Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Women's History Month-USS Vulcan Deploys, 1979, Part 1

In 1948, Congress passed the Women in the Armed Services Integration Act.  For the first time, female sailors were permitted to serve at sea.  There were, however, some restrictions.  Women could only serve on transport and hospital ships without the pleasure of becoming a permanent part of the ship's company.  Thirty years later, the U.S. Navy ran into legal trouble when a female sailor was recommended to serve on the oceanographic survey ship USNS Michaelson (T-AG-23).  The Navy's Judge Advocacy Corps recommended against the sailor being allowed to serve due to the restrictions laid out in the 1948 law.  The sailor sued in Federal court and won. 

Sensing a change in societal attitudes, the Navy decided to stay ahead of the issue and asked Congress to amend the 1948 act.   This action would allow women to serve on any non-combatant ships such as a repair ship, destroyer tender, submarine tender, or oceanographic ship. 

Congress quickly agreed to the Navy's request.  On August 5, 1978, the Navy selected the Norfolk-based repair ship USS Vulcan (AR-5) as the first ship to have women as part of the ship's company. The Navy set a goal to have ten percent of the ship's company be women. Until her decommissioning in the 1990s, Vulcan was one of the oldest ships in the Atlantic Fleet (Vulcan's hull was laid down in 1939).  Her mission was to serve as a repair shop for ships deployed overseas. 

The decision to allow women on board Vulcan and other non-combat ships created controversy. The officer in charge of the Navy's "Women at Sea"-initiative, Captain James Kelly, publicly laid out the Navy's decision to be proactive on the issue.  He even made the case for allowing women to serve on combat ships as well as non-combat ships.  In his 1978 Proceedings of the Navy Institute article, "Women in Warships: Right to Serve," Kelly wrote that the American public would no longer tolerate old attitudes about women in the workplace,  further arguing how the Navy needed women to make up for manpower shortages among the Fleet. Proceedings received a flood of letters disagreeing with Kelly's opinion.  Some went as far as saying female sailors aboard ships would lower readiness and morale.

Despite criticism, the initiative went forward.  In 1979, Vulcan deployed from Naval Station Norfolk to the Mediterranean Sea with fifty-five female sailors and officers.  The ship was the first of seventeen to have female sailors by the end of the year. 
USS Vulcan (AR-5) in Hampton Roads

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