With goggles pulled tightly across my face, I waited for the signal to step out onto the USS Independence flight deck.
Five men and I stood in the tiny entranceway of the aircraft carrier’s “island,” a seven-story superstructure that towered over the flight deck. My helmet muffled the engine roar outside the metal bulkhead.
I wore the standard flight deck outfit of khaki pants, black leather flight boots and long-sleeved knit jersey covered by a life vest. Flight deck jerseys vary in color according to function, and mine identified me as a maintenance officer, a “greenshirt.”
Knowledge of the boarding drill kept me from feeling nervous this trip. I’d flown off carriers in the past, although not since my recent promotion to captain.
An officer pushed open the heavy metal hatch and motioned me out into the noise of the flight deck. I stepped outside and stopped in shock.
Two rows of sailors formed a ceremonial corridor between me and the waiting C-2A aircraft. Instinctively, I recognized the setting for the naval tradition of piping someone ashore.
I had frequently seen sideboys at formal ceremonies, but never on a flight deck. These sideboys wore flight deck gear instead of dress uniforms.
Was this honor prepared for me? The passenger list included the ship’s prospective commanding officer, a captain who outranked me. Should they have sent him out first? Did someone make a mistake?
My body froze and my mind raced as I tried to figure out what to do. I wanted to duck back inside.
Gong, gong, gong, gong. Four bells sounded the beginning of the traditional ceremony. The ship’s loudspeaker blared, “Captain, United States Navy, departing,” followed by the high-pitched whistle of the bosun’s pipe.
At the first note, the sideboys in front of me snapped into a salute.
I felt as if every man on the flight deck was watching to see if I knew what to do. So I saluted smartly, marched through the sideboy corridor and boarded the plane.
Settling into the windowless passenger compartment, I heard the piping ceremony again. The other captain entered and took his seat. Belatedly, I remembered Navy protocol requires the most senior officer to board last. That thought calmed me and made me realize this must be a routine carrier event.
Embarrassed by my reaction on the flight deck, I felt relieved to know my hesitation had been mental, not physical. No one would have noticed the pause. My years of masking internal turmoil with a calm, confident exterior had served me well.
During the preceding two days, while the Independence steamed from Singapore to Japan, I had been the only woman on a ship filled with 3,700 men.
The ship provided a bathrobe and shower shoes for me to wear between my stateroom and the head (bathroom). To get from one to the other, I walked down a passageway that served as the main street of this floating city.
A steady stream of men flowed toward various destinations. Workers scrubbed the deck, repaired wiring in the bulkheads, or chatted while taking a break. Sailors scrambled out of the way as I slap-slapped down the passageway in my blue terrycloth robe, with my wet hair wrapped in a white towel.
The absence of wolf whistles showed the Navy’s zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment was firmly in place by 1997. That silence, plus the respectful “Good evening, ma’am,” from those who greeted me, raised my comfort level.
Not that I expected attention because of my great beauty. I’m slightly larger than the average American woman, defined as 64 inches and 140 pounds. Nor did I hold any fears for my safety. I trusted Navy men to treat women with respect.
Still, I wondered what they said to each other as I hurried toward the solitude of my stateroom.
A sudden lurch of the plane yanked me back to the present, long enough to realize the C-2A was taxiing to the catapult for launch.
My thoughts moved back over the eighteen years since I’d become an aviation maintenance officer.
I knew the warm feeling of being credited with helping someone earn a promotion or award. I knew how it felt to be a role model, to be told, “I hope I can be as good as you are.” I also knew how it felt to be fired for non-assertiveness, to be stabbed in the back by my commanding officer, to be ridiculed by shipmates I’d considered friends.
I learned to balance being a lady with being “one of the guys.” I knew how it felt to be left behind when male buddies wanted a “guys’ night out.” I’d struggled to figure out when “all hands” included me, and when it meant aviators-only or men-only.
I routinely thought out questions before asking them, to avoid sounding ignorant. I learned that those who treat others with respect usually receive the same treatment in return.
I knew how to counsel people on shortcomings, reprimand them for inappropriate behavior, praise them for achievements, and provide advice on a variety of matters.
In short, I learned to be a leader.
The C-2A crewmember motioned for me to brace myself for the launch. I leaned forward in the rear-facing seat and lowered my head.
The sudden rapid acceleration lifted my legs into the air. I felt the aircraft dip as we shot off the bow and started to fall. The power of the turboprop engines took control, and we rose into the sky.
I closed my eyes and relaxed for the 30-minute flight to Japan, back to my current assignment at Naval Air Facility Atsugi.
How did a shy South Dakota farm girl ever become a high-ranking self-confident Navy officer?
I’m the daughter of military veterans who met and married upon returning to South Dakota after World War II ended. John Diekman and his bride, Mildred Hanson, settled on the farm that is our family home.
When I arrived in the early months of the Korean War, three days after the Inchon landing of September 15, 1950, my brother Keith already toddled around the farm.
Lorraine (Kayo) joined us in 1953, with Kenny following two years later, and Ronald John fourteen years after that.
I remembered being a first-grader who cried most of the day rather than participate in games with the students from a neighboring one-room country school. The fear of strangers amplified my normal fears of poor athletic performance and being teased about my weight.
My major achievement in the first grade came from reading more books than any of the other fourteen students in the school. Thus began the pattern of excellent grades and excessive shyness that took me through my school years.
My four years at Augustana College in Sioux Falls consisted of studying and reading romance novels, with a social life that seldom extended past visiting girlfriends in the dorm. I chose lecture classes that didn’t require me to speak.
The anti-war movement swirled across the campus, but I ignored it, trusting our government to do the right thing.
I graduated magna cum laude in 1972 and joined the Navy. That’s when my real education began. My college years gave me a degree but didn’t teach me about life. It would take sailors to do that.
The women’s officer program had no openings in 1972, so I enlisted instead of waiting for an officer’s commission. The system that limited women to a small corner of the Navy was beginning to crumble, although I didn’t know it at the time.
Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., the Chief of Naval Operations, issued Z-gram #116 in August 1972.
Titled “Equal Rights and Opportunities For Women In the Navy,” the document expressed the ultimate goal of assigning women to ships.
It laid the groundwork for allowing women to be trained with men, to compete with men for certain job assignments, and to follow career paths that included promotion to admiral.
This vision of giving women “equal opportunity to contribute their talents and background” to accomplishing the Navy’s mission would come to fruition twenty years later, with the routine assignment of women to combat ships.
My concerns in those early days didn’t include promotions or sea duty or equal opportunity. I worried about doing my job well and whether that good-looking sailor who talked to me yesterday might ask me for a date.
Joining the Navy helped me build confidence, mostly due to the amazing discovery that men liked me. I operated on the assumption that people who didn’t talk to me didn’t like me, not realizing perhaps they were waiting for me to talk to them.
Being thrust into a situation where young male sailors greatly outnumbered young female sailors did wonders for my ego. Their attention encouraged me to be more outgoing, but could not completely overcome my shyness.
I remember an airman named Jim telling me, “Take off your glasses. I want to see what you look like without them.”
This request occurred so frequently I’d come to expect it. I had worn glasses since the third grade and don’t remember why I chose black-rimmed frames in high school. Jim’s assurance that I looked pretty without glasses finally turned on the light bulb.
Contact lenses became my first major purchase as a wage earner.
For over a year, I enjoyed my job as an aviation storekeeper–a supply clerk who issued aircraft parts.
But the routine became dull, and I searched for a new challenge in early 1974. Officer Candidate School (OCS) appeared to be the only way to cut short my three-year assignment in Pensacola, Florida.
My command’s endorsement on my OCS application called me “a quiet, reserved individual from a small Midwestern town.” It stated, “She has matured rapidly and she now demonstrates the self-confidence to make a decision and the ability to articulate and defend her opinion.”
By January 1975, Admiral Zumwalt’s Z-gram had resulted in women’s officer training being incorporated with the men’s training.
In Newport, Rhode Island, I learned how to “drive” ships. Our classes included navigation and seamanship, as well as physical fitness.
This differed significantly from women’s basic training in 1972, where I learned the nine types of naval correspondence, how to fold towels in equal thirds, to never be seen without lipstick, and that ladies didn’t run. We walked.
Upon earning my officer’s commission, I wanted to get back into the aviation world, but only two options existed for women. My poor vision disqualified me from pilot training, and the popular intelligence field had more applicants than openings.
Most women took administrative jobs, and I selected Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station (AFEES) in Oklahoma City. Its location intrigued me.
I loved my job and life in a cowboy town. During my three-year assignment there, the Navy opened more career fields to women. One was aeronautical maintenance duty officer (AMDO).
My diary entry in early January 1977 says, “I decided I’d like to become an aviation maintenance officer. Now I have to find out what the job entails, and then if I still want it, how to get it.”
I called the detailer–the officer who assigns duty stations–and asked, “What do I have to do to become a maintenance officer?”
He told me maintenance officer school required prior experience. He said my commanding officer needed to recommend me for this career field and document leadership experience in my fitness reports.
Over the next year or so, my bosses willingly included such information in my semi-annual performance reports.
When time came for my next set of orders, the detailer and I held several telephone discussions concerning available options. Because I lacked maintenance experience, I hoped he could get me assigned to an aircraft squadron in an administrative capacity. I would prove myself and work my way into the maintenance department.
He called in May 1978 and said his perseverance and bullheadedness had paid off. “How would you like to go to a training squadron in Texas, after maintenance officer school in Memphis?”
This offer went beyond anything I had dreamed. Trying to sound professional, I controlled my excitement and asked, “How did you manage that?”
“Your records and a lot of sweet-talking.”
I never met that man, but I’m grateful for his efforts in getting me orders to school at Naval Air Station Memphis, near Millington, Tennessee.
In September 1978, I shipped my household goods, attended a round of farewell parties, loaded my suitcases into my new Pontiac Firebird, and headed east from Oklahoma.
Â© 2001 by Diane Diekman