USS Constitution sailed into fame and earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” in her War of 1812 battle against HMS Guerriere. During those 35 minutes of intense engagement, more than 450 officers, sailors, and Marines sailed and fought the U.S. Navy frigate to a decisive victory. In such a physically close battle (the two warships actually collided in the first 15 minutes), both the U.S. and Royal Marines played important roles as sharpshooters stationed aloft on the fighting tops.
After the battle, Captain James R. Dacres of the defeated HMS Guerriere lamented to Vice Admiral Herbert Sawyer:
“I am sorry to say we suffered severely in killed and wounded and mostly whilst [Constitution] lay on our Bow from her Grape and Musketry, in all 15 kill’d and 63 wounded, many of them severely; none of the wounded Officers quitted the Deck till the firing ceas’d.”
USS Constitution Ordinary Seaman Moses Smith recalled seeing four to five women aboard Guerriere “engaged in passing powder, and other munitions of war.” As women were not allowed to be sailors at that time, these women were presumably wives of warrant officers who became swept up in the action as the battle ensued.
The story goes that among Constitution‘s more than 50 Marines in the Guerriere battle, one was a woman named “Louisa Baker,” disguised as “George” Baker. In 1815, the Boston publisher Nathaniel Coverly, Jr. issued a slim pamphlet entitled, “An Affecting Narrative of Louisa Baker…,” purporting to be the true tale of a woman whose real name was Louisa Baker (also referred to as Lucy Brewer), a native of Plymouth, Massachusetts. According to the tale, Baker/Brewer dressed as a man and served aboard Constitution as a Marine for both the Guerriere and Java battles. In it she writes:
“Encouraged by the active part which [Deborah Sampson] had taken [as a soldier] in the [American Revolution], without exposing her sex, I viewed this as a favourable opportunity to try my fortune in the public service of my country…this I succeeded in doing by an artful stratagem, and entered as a marine, received my advance and clothing, and the next day was taken on board [Constitution]!”
“Thus for nearly three years had I passed for and performed the duty of a marine, on board a frigate the most calibreous [sic] of any in the American navy; during which time I have been in three severe engagements, and never absented myself from my post in time of danger.—I have like others of the ship’s crew, freely associated with my shipmates, both at sea and on shore; and yet, as extraordinary as it may appear, I have not the most distant idea that a single soul on board ever had the least suspicion of my sex.”
The narrative was wildly popular and reprinted in at least 21 editions between 1815 and 1818. Baker’s story continued in two sequels which were equally popular.
The story of the heroic female Marine was later used as a recruiting tool to inspire women to join the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Although completely fictional and likely written by an author named Nathaniel Hill Wright, the story was so convincing a tale that it was believed by both the Marines and the public to be true. It was only in the late 20th century that scholars proved that Louisa Baker/Lucy Brewer never existed. Indeed, no woman had fought aboard Constitution during the War of 1812.
In the late 1930s, as the United States responded to the threat of war in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered an increase in the size of the U.S. Navy. The number of civilian employees working in the Boston Navy Yard increased exponentially — from 2,860 in June 1938 to around 17,000 in mid-1941, and again to over 50,000 by mid-1943. The added employees allowed the Navy Yard to build, convert, and repair ships to the levels demanded by wartime needs. Many nontraditional workers, including women, were hired to fill these positions. At its height, between 15 and 20 percent of the Navy Yard’s workforce was comprised of civilian women.
In the midst of World War II, other women joined the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve and the United States Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve), better known as the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). The WAVES program was signed into law by President Roosevelt on July 30, 1942. This law authorized the U.S. Navy to accept women into the Naval Reserve as both commissioned officers and enlisted personnel.
Most WAVES officer candidates trained at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, which was designated the U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School. Although the WAVES, like the general U.S. Navy at the time, was primarily white, 72 African American WAVES served on a fully integrated basis at all ranks.
UPDATE: The first African-American woman officers were highlighted in an article by Dr. Regina T. Akers, Naval History & Heritage Command Historian, published in October 2016 on the U.S. Navy blog The Sextant.
Following their training, WAVES recruits served at 900 shore stations and took up jobs previously held by men. Officer WAVES initially served in administrative and support roles, and others later served as attorneys and engineers.
USS Constitution, on the other hand, served a primarily symbolic role during WWII. President Roosevelt, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, was keenly interested in the early U.S. Navy and made his first visit to the Charlestown Navy Yard on August 10, 1940. Later that month, on August 24, 1940, the president requested that both Constitution and USS Constellation, the latter berthed in Newport, Rhode Island, be recommissioned as symbolic flagships for the Atlantic and Pacific fleets.
Constitution was moved to different piers throughout WWII, thereby keeping her away from the most active sections of the Navy Yard. A low house was built over her spar deck, protecting the ship and possibly eliminating the need for any repair work by the busy Yard workers. Under the command of Clarence E. McBride, a retired Lieutenant recalled to active duty, Constitution also served as a place of confinement for Navy officers awaiting courts martial. The officers were kept in the Captain’s cabin aft on the gun deck, with Navy Yard Marines and ship’s crew as sentries at the cabin doors.
WWII finally drew to a close and between V-E Day (Victory in Europe) on May 8, 1945 and V-J Day (Victory over Japan) on September 2, 1945, Constitution was the subject of a photo spread in the Boston Sunday Globe as an “enduring symbol of the nation’s seapower.” Helping to bring the U.S. Navy’s and Constitution‘s heritage to life, several WAVES and Marine Corps Women Reservists were photographed in publicity shots around and aboard “Old Ironsides” in June 1945.
Photographed were Yeoman 1/c Anne Elizabeth Madden Malick of Malden, Massachusetts, Lieutenant (jg) Lillian Cryan of Lynn, Massachusetts, Seaman 1/c Barbara Amarni of Somerville, Massachusetts, and Marine Corps Women’s Reservist Lieutenant Mary Mitchell of Los Angeles, California.
Yeoman Malick joined the WAVES in 1943. She began her Navy service in Washington, D.C., in communications and was eventually attached to the Office of Intelligence, First Naval District in Boston. Malick was honorably discharged at the war’s end in 1945. In a letter written in 2001 to the USS Constitution Museum, Malick (now Anne Harrington) recalled that “along the way, I received a medal for qualifying as an expert with a .38-calibre revolver.”
One month after the Boston Globe pictorial spread, as WWII was winding down, USS Constitution entered Dry Dock 1 in the Charlestown Navy Yard on July 28, 1945. This was the first docking since 1936 and the Navy was anxious to determine the ship’s underwater condition. Test borings taken of the ship’s hull indicated that she was in very good condition. Similar to her 1936 docking, a number of copper sheets on the lower hull had to be replaced, especially at the waterline. “Old Ironsides” was refloated that August.
Today, women employed by Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston are an integral part of USS Constitution‘s modern restorations. Several women ship restorers have worked on the 1992, 2007, and 2015 restorations as carpenters riggers, sailmakers, and caulkers.
Women also play an integral role as part of USS Constitution‘s crew. While Louisa Baker/Lucy Brewer’s story of service aboard Constitution may have been pure fiction over 200 years ago, women have been serving honorably aboard “Old Ironsides” since the first female crewmember, Rosemarie Lanam (now Wilamowski), joined in 1986. A decade later, Constitution‘s first woman executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Claire V. Bloom, served as second in command from 1996-1998. LCDR Bloom’s uniform, epaulette, shoes, and handbag are on display at the USS Constitution Museum.Currently, 25 of the 86 crew members assigned to USS Constitution are women. These women comprise 29 percent of the crew, a slightly higher figure than the 17 percent of women in all of the U.S. Navy. They represent the next chapter in the story of women in the U.S. Navy — a story that began with the fictional tale of 1812 Marine Louisa Baker, became a reality with the WAVES and Women Reservists of WWII, and continues today with the ship restorers and crew members who work on and aboard “Old Ironsides.”
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In celebration of the role of women workers in the Boston Navy Yards and the National Park Service’s 100th birthday, the Boston National Historical Park will host “Rosie’s Invade the Yard” in the Charlestown Navy Yard on August 26 & 27 with music, swing dancing, special tours and talks, and activities for the whole family. Visit their website for more information and a schedule of activities.
– M. M. Desy, K. Monea, and P. Scott, with special thanks to the National Park Service