Breaking News
More () »

Woman from Lackawanna County first female to enlist in U.S. Navy

There was a time when women could not serve in the Navy. That is until a woman from Lackawanna County came along. Newswatch 16's Courtney Harrison shares her story.

BLAKELY, Pa. — If you're not looking for it, you may miss the historical marker in front of American Legion Post 327 in Olyphant.

"There aren't that many for individuals and even fewer for women, and it's a neat story that you would never think that deals with the Navy," said Sarah Piccini from Lackawanna County Historical Society. 

The marker is dedicated to Loretta Perfectus Walsh. Walsh was born in Olyphant on April 22, 1896. After she graduated from school, she took a job with the Navy League in Philadelphia.

It wasn't long before Loretta realized she wanted to do more for her country during World War I. But how? Women weren't allowed to enlist, but then an opportunity presented itself. Any civilian could join the U.S. Naval Reserve, so Walsh signed up immediately. On March 21, 1917, Walsh took the oath as the first woman enlisted in the Navy.

"If you look at some of the accounts of her enlistment, they're kind of funny. She talks about really wanting to be on a ship, and she hoped she'd get on a battleship," said Dr. Regina Akers, the Naval History and Heritage Command Historian. "But one of the officers told her women can't do that. Her vision was so huge in terms of what she wanted to do to help this war effort."

The news of Loretta Perfectus Walsh's enlistment made headlines as she became the poster child for women in the Navy.

"There was a press report that called her 'the dimpled darling of the coal field.'  It comes up a lot that she was 'the girl.' You didn't say she was the first woman. She was a girl in the Navy. This was 1917; they weren't exactly progressive," added Piccini.

Not only was Walsh the first to enlist, but she also became the first female petty officer, sworn in as a Chief Yeoman, a job title outside of the norm for women in the Navy.

"It was hard to make the rank of chief, and it required sea duty. One of the things I found in my research is some of the 11,000 Yeoman F were not accepted, not because they were women per se, but they were allowed to come in at a high rank that would've taken a male officer a very long time to achieve," explained Dr. Akers.

In 1918, Walsh took on extra duties at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, helping those sick from the Spanish flu. She, too, contracted it and recovered. Three years later, Walsh became ill again and died from tuberculosis at the age of 25.

Walsh didn't live a very long life, but the historical significance of the boundaries she was able to break through still makes an impact with generations today.

"The service she provided, the way she provided the service, the sacrifices she made, I think our sailors today can very much resonate with that, and I hope be inspired by what Loretta Perfectus Walsh did at a time when our country needed every American citizen to defeat the Germans," said Dr. Akers.

Walsh was laid to rest at St. Patrick's Cemetery in Blakely. A memorial was built to honor her service and the other female Navy veterans of World War I. The Navy honors her service each year on March 21 by laying a wreath at her grave.

In 2021, one of the USS Constitution's 24-pound long guns was named "Perfectus" in honor of Walsh's service.

See more news stories on WNEP's Youtube page.

Before You Leave, Check This Out