Capt. Kathleen McGrath, who made history as the first woman to command a Navy warship, died of lung cancer Sept. 26 at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. She was 50.
In the spring of 2000, McGrath led the frigate Jarrett and its crew of 262 from San Diego to the Persian Gulf to intercept oil smugglers. She had taken the helm of the ship in 1998, four years after Congress relaxed the rules that had barred women from combat ships.
Her command marked a milestone in the history of what had been a man’s Navy for two centuries.
Progress began slowly in 1948, when women were allowed to enlist in the regular Navy. The first women entered the Naval Academy almost 30 years later, in 1976. A woman took command of a noncombat ship for the first time in 1990.
Three years after the Air Force’s groundbreaking decision to let women fly combat jets, the Navy in 1994 made women eligible to command warships.
McGrath was one of five women given combat ship commands in 1998. Four were assigned to lightly armed amphibious transport vessels; McGrath got a warship capable of massive firepower.
Although one of the smallest warships in the Navy fleet, the Jarrett carried 1,100-pound Standard missiles, powerful enough to destroy enemy aircraft from 20 miles away. It also had Harpoon missiles, two Seahawk helicopters, torpedoes and anti-aircraft weaponry.
McGrath told Time magazine she did not view the job as an opportunity to prove that she could be as tough as a male commander.
“I don’t try to emulate a man, nor do I try to do what a guy would do,” said McGrath, a mother of two who played the violin in her stateroom for relaxation. “I have to be myself.”
Born in Columbus, Ohio, she was the daughter of a 29-year Air Force veteran who spent her teenage years at a U.S. base on Guam while her father flew B-52 bombers over North Vietnam.
After high school she studied forestry at Cal State Sacramento, and earned a degree in 1975. She spent the next several years with the U.S. Forest Service.
When she grew restive in that work, her father encouraged her to consider the military.
Intending to continue a family tradition, she went to the Air Force recruiting office in Merced, Calif. But when she found that the Air Force recruiter was out to lunch, she impulsively stopped at the Navy office--and signed up.
She attended naval officers’ school in Newport, R.I., and was commissioned in 1980. While assigned to a Navy personnel office in Yokosuka, Japan, she arranged to ride on a support vessel where she was allowed to stand watch, participate in a man-overboard exercise and drive the ship. Later, she sailed out of Yokosuka on a visiting frigate. It was a thrilling experience that led her to dream of one day commanding a warship.
After initially being turned down, she was admitted to the Surface Warfare Officers School, which trained her to serve on an oiler, tender or other auxiliary vessel. She served on four support ships from 1983 to 1994, including commanding the Recovery, a rescue and salvage ship.
During this period she earned a master’s degree in education from Stanford University.
When Congress opened warships to women in 1994, she paid her dues for a few years, working in the Navy’s personnel bureau in Washington, and then helping to manage a destroyer squadron based in San Diego.
A week before Christmas in 1998, she was given command of the Jarrett.
“It’s an understatement that I’m delighted,” she said in a short speech after taking charge of the combat ship.
Paul Stillwell, a historian at the Naval Institute at Annapolis, Md., said the importance of McGrath’s promotion cannot be overstated.
“It was a huge breakthrough, given the tradition-bound nature of the Navy,” he said by phone Wednesday.
Said Jean A. Ebbert, coauthor with Marie-Beth Hall of “Crossed Currents, Navy Women in a Century of Change”: “The command at sea of a warship is the most meaningful thing that a naval officer can do. It happened [to McGrath] because she was prepared.”
McGrath told an interviewer that the only special accommodation made for her on the Jarrett was removing the spring-loaded, always-up toilet seat in her cabin’s head.
In addition to searching for oil smugglers, she led the ship during search and rescue operations for a downed Marine CH-46 helicopter and for Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which crashed into the ocean off the Ventura County coast in January 2000, killing all 88 aboard. Her deployments took her to the Mediterranean and Caribbean, the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf.
As commander, she was credited with breaking down traditional barriers between enlisted men and officers. Soon after becoming captain of the Jarrett, she hosted a mixed-rank barbecue in honor of five new chief petty officers.
When her tour as commander was up, she served at the Joint Advanced Warfighting Unit in Alexandria, Va.
Rear Adm. Harry Ulrich, director of surface warfare, called McGrath “an accomplished surface warrior and leader” who embodied the Navy’s values of honor, courage and commitment.
She was married to a Navy officer, Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Brandon. Before she went to sea with the Jarrett, she and Brandon took time off to start a family, adopting two Russian toddlers, Nicholas and Clare, in 1999. Brandon, who retired in 1996, was their primary caretaker while she was away.
McGrath won many medals during her career, including the Legion of Merit, four Meritorious Service Medals and three Navy Commendation Medals.
In addition to her husband and children, she is survived by three sisters, two brothers and her parents, James and Martha McGrath of Sequim, Wash.