would require new recruits to man them.
The need for another pool of eligible recruits led to the Navy’s decision to increase the number of women in the Navy to release men for sea duty. This emergency measure had been used during World War II and the Korean War, but only for the duration of the wars. This time, the need for more Navy women would become a long-term requirement with no foreseeable end date, Leuci wrote.
In the decades following, determined and dedicated Navy women would shatter the glass ceiling that kept them from serving in all the roles open to men. These are just a few facts about the intrepid women and groundbreaking policies that finally paved the way to full equality.
- Public Law 94-106 required the service academies to admit women by 1976. In the fall of 1976, women entered the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard and Naval Academies. There were 81 women in the class of 1980 at the Naval Academy; 55 of them graduated.
- In 1994, Congress repealed Section 0615 ending the combat restrictions that prevented women from being permanently assigned to combatant ships.
- In 1996, Carol Mutter became the first female three-star officer in the military; Patricia Tracey became the second a few months later.
- Lillian Fishburne became the first black woman promoted to flag rank in February 1998. On June 10, 1998, Cmdr. Maureen A. Farren became the first woman to command a combatant ship when she took command of USS Mount Vernon (LSD-39), an amphibious dock landing ship.
- Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced Jan. 9, 2010 that women would be assigned to Ohio-class submarines. Commander Sara Joyner, who was selected for promotion to captain, is the first women selected to head a Carrier Air Wing. Joyner is now a rear admiral.
- On Jan 24, 2013, the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced the rescission of the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule (DGCAR).
- In May 2013, a flag officer-led task force comprised of subject matter experts from across the Navy developed a comprehensive plan to integrate enlisted women into the submarine force. The final plan was submitted and approved by CNO on June 30, 2014, and SECNAV on July 1, 2014. Formal congressional notification was completed December 2014, opening positions on Ohio and Virginia-class submarines to the assignment of enlisted women and officer positions on Ohio, Virginia, and Seawolf-class submarines. All submarine occupations and Navy Enlisted Classifications (NECs) are now open to women.
- In 2014, Michelle Howard became the first woman promoted to four-star admiral as Vice Chief of Naval Operations. Rear Adm. Margaret Kibben became the first woman chief of Navy Chaplains.
- Vice Adm. Nora Tyson, then a rear admiral, was the first woman in the Navy to take command of a Carrier Strike Group — George H.W. Bush — and in 2015 she became the first woman to command a Fleet — 3rd Fleet.
- Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced all positions in the U.S. military will be open to both men and women, Dec. 3, 2015. After the Women in Service Review, which included reviewing studies and data from senior leaders spanning three years, Carter determined that all remaining positions not currently open to women throughout the DoD, will now be open to women, without exception, beginning in January 2016. The new policy included serving in the infantry and Special Operations Forces, in which women had been previously excluded. The new rules expanded opportunities to any American who can meet the grueling standards to be a Navy SEAL.
In Iraq and Afghanistan the lines of combat are blurred and insurgents' guerrilla tactics have exposed women troops to deadly confrontations since the beginning of military operations in October 2001 — more than 14 years before the Defense Department acknowledged women were already serving in combat roles with SECDEF’s 2015 decision to open all positions in the U.S. military to women.
Looking forward, there still remains several more firsts to achieve: first woman CNO, first woman Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy … No doubt there are women serving in the Navy right now that can admirably fill those leadership positions.
From the Yeomen (Female) of World War I to the WAVES of World War II to the proud women in the Navy today, it’s important to remember that the achievements of these women and their push for equal opportunity were not for personal glory or promotion, but for love of country, esprit de corps, adventure — and the right to serve our nation alongside men as equals.
Naval History and Heritage Command: http://www.history.navy.mil.
“Navy Women in Ships - A Deployment To Equality,” by ITCM James L. Leuci
Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation: http://vietnamwomensmemorial.org/