She's Beverly, Not Shipwreck, Kelley—and the First Woman Ever to Command a U.s. Man-of-War

updated 04/30/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/30/1979 01:00AM

The Coast Guard motto is Semper paratus (always ready), but was it ready for Beverly Kelley? This month the curly-haired lieutenant (junior grade) became the first woman ever to command a U.S. military vessel. "I wanted it, I asked for it and now I'm ready to go and do it," she declared.

Kelley may have been rarin' to go, but her man-of-war, the Cape Newagen, was not. "My sick baby," as she fondly describes the 95-foot search-and-rescue cutter, has been high and dry-docked since it was rammed by a freighter two months ago. So Bev assumed command on terra firma at a Coast Guard station near Honolulu instead of aboard ship, as is the custom. She later confessed that one leg shook uncontrollably (but invisibly, since she was in trousers). After issuing her first order ("Chief, take charge of ship's company and dismiss them"), the 26-year-old skipper attended a reception and shyly read aloud a wire from her folks addressed to "The First Old Lady of the Sea."

Kelley downplays any problems commanding 14 men, half of them older than she. "I am a woman," she acknowledges. "I don't want them not to think that. But I will come across as the commanding officer of the vessel, not as a woman bossing them around." Beverly was one of 80 officers considered for the billet, perhaps the most challenging available at her rank (which is equivalent to an Army first looey). "They don't just give these jobs to any Joe off the street," says Steve Carpenter, himself a cutter CO. "She was chosen as the best."

The crew's reactions vary from noncommittal acceptance to outright approbation. Cook Gregory Hanna philosophizes, "I don't see any difference," adding, however: "I have 30 days before I get rotated so I don't care one way or the other." Engineer Bruce Carmel says, more enthusiastically: "I'm looking forward to it—hell, I got a wife boss at home so I might as well have a woman boss at work."

He wouldn't have had except for Kelley's determination. Upon completing Officers' Candidate School in 1976, she requested sea duty, but unlike all her male classmates, Beverly was stuck ashore. "It was the first time in my life that had happened to me," she recalls. "I was never into liberation or equal rights because I always felt that nothing ever kept me from doing anything." Undeterred, she began a letter-writing campaign from her Norfolk, Va. base to Washington. Finally the Coast Guard changed its policy, and she was assigned to the Morgenthau, a destroyer-size cutter on which she was a navigator and then gunnery officer in rigorous duty off Alaska. "It was hard enough being a new boot on board," says Beverly. "But if I did something wrong, it was blamed on my being a woman instead of a new boot." That didn't happen often, but Kelley owns up to breaking into tears once while being chewed out in formation.

Though born in Oklahoma, Beverly was raised in Miami and developed her sea legs ferrying private yachts up and down the East Coast with her mother and stepfather. A math major at the University of Miami, she chafed in several bank jobs until she saw a clip about Coast Guard openings. Beverly was close to marriage two years ago, but when her fiance balked at her going to sea, she jettisoned him. Now she admits to a Coast Guard boyfriend back in Norfolk, but won't divulge his name, rank or serial number. She does reveal that they correspond by tape cassette. "Remember," went one message from her mystery man, "I loved you before you were famous."

A scuba diver and sportswoman, Beverly hopes to sail around the world when she retires in 17 years, but for now she'd settle for a spin around her Maui home port, in the Cape Newagen. Kelley will live on board when the cutter is seaworthy next month and adopts a commonsense attitude toward coed living. "When you use the head, you lock the door," explains the lieutenant. "It's just like living with brothers."

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