NEW YORK — “I didn’t go into the Navy for a lifetime, I went in for six months,” Alene B. Duerk told an interviewer in 2016, when she was 96. “But I had an amazing career.”
And a history-making one. In 1972, after rising through the ranks of the Navy Nurse Corps, she became the first woman to attain the rank of rear admiral.
Admiral Duerk died on July 21 at 98 at her home in Lake Mary, Fla. The Naval History and Heritage Command, which preserves and promotes Navy history, announced her death.
Alene Bertha Duerk was born on March 29, 1920, in Defiance, Ohio, to Albert and Emma Duerk. Her father, who had health problems related to his service in World War I, became ill enough when Alene was a young girl that nurses came to their house frequently.
“I believe those nurses were my first introduction to nursing,” Admiral Duerk said in an interview for “Registered Nurse to Rear Admiral: A First for Navy Women,” a 2003 book about her written by Estelle McDoniel.
Her father died when she was 4, leaving her mother to raise Alene and her younger sister, Evelyn. After graduating from high school in 1938, she entered the Toledo Hospital School of Nursing in Ohio. She graduated in 1941, becoming a registered nurse at the hospital and then the staff nurse at a Toledo department store, providing care to its employees.
The United States entered World War II soon after she graduated from nursing school, and nurses were suddenly in high demand. She received regular recruiting pitches from the American Red Cross, and she enlisted in the Navy Nurse Corps in 1943.
She was assigned to the naval hospital in Portsmouth, Va., then to the one in Bethesda, Md. On the bulletin board there she read a notice that the Navy had completed five new hospital ships and was seeking nurses for them. In 1945 she boarded one of them, the Benevolence, bound for the Marshall Islands and then Japan.
There were expectations that the ship would be supporting an Allied invasion of Japan, but while it was en route the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and instead the ship found itself receiving newly liberated US prisoners of war.
“We pulled into Japan when the peace treaty was signed,” Admiral Duerk told The Orlando Sentinel in 1994, “and we helped evacuate the POWs — a very moving experience.”
In 1946 she was released from active service with the rank of lieutenant junior grade and returned to Ohio, working in several hospitals and earning a bachelor’s degree in ward management and teaching, medical and surgical nursing at what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1948.
That year she also joined the Naval Reserve, and in 1951, with the Korean War underway, she was recalled to active duty, serving as a nursing instructor at the Naval Hospital Corps School in Portsmouth. Later she had educational and management assignments overseas and in Philadelphia, San Diego, and Washington, among other places.
In 1970, by then a captain, she was put in charge of the Navy Nurse Corps. At the same time that she was rising up the chain of command, the Navy was trying to make itself more attractive to women and to improve its opportunities for them. Seeking a woman to promote to the rank of rear admiral, a rank below a full admiral and the equivalent of an Army two-star general, it selected her from about two dozen candidates.
She quickly became the public face of what women could achieve in the Navy, a role she found daunting at first.
“I did feel some pressure at the time,” Admiral Duerk said in the 2016 interview, which was with the news service of Bowling Green State University, where she had received an honorary doctorate in 1973. “Now I was not only supposed to know all about the nurse corps but also all about the US Navy. It was a lot to take on because when you are the first woman in any high-profile role, everyone is watching you.”
In one event that seemed tailored to showcase her status as the Navy’s top-ranking woman, in September 1972 she presided over the swearing-in of nine female recruits aboard the USS Constitution, the ship known as Old Ironsides, in Boston Harbor.
“Until recently not even women reporters were allowed on the Constitution during its annual turnaround cruise,” The Boston Globe reported. “But yesterday was women’s day.”
Admiral Duerk retired from the Navy in 1975.
She said she had always tried to make the most out of her barrier-breaking appointment.
“It was a nice distinction to have and to be recognized as the first,” she said, “but I wanted to make certain that I used that notoriety to do as much positive as I could.”