Loretta Walsh, 1917, First Woman to Enlist in the U.S. Navy

First woman to enlist in the U.S. Navy, Loretta Walsh
When Loretta Perfectus Walsh became the first women to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1917, that service didn’t yet have uniforms for female sailors. She served as a yeoman at the U.S. Navy Yard in Philadelphia (background photo).

In 1917, twelve words opened the floodgates for women to serve in the military: “It does not say … anywhere that a Yeoman must be a man.” One year after the U.S. Naval Reserve Act of 1916 allowed qualified “persons” to enlist, history was made when 20-year-old Loretta Perfectus Walsh (1896-1925) did just that, earning herself a whole series of “firsts” in the process.

Perfectus was the first woman to enlist in the Navy; the first American woman to serve active duty; the first woman to serve in any branch of the U.S. military in other than a nursing capacity; and the first female U.S. Navy petty officer. Until Walsh enlisted in 1917, women could serve as nurses but were otherwise limited to working as civilian employees with very few benefits.

Philadelphia Naval District
Walsh was working as secretary to the commander of recruitment in the Philadelphia Naval District and volunteering with the Women’s Division of the Philadelphia Navy League when she enlisted as a Yeoman (Female) on March 17, 1917 — 12 days before the United States entered World War I. The Navy had no uniforms to issue a female Yeoman; but that didn’t deter Walsh. She managed to find a size-small men’s jacket that was the perfect fit and had her own uniform made of matching fabric.

During her service as the first female enlistee, Loretta Walsh became the Navy’s first female Chief Petty Officer.

The Navy did its part by issuing her a sabre and pistol. Within three weeks of Walsh’s enlistment, 200 women joined the Navy. They were couriers, draftsmen, fingerprint experts, masters-at-arms, mess attendants, paymasters, recruiters, switchboard operators, translators, ammunition factory workers and radio operators. And they received equal pay for equal work — $28.75 per month — with the same benefits and responsibilities as the men, which was unheard of in civilian life.

Chief Petty Officer
Shortly after enlisting, Walsh was sworn in as a Chief Yeoman, making her the Navy’s first female Chief Petty Officer. She served her active duty at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and was released when World War I ended in 1918. But having enlisted for a full four-years, she remained on inactive reserve status, receiving a modest retainer pay, until the formal end of her service in 1921.

While still in the Navy, Walsh fell victim to the 1918 flu epidemic that swept Philadelphia. She survived; but several years later, and in frail health, she contracted tuberculosis. Loretta Perfectus Walsh was just 29 years old when she died in Olyphant, PA.

Her monument reads:

Loretta Perfectus Walsh
April 22, 1896 – August 6, 1925
Woman and Patriot
First of Those Enrolled in the United States Naval Service
World War 1917-1919
Her Comrades Dedicate this Monument to Keep Alive Forever Memories of the Sacrifice and Devotion of Womanhood

Gravesite of Loretta Walsh, the first woman to enlist in the U.S. Navy
Following her death from tuberculosis, Walsh was buried in her hometown in the mountainous coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania. A 2011 wreath-laying ceremony commemorated her unique place in Navy History (Photo by U.S. Navy Mass Communications Specialist Katrina Parker).