“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 U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, she became the first woman to attain the rank of rear admiral.
Ms. Duerk died on July 21 at 98 at her home in Lake Mary, Fla.
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 the First World War, 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,” Ms. 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 her and her younger sister, Evelyn. After graduating from high school in 1938, Ms. Duerk 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.
The United States entered the Second World War soon after she graduated from nursing school, and nurses were suddenly in high demand. She enlisted in the Navy Nurse Corps in 1943 and was assigned to the naval hospital in Portsmouth, Va., then to the one in Bethesda, Md. In 1945, she boarded a hospital ship, the Benevolence, bound for the Marshall Islands and then Japan.
While she was en route, the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the ship found itself receiving newly liberated U.S. prisoners of war.
“We pulled into Japan when the peace treaty was signed,” Ms. 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 under way, she was recalled to active duty, serving as a nursing instructor at the Naval Hospital Corps School in Portsmouth. Later, she had assignments overseas and in the United States.
In 1970, by then a captain, she was put in charge of the Navy Nurse Corps. At the same time she was rising up the chain of command, the navy was trying to make itself more attractive to women. Seeking a woman to promote to the rank of rear admiral, 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,” Ms. Duerk said in the 2016 interview. “Now I was not only supposed to know all about the nurse corps but also all about the U.S. Navy. It was a lot to take on because when you are the first women in any high-profile role everyone is watching you.”
Ms. Duerk retired from the navy in 1975. Information on who she leaves was not immediately available.