When Alene B. Duerk joined the Navy Nurse Corps, leaving her nursing job at a Toledo department store at the height of World War II, she envisioned a few months’ service to her country followed by a swift return to civilian life.
Yet after treating scores of wounded sailors and prisoners of war, working alongside other smart, ambitious women in the corps, she found that the Navy provided a sense of mission and camaraderie that she felt was missing from her workaday life back home.
She went on to a nearly three-decade military career as a ward manager, surgical nurse, recruiter, educator and barrier-breaking administrator, serving in the early 1970s as the Navy’s top nurse and first female admiral.
Adm. Duerk, who oversaw a broad expansion of the Nurse Corps and came to represent the dawning of a new, more equitable era for women in the Navy, died July 21 at her home in Lake Mary, Fla. She was 98.
A nephew, Stephen Granzow, confirmed the death but did not give a precise cause.
Adm. Duerk (pronounced “Dirk”) was promoted from captain to rear admiral on June 1, 1972, at a ceremony that culminated with Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, the reform-minded chief of naval operations, offering her a congratulatory kiss on the lips.
She would have been legally barred from the rank — the equivalent of an Army major general — just five years earlier, under rules that blocked women from becoming general or flag officers in the armed forces. But those restrictions were removed under President Lyndon B. Johnson, and in 1970, Anna Mae Hays, chief of the Army Nurse Corps, became America’s first female general.
With her promotion, Adm. Duerk became the de facto media spokeswoman for women in the Navy, including the 2,300 nurses in her charge as well as women in the Supply Corps and female enlistees known by their World War II-era acronym, Waves.
“Being the first of anything has its responsibilities,” she told the New York Post in 1972. “I’m more than an officer. I’m a symbol, for women in the Navy and the military. Women thinking of careers like mine can know that . . . the ultimate is possible.”
Her main priority remained the Nurse Corps and its 39 hospitals, which she had directed since 1970.
In a recent story for the Sextant, a Navy blog, medical historian André Sobocinski wrote that Adm. Duerk “provided astute and forward-thinking direction for the nurse corps, scrapping outmoded policies negatively affecting Navy medicine, expanding the sphere of nursing into ambulatory care, anesthesia, pediatrics and obstetrics/gynecology, emphasizing the value of the individual officer and increasing educational opportunities for nurses.”
Pay and promotion opportunities for nurses increased, he added, and “the retention rate more than doubled.”
Alene Bertha Duerk was born in Defiance, Ohio, on March 29, 1920, and attended schools in nearby Holgate. When she was very young, the family home was frequented by nurses tending to her father, who had faced a mustard gas attack while serving in World War I. He died when Alene was 4, and her mother struggled to care for her and a younger sister.
“She raised us to be independent and have a career so that the same thing wouldn’t happen to us that happened to her when my father died,” Adm. Duerk told the Post. “She felt too dependent and helpless.”
Adm. Duerk graduated from the Toledo Hospital School of Nursing in Ohio in 1941. Two years later, she entered the Navy Nurse Corps at the suggestion of recruiters with the Red Cross. (Her sister, by then also a nurse, received a commission in the Army Nurse Corps instead.) Her first assignment was at the naval hospital in Portsmouth, Va.
Interviewed for the book “Vietnam War Nurses,” Adm. Duerk recalled that antibiotics were rare and penicillin was still a novel treatment. When she administered the drug for the first time, she and her colleagues “sat there and counted the drops” in an IV, slowly delivering 5,000 units to a patient because they “really didn’t know what was going to happen.”
At Portsmouth, she also received a lesson in the workings of military bureaucracy. “The most important thing, as far as the Navy was concerned, was that I learn how to fill out all the right forms,” she said. “That hasn’t changed. I was a quick learner.”
In 1945, Adm. Duerk was assigned to the Benevolence, a hospital ship that traveled to the Marshall Islands in preparation for an Allied assault on Japan. It was sailing toward Tokyo when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war and leading Japan to turn over prisoners of war to ships like the Benevolence.
Working 36 hours straight, Adm. Duerk and her fellow nurses took in about 750 newly freed prisoners, checking them for lice and diseases and taking requests for ice cream, scrambled eggs and ham. “That was probably the most exciting experience of my whole career,” she said in an interview for the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project.
Adm. Duerk returned to civilian life briefly, receiving a bachelor’s degree in advanced nursing from what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland before joining the Naval Reserve. She was called up to active duty with the onset of the Korean War, working as a nurse and instructor at Portsmouth.
She later developed education programs in Philadelphia, served as a Navy recruiter in Chicago and held top nursing positions at hospitals in the Philippines, Japan and San Diego. She worked at the Pentagon, helping recruit military nurses for Vietnam, before being named head of the Navy Nurse Corps.
“I traveled a lot and made extensive trips, both here and overseas,” she later told an interviewer with Bowling Green State University, which awarded her an honorary doctorate after she was promoted to rear admiral. “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,” she explained, “but I wanted to make certain that I used that notoriety to do as much positive as I could,” including inspiring others to attain senior positions in the Navy. (The first woman to become a four-star admiral, Michelle Howard, attained the rank in 2014.)
After retiring from the Navy in 1975, Adm. Duerk taught English to Vietnamese immigrants and volunteered with groups including Meals on Wheels. She leaves no immediate survivors.
“I never mapped it out like this. I didn’t go into the Navy for a lifetime — I went in for six months,” she told Bowling Green in 2016. “But I had an amazing career and have a lot of good memories. I hope I did my duty.”