Wednesday 21 December 2011

WW2 Wrens shooting spotlighted,

WW2 image of servicewomen are usually positive. They're 'our girls', working for 'our victory'. But now a story emerges of a Wren in uniform whom a mystery assailant shot four times as she was returning from an errand. She died.

The question is, was this a crime motivated by hostility to Wrens, to women, this particular woman, or was it just random? A crime of passion? Or politics? Or just a fluke? But let's bear in mind that more men murder and assault women than women murder men. So the bigger question is: does the murder expose a gendered hostility to servicewomen that has silenced?

Twenty-year-old Gertrude Canning, of Donegal, was a serving Wren (Woman’s Royal Naval Service) at Camp Quebec at No. 1 Combined Training Centre in Inveraray, Argyll, when she was murdered by four shots in 1942.

It's reported that 'Scotland's newly-formed Cold Case Unit could reopen an investigation into the murder...The Crown Office has listed the death... as part of the Unsolved Homicide Database, the result of which may see her case re-examined. A total of around 93 serious crimes are subject to a re-investigation due to advances in forensic technology.'

'Family’s fresh hopes for clues to mystery of Gertrude’s murder', 22.12.2011,

Lesbian sailors' famous kiss?

Yesterday two women kissed in what may become the most iconic real embrace in women's maritime history. It's been downplayed, it wasn't a show, but it's been photographed for posterity and shared with the world by Associated Press. You can even see it on video.

This real kiss compares interestingly to a spoof one posed by models ten years ago. It's a pastiche of the famous V-J Day 1945 kiss shot by Alfred Eisenstaedt (see this blog, 15.2.2010). To me a decade ago the embrace felt very very far from what could happen in reality. Now it's not.

And that progress merits celebration. I can see why the US navy is downplaying it. There must be anxiety that it shouldn't be fetishised or trivialised. And certainly human beings' right to embrace should indeed be taken for granted. But actually this a significant and serious step forward.

Journalist Brock Vergakis reports that 'A Navy tradition caught up with the repeal of the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" rule on Wednesday [Dec 21] when two women sailors became the first to share the coveted "first kiss" on the pier after one of them returned from 80 days at sea.

'Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta of Placerville, Calif.,[left] descended from the USS Oak Hill amphibious landing ship and shared a quick kiss in the rain with her partner, Petty Officer 3rd Class Citlalic Snell, [based on the USS Bainbridge, the guided missile destroyer] Gaeta, 23, wore her Navy dress uniform while Snell, 22, wore a black leather jacket, scarf and blue jeans.

'For the historical significance of the kiss, there was little to differentiate it from countless others when a Navy ship pulls into its home port following a deployment. Neither the Navy nor the couple tried to draw attention to what was happening and many onlookers waiting for their loved ones to come off the ship were busy talking among themselves.

'David Bauer, the commanding officer of the USS Oak Hill, said that Gaeta and Snell's kiss would largely be a non-event and the crew's reaction upon learning who was selected to have the first kiss was positive.

'"It's going to happen and the crew's going to enjoy it. We're going to move on and it won't overshadow the great things that this crew has accomplished over the past three months," Bauer said.

'The ship returned to Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story following an 80-day deployment to Central America. The crew of more than 300 participated in exercises involving the militaries of Honduras, Guatemala Colombia and Panama as part of Amphibious-Southern Partnership Station 2012.

'Both women are Navy fire controlmen[sic], who maintain and operate weapons systems on ships. They met at training school where they were roommates and have been dating for two years, which they said was difficult under "don't ask, don't tell."

"We did have to hide it a lot in the beginning," Snell said. "A lot of people were not always supportive of it in the beginning, but we can finally be honest about who we are in our relationship, so I'm happy."

'Navy officials said it was the first time on record that a same-sex couple was chosen to kiss first upon a ship's return. Sailors and their loved ones bought $1 raffle tickets for the opportunity. Gaeta said she bought $50 of tickets, a figure that she said pales in comparison to amounts that some other sailors and their loved ones had bought. The money was used to host a Christmas party for the children of sailors.'

'Brock Vergakis, Associated Press, 'Marissa Gaeta And Citlalic Snell, U.S. Naval Petty Officers, Share First Same-Sex Kiss At Ship's Return',

SEE THE VIDEO of kiss and interview at

Images of transgressive sailors

When I was at the Edward Burra exhibition in Chichester last month (it's still on) I thought some of the very curvaceous and transgressive images of seafarers looked familiar in style. He definitely knew about trannies, but was he the first to visually comment on seafarers' sexuality?

I thought not, and now I've come across some paintings of mariners that seem to precede his. Try this 1929 painting by Austrian artist Marcel Ronay (lower image), 'Sailor and Girl'.(I found the image at Thank you, Barbara).

Surfing for more info about Ronay led to me another site where you will find many Weimar artists' images of 'sailors', of the kind not usually seen in maritime museums, for example Charles Demuth's 1918 'Sailors dancing' (centre).

Their sexualisation in these images is quite startling. It's easy to see the connections with Tom of Finland (see top picture, Seen Magazine, 'Tom arrives home') and his masculine gay men. Real name Touko Laaksonen, the late Tom's internationally acclaimed exhibition at Turku just closed 4 days ago. It was one of the official events in Turku's European Capital of Culture programme.

However the Wäinö Aaltonen Museum of Art and the Åbo Akademi Library want to gather permanent collections of his work).

There is certainly room in the world for a maritime museum to show this very different angle on rugged Sailor Jack.

Thursday 15 December 2011

First woman rear-admiral appointed in Australia

Women admirals are rare, so it's a big number that Commodore Robyn Walker (top picture) has just been appointed to the rank of Rear Admiral in the Royal Australian Navy.

Her distinguished fore-sisters include Grace Murray Hopper (US, 1985) (pic lower left). In June this year Rear Admiral Nora Tyson became the first woman to command a US carrier strike group (see

In Canada in May Jennifer Bennett (pic lower right) became the country's first woman Rear Admiral (

The Australian MOD press release says 'Admiral Walker is the first female in the Navy to attain the rank of Rear Admiral and to take on the job of Surgeon‑General for the Australian Defence Force.'

Not that she's doing a Nelson in high-profile naval battles at sea. 'Admiral Walker’s promotion follows her achievements as Director-General of Health for the Navy with broader responsibilities to the ADF [Australian Defence Force] in leading a $270 million revamp of the ADF’s health capability, and her previous roles in supporting the health of operational Defence personnel in Iraq and East Timor.

'Admiral Walker said she was honoured and humbled by her promotion.“I am looking forward to the challenges that I will face and continuing to make a positive difference in my new role.”

'Admiral Walker joined the Royal Australian Navy from Brisbane as a Direct Entry Lieutenant in 1991, and has continued to work in the field of medicine ever since.

'She served in HMA Ship Westralia and with the Sea Training Group, and has been involved in the planning of health support for several military operations.

'Admiral Walker led the health planning and assembly for Australia’s military medical response to the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, and led further developments to the Australian Defence Force’s Mental Health Strategy between 2005 and 2008. In September this year, she was named Telstra ACT Business Woman of the Year for 2011.'

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Gay US navy man wins victory

Google Alerts seem to daily highlight cases of LGBT people in the US navy enjoying new lives now that DADT [the notorious Don't Ask, Don't Tell law] has been overturned. I don't put them all on this blog because the stories are not about my point: lives on ships. And I'm no supporter of the US's military-industrial complex.

But today it seems like especially good news for someone TWICE ousted from his job. Justice has been done. LGBT Weekly reports that 'U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd class Jase Daniels, 29, was reinstated as into active duty as a [Hebrew] linguist after the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and the law firm of Morrison & Foerster pushed for his return to duty. He was sworn in Monday, saying.

'“Today, I took an oath and affirmed to defend the Constitution of the United States of America. I am humbled as I am reinstated to the job I love and by the enormous support I have received on this momentous day. I look forward to returning to the Defense Language Institute and ultimately, my career in the military.”

'Daniels was discharged in 2005 after coming to terms with his sexual orientation. He sent his commander a letter which confirmed he was gay. Daniels was discharged shortly thereafter, but later received a notice recalling him to serve in Kuwait for one year. He was discharged a second time under DADT [the notorious, now-overturned Don't Ask, Don't Tell law].'

(A longer version of this article was posted at It's called 'Discharged U.S. Navy officer reinstated after dismissal under defunct DADT policy' The original appears to be by Ruth Fine of San Diego gay news.

Monday 12 December 2011

19C women aboard Cornish ships

Selina Smith (above) went to sea with her husband, the master of the Gem, in 1887, along with their son Percy. They went to Malta, Greece, Curacao, and Galveston.

Fortunately - and unusually - she left a log. Joanna Thomas uses it and some fascinating census data to paint a very new picture of the extent to which women, in Cornwall at least, were aboard ships.

They were there - and maybe sailed - as wives and daughters of mates, seamen, boatswains, carpenters, shipkeepers, gunners, lieutenants and bargemen, as well as nurses, servants and stewardesses in their own right.

See her article 'Women aboard vessels in late nineteenth-century Cornwall' in Troze, the online journal of the National Maritime Museum, Cornwall, Vol 3, no 1, August 2011, pp.1-11.

I particularly value the way she discusses the problems of how the census recorded and omitted women on ships.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Submariners - women too, at last

(Cartoon from Facebook)

Well, the possibility of women becoming submariners on UK boats has been building up - as previous posts on this blog have said. Today, after an 18-month review, the go-ahead has been confirmed by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond.

The news has just been announced. It's going to be officers first, then ratings - perhaps because men see women officers as less harass-able. These officers will begin serving on the four large Vanguard-class nuclear subs in late 2013.

Then female ratings will be allowed to sail in 2015. By that point, it's thought women will also be serving on the new Astute-class subs.

It's an overdue move. Lots of silly excuses have been proffered in the past, like:
# nuclear subs can harm your unborn foetus
# pregnant women will compromise missions because if something goes wrong (like an ectopic pregnancy) the sub would have to surface and get the patient to land
# they'll commit adultery with men on board, and wrecking naval marriages
# hot-bedding will cause immorality.

The main problem, I'm told by submariners I know, is actually toilets. It costs a lot to adapt vessels to create separate facilities for women and men - and separation is seen as crucial.

And the main reason for allowing women on subs now is - as so often in wartime - that there aren't enough men to do the isolated work. It's not that there's a better commitment to equal opps.

Having said that, most women at sea think the Royal Navy is far more egalitarian than the Merchant Navy. It has excellent policies prohibiting sexual harassment, that are well enforced.

Nick Hopkins in The Guardian wrote that
'The Conservative MP Andrew Murrison, who served as a surgeon commander in the Royal Navy before entering parliament, said: "Women have proved to be an essential part of the surface fleet.

'"I can see no convincing reason to prevent female personnel from becoming submariners if they wish. The medical and physiological objections to women serving in submarines appear to have been resolved removing any real hurdle for potential female submariners."

'Women have been serving on Royal Navy surface ships since 1990 and there are now more than 3,400 female personnel in the fleet, though this accounts for less than 10% of the total. Some jobs in the navy are still men-only, including joining the Royal Marines.

'But more than 70 per cent of jobs in the navy and army are now open to women. In the Royal Air Force, the figure is 95 per cent.'

Researching women on the wartime seas - as I am for my next book - I am struck by how often women had to fight to be allowed to take part in sea work - and what flimsy excuses have been made to halt them.

On Aug 7 1940 MP Seymour Cocks suggested women should be accountants at sea in the Royal Navy. But the admiralty refused as it would cause problems organising relief staff. Where there is a will - or shortages of personnel- there is a way.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Pearl Harbour women

On the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on Dec 7 19141, a few stories are emerging about US women. At the huge US naval base there were many civilian wives. There were also women working in supprt roles, such as the 82 Army and 42 Navy nurses. Annie Fox (48) (pictured) the chief nurse in the Army Nurse Corps at Hickam Field, later received a Bronze Star for bravery after the attack.

The photo shows women there putting out a fire that day.

Women were not working on ships, but their lives were very ship-focused. And civilian wives of men in the US Pacific Fleet took to the seas because they were evacuated - in Beatrice Thacher's case on an unsuitable vessel.

Mary Jane Smetanka writes in Minneapolis Star Tribune that then-teacher Beatrice Thacher, now 95, was in Hawaii raising a 2-year-old and was pregnant with her second child. Her husband Bob was a gunnery officer in charge of the anti-aircraft battery on the battleship California.

'"I loved that battleship; it was always breaking down," Bea Thacher said with a smile. That meant the ship often had to come back to port for repairs, and she got to spend time with her husband."'

The Pacific Fleet had been ordered to Hawaii because of fears of war with Japan. 'Most Navy wives stayed on the mainland, but as Thacher ... vowed to join her husband on the island of Hawaii.'

'She had sailed there on a tourist ship, and said she spent the entire trip chasing her 2-year-old, Carol, around the ship deck...The couple found lodging in a run-down cul-de-sac crowded with Navy families. The landlord was a woman who mothered the young Navy wives, who saw their husbands only when they were off-duty.'

After the attack early on Sunday morning 'Bea wandered up the cul-de-sac and found other wives listening to the radio, playing bridge and drinking coffee. As she mechanically rigged a blanket to cover a window, she began to tremble."... was shaking so bad I bit on the blanket to stop my teeth from chattering."

'The Navy evacuated families to the mainland. She boarded a ship not knowing where it was going.

'The ship rolled in the waves because it didn't have enough ballast.. anxiety swept over those on board when the little fleet it was part of had to pause in the Pacific to deal with engine problems in one boat.

'Japanese submarines were thought to be in the area. Bea was wearing an old tweed coat that a friend of Bob's had handed her before she left.

'Bea didn't see Pearl Harbor until six weeks after the bombing...[she] spent the rest of the war years in New Jersey, dashing to New York to see Bob for an hour when his ship docked and he left for other assignments."I just missed him so much," she said. "I was dying to see him. It would be in on a Friday, out on a Monday."' December 07, 2011, 08:46 AM

Donna Trussel writes in Politics Today that 'During and after the Pearl Harbor attacks, 57 civilians were killed and 35 were wounded. (Estimates vary on how many of those deaths resulted from friendly fire.) The military deaths, by comparison, were 2,402, and 1,247 wounded... all the women (and children) casualties were civilians.