Retired Rear Adm. Alene Duerk, the first woman to rise to admiral in the Navy died Saturday, the service announced. She was 98 years old.
Duerk spent her career in the Navy’s nursing corps, serving during three major wars and eventually rising to the Navy’s top nurse position, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command. Her death comes just more than 46 years after her groundbreaking promotion into the ranks of flag officer.
Duerk never envisioned making the Navy a career when she entered the service as an ensign in 1941 after graduating from the Toledo Hospital School of Nursing in her native Ohio, she said in a 2016 interview at Bowling Green State University.
“I didn’t go into the Navy for a lifetime — I went in for six months,” she told the Ohio university from which she received a doctorate in Human Relations in 1973, two years before her retirement from the military. “But I had an amazing career and have a lot of good memories. I hope I did my duty.”
Duerk recalled feeling honored when she learned she’d become the Navy’s first female admiral. With the rank came a lot of notoriety she had not previously experienced, she told Bowling Green, recalling regular requests for interviews with newspapers, television and radio stations.
“I traveled a lot and made extensive trips, both here and overseas,” after being promoted to rear admiral, she said. “And whenever I visited naval hospitals and naval facilities, I tried to speak with the women serving in the Navy, and not just the nurses.
“It was a nice distinction to have, and to be recognized as the first, but I wanted to make certain that I used that notoriety to do as much positive as I could.”
Following her death, Navy officials described her as a trailblazer for military women and a medical innovator.
“Alene Duerk was a strong and dedicated trailblazer who embodied the very principles that continue to guide Navy medicine today,” said Vice Adm. Forest Fairson, the service’s surgeon general. “She will forever be remembered as a … leader who provided the best care to those who defended our nation, honoring the uniform we wear and the privilege of leadership.”
Duerk served at Navy hospitals in Virginia and Maryland in her early years before deploying during World War II into the Pacific Theatre aboard the USS Benevolence hospital ship in 1945. The United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan while the ship was at sea, ultimately changing their mission from supporting American forces fighting in Japan to treating injured sailors and the prisoners of war who would soon be released from captivity.
Those times were the most memorable and exciting moments of her career, Duerk would regularly say in the years after leaving the Navy.
“We were there in Tokyo Bay before the peace treaty was signed, so I felt like we were really a part of history,” she told Bowling Green. “It was an anxious period. You didn’t know who was coming aboard, and you didn’t go ashore. It was not very safe, so we really had no place to go.”
After World War II, Duerk worked at the Naval Hospital Great Lakes in Illinois until she was released from active duty in 1946 and assigned to the inactive reserves, according to the Navy. She was called back to active duty in 1951 during the Korean War. She would spend the next two decades working as a nursing instructor, educator, recruiter and manager in Virginia, Pennsylvania, San Diego, Japan, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
In 1970, as a captain, Duerk was appointed the director of the Navy Nurse Corps. Two years later, President Richard Nixon approved her promotion to rear admiral.
As the Navy’s top nurse, “Duerk provided direction for the Nurse Corps, updating policies affecting Navy medicine and expanding the sphere of nursing into ambulatory care, anesthesia, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology,” a Navy biography reads. “Rear Adm. Duerk retired in 1975, but remained a strong advocate for Navy nursing through the remainder of her life.”
During her career, Duerk was awarded the Naval Reserve Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with bronze star, World War II Victory Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal, Asia Clasp, and the National Defense Service Medal with bronze star.
After her retirement, she spent several years in Washington, D.C., doing volunteer work before retiring to Florida in 1981.
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