The first woman to command a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier task group said she joined the Navy at the right time when many doors to Navy jobs that had been previously closed to women began to open, but she credited the many women who had come before her with her career success.
Vice Adm. Nora Tyson, deputy commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, spoke in celebration of National Women’s History Month at a Women in Defense event in Hampton, Virginia, March 19.
Each year the National Women’s History Project selects a theme that highlights the achievements of distinguished women. This year’s theme is “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.”
Weaving the Stories of Military Women
In 1994, the Defense Department announced a new policy regarding women in combat that rescinded the 1988 "risk rule" and replaced it with a less restrictive ground combat policy. As a result of this policy change, Tyson explained, 80 percent of all military positions became open to women.
Tyson earned her wings as a naval flight officer in 1983 and reported to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron (VQ) 4, where she ultimately served three tours at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland, and Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, including one as commanding officer.
Tyson commanded the amphibious assault ship, USS Bataan (LHD 5), leading the Navy's contributions to disaster relief efforts on the U.S. Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and deployed twice to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In recognition of one of her most memorable tours of duty as commanding officer of Bataan, Tyson selected to honor a tough group of women who are better known as the “Angels of Bataan and Corregidor.”
Bataan is a province in the Philippines and is most famous as one of the last stands of American and Filipino soldiers before they were overwhelmed by Japanese forces in World War II.
At the onset of the war in the Pacific, several hundred U.S. Army and Navy nurses stationed at Sternberg General Hospital in Manila, and other military hospitals across the Philippines, were evacuated or escaped prior to the Battle of the Philippines in 1941-1942, Tyson recounted.
Those who did not, are now known as the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor, an extraordinary group of 67 Army nurses and 11 Navy nurses.
Their resilience and bravery set the example for the rest of the services. Their stories of courage demonstrated that women possess the fortitude to serve in combat, and they can survive. According to a U.S. Army historian, the Army nurses hadn’t received any military or survival training and only held relative rank. Most were the equivalent of second lieutenants, but with far lower pay, and were universally addressed as “Miss.”
“Army nurses were captured and imprisoned during the Japanese occupation,” Tyson said. “Despite their internment, these dedicated women disregarded their own health and welfare, and selflessly continued to perform their duties by providing medical care to other prisoners of war.”
One of the angels, 57-year-old U.S. Army Capt. Maude C. Davison, took command of the nurses and maintained a rigorous schedule of nursing duty and exemplified the highest standards of military discipline. “Despite the difficult conditions, Maude insisted that all nurses wear their khaki blouses and skirts while on duty,” Tyson noted.
Food and water were scarce at the Santo Tomas University prison and Japanese guards became more brutal as time went on, shooting any prisoner caught going over the camp fence in search of food, Tyson explained. By the time the U.S. Army was able to liberate the detainees, many were near death from disease and starvation. Maude’s weight had dropped from 156 pounds to 80, but she survived.
“United States Navy nurse Margaret Nash, a detainee at another POW camp at Los Baños, outside of Manila, was another woman of resilience and courage,” Tyson said. “Margaret neglected her own health while she worked day and night to save hundreds of her fellow prisoners.”
At Los Baños, women suffered constant intense emotional strain, Tyson explained. Nurses became physically and mentally exhausted from their around-the-clock work at the hospital and search for food. Provisions became so scarce; prisoners eventually ate leaves and worms to survive.
Margaret became as ill as the patients she was caring for. Her legs and arms puffed with fluid, symptoms of beriberi, she was weak, short of breath and with a fever of 106, Tyson said. Time dragged on and Margaret feared that the American forces did not know the camp existed. When inmates finally ate the last of the rice, rumors quickly spread through the camp that the Japanese planned to execute them all.
Despondent, and perhaps just minutes before the Japanese guards were about to slaughter the 2,000 prisoners, including many children, American soldiers and Filipino guerilla fighters began a three-pronged assault and, with the help of the detainees, liberated the camp.
Soldiers rushed inmates across nearby Laguna de Bay to U.S. territory, including Margaret Nash. Her weight had dropped to 68 pounds and doctors told her she would not survive. “But Margaret proved them wrong,” Tyson said.
“After a long period of recuperation, Margaret lived a long healthy life. She taught nursing at the University of California, Berkeley, until 1973, volunteered to care for senior citizens in their homes, and spent quality time with her nieces and nephews until her death — at the very young age of 81,” Tyson recalled.
“These women did not serve for glory, or promotion opportunities, they joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) to serve. We owe them a great deal of gratitude for their sacrifice, dedication and courage,” Tyson said.
Women in the Navy Today
“Today’s Navy force is 18 percent female, and opportunity has never been better,” Tyson said. “With cultural shifts and expanding job opportunities, women continue to open doors for those coming behind them.”
A few of the facts Tyson shared:
- Navy women are presently assigned to 206 of the Navy’s 275 combat ships;
- New surface ships are being built from the keel up to accommodate both men and women;
- 80 percent of Navy billets are open to women;
- 11 women are in command of combatants;
- Nine are in command of aviation squadrons;
- 52 women serve as command master chiefs; and
- 34 serve at flag rank.
“The Navy has many incredible, successful women because of the trailblazers who opened the doors to opportunity and, through hard work, kept them open,” Tyson said.
Tyson pointed to Sailors like Morgan Pilgreen, a 20-year-old operations specialist assigned to guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109). Pilgreen works in the ship’s Combat Information Center where she operates radar systems. In a recent NATO exercise off the coast of Scotland, Pilgreen played an essential role in ensuring weapons on target and in clearing a path for the Marines, Tyson explained.
“When asked about her experience, Petty Officer Pilgreen said ‘all the hard work and stress was worth it; to actually make something go boom is the coolest thing,’” Tyson said.
Another top performer, Seabee Builder 3rd Class Morgan Rego was hand-picked by a Royal Australian Navy engineer to lead a 14-member team of builders to construct a 15,000-liter fuel facility in Timor-Leste. Rego was selected because of her professionalism and enthusiasm to lead, Tyson said.
In the past two years, the military cleared a significant milestone, Tyson said. The Secretary of Defense announced that DoD was rescinding the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule that restricted women from assignment to units whose primary mission is to engage in direct ground combat. This decision opened up many more opportunities for the women who are choosing military service as a career.
“Today, women may be assigned to submarines, any type of aviation squadron, to serve with the Seabees, Riverine and explosive ordnance disposal teams, just to name a few. Someday, I truly believe we will have women serving as SEALs, and I can assure you that they will be really tough ladies and qualified to do the job,” Tyson said.
Tyson appealed to the professional women at the event to encourage young women to seek out challenging opportunities and set high goals.
“It is our job to mentor these young women and share our wisdom so they have the tools they need to succeed, both personally and professionally, so they can lead and inspire those coming behind them,” Tyson said.
The admiral maintained that the U.S. military has been on a journey to fully integrate women into the ranks for 100 years. Tyson’s own career spans nearly four decades.
“I have been very fortunate, one, to be able to serve this great country for the past 35 years, and that the law changed at a time in my career when I was given incredible opportunity to do things I had never dreamed of when I came into the Navy,” Tyson said.
The admiral’s other commands include commander, Task Force 73, commander, Logistics Group Western Pacific based in Singapore and commander, Carrier Strike Group Two, where she led USS George H.W. Bush Strike Group on its maiden deployment in support of operations in both 6th and 5th Fleet areas of responsibility.
Tyson then completed a tour as vice director, Joint Staff, prior to reporting to U.S. Fleet Forces as deputy commander in July 2013.
“Each day, when I proudly put on my uniform, I think of the sacrifices that brave men and women who went before us made, so that we could enjoy the freedoms that we cherish today.”
Sharon Anderson is the CHIPS senior editor. She can be reached at