Women in the Military: Loretto Perfectus Walsh

Posted by Julie Imel on

Chief Loretto Perfectus Walsh (1896-1925)

  • First woman to enlist in the U.S. Navy
  • First woman to serve as Chief Petty Officer
  • Birth: April 22, 1896, in Olyphant, PA
  • Death: August 17, 1925, in White Haven, PA
  • Burial: St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Olyphant, PA
  • Branch of Service: United States Naval Reserve (USNR)
  • Rate/Rank: Chief Yeoman (F)
  • Dates of Service: March 21, 1917 – August 7, 1919
  • Awards: World War I Victory Medal
  • Occupation: Stenographer
  • Spouse: Frederick Bowman
Chief Loretto Perfectus Walsh, 1917

Chief Loretto Perfectus Walsh, 1917

Early Life
The daughter of James J. Walsh and Catherine Cummings Walsh, Loretto Perfectus Walsh was born on April 22, 1896, in Olyphant, Pennsylvania (about 5 miles outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania). Census records from 1910 show that her parents immigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1868, settling in Olyphant. Loretto’s father was a bookkeeper at a local brewery. He and Catherine had four children: James, Mary, Loretto (nicknamed “Lolly”), and Gerald. Loretto was a graduate of St. Patrick’s Parochial School in Olyphant, and she worked as a stenographer prior to her enlistment in the U.S. Navy.

Loretto vs. Loretta
Loretto’s name appears as Loretta in scores of documents and newspaper stories, including her obituary, and on her tombstone at St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Olyphant. A November 12, 1995, article in The Sunday Times, Scranton, Pennsylvania, addresses the discrepancy: “Though Walsh’s birth certificate carried her as Loretto, she was known as Loretta throughout her life, according to the Lackawanna Historical Society.”

Military records, her death certificate, and information provided by a relative to the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program (as detailed in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine) indicate that her legal name was Loretto, and this was how she signed her name. This discrepancy may account for a number of anomalies that appear when researching her story, including confusion about her birthplace. Philadelphia often appears as her hometown, likely due to the fact that a Loretta Walsh was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, around the same time Loretto was born in Olyphant.

Military Service
While there may be confusion surrounding her first name, Loretto’s military service and contribution to her country remains clear. Loretto Perfectus Walsh was the first woman to enlist in the U.S. Navy, and the first woman to serve as Chief Petty Officer, paving the way for thousands of women to follow in her footsteps and serve their country during World War I. Her enlistment on March 21, 1917, just 16 days before the United States entered the war, made newspaper headlines across the country. Prior to this, women served as military nurses in the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, but they served without rank.

The story of how Loretto went from stenographer to Yeoman is well documented. Lorettto’s employer approached her about enlisting at the rate of Yeoman, and she answered the call to service without hesitation. It was a pivotal time in the country’s history. The United States was on the brink of entering World War I, and an insufficient number of men were enlisting. Women were needed to help with recruitment efforts, and to replace men in non-combat roles who would soon be needed on the battlefield.

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels identified a legal loophole in the Naval Act of 1916 that made this possible. He noticed the law did not specify that Navy recruits must be men. Upon approval, women were actively recruited into the Naval Reserve Force. The Department of Defense notes this historic milestone in an article titled, Celebrating the First Enlisted Women (March 2017):  “On March 21, 1917, after procuring and modifying a male chief petty officer’s uniform, Loretta Walsh made history by enlisting in the Naval Reserve -- the first woman to officially enlist in the military, and also the first female chief petty officer. She became the first of more than 12,000 women to serve in the military during the war.”

Yeomen (also referred to as Yeomanettes) fulfilled a variety of shore-duty roles. Most held clerical positions, but there were also many who served as radio operators, truck drivers, messengers, and crytographers (just to name a few). Yeomen (F) received the same pay and benefits as their male counterparts, and they were recognized as veterans after the war.

Chief Walsh was assigned to the Philadelphia Shipyard and assisted with recruitment efforts. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, she tended to influenza patients. After the war ended, she maintained inactive reserve status to fulfill her 4-year enlistment, ending on March 21, 1921.

Later Years
Loretto was stationed in Philadelphia during the 1918 influenza pandemic, and she likely contracted the illness while tending to influenza patients. Several accounts indicate that she never fully recovered from this illness. After a brief assignment overseas, she was discharged in 1919. She later contracted tuberculosis, and was admitted to White Haven Sanitorium, in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, for treatment. During this time, she met Frederick Bowman, a fellow patient and war veteran from Hazelton, Pennsylvania. The couple married in 1922.

Sadly, Loretto never regained her health. In 1925, at age 29, she died of tuberculosis in White Haven. Her death was not just a loss for the communities of Olyphant and Northeastern Pennsylvania, it was a loss for the entire country. A Pennsylvania Historical Marker in her hometown, installed on Veterans Day in 1995, serves as a reminder of Loretto’s contribution to the United States, and the world: “Recognized as the first woman to enlist in the U.S. Navy -- on March 21, 1917, sixteen days before the nation entered WWI. As a Chief Yeoman (F), she served in Philadelphia; was discharged 1919. Born (1896) and raised in Olyphant; died in 1925.”

While her life may have been short in years, her legacy is timeless. A lovely passage in her obituary speaks to her important role in history, referring to her as “one of the finest patriots the county has ever known … Higher patriotism, truer love of county, or a better example of self-effacement, could not be shown.”

- BMC Toys Staff Writer


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