SUPERINTENDENT LENAH SUTCLIFFE HIGBEE
Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee was a Canadian-born United States Navy nurse, who served as Superintendent of the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps during World War I. She is best known for being the first female recipient of the Navy Cross.
Not much is known about her early life other than she was born Lenah H. Sutcliffe in Chatham, New Brunswick, Canada, on May 18, 1874. Chatham is a suburb of Miramichi, New Brunswick and New Brunswick is the Canadian province that shares a border with Maine.
She came to America in 1899 to complete her formal nurse training at the New York Postgraduate Hospital. That same year, she married her husband, John Henley Higbee who was a retired U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel. Lenah worked in private practice healthcare until her husband passed away in 1908. She then decided to further her career by attending a post graduate course at Fordham Hospital, New York City.
1908 was a big year for Lenah, because it was in that year that Congress passed legislation establishing the Navy Nurse Corps and required the applicants to be unmarried and 22 to 44 years of age. Therefore, Lenah, a 36-year-old widow, decided to join. Twenty females made up the first group of Navy Nurses– later known as the “Sacred Twenty”.
Facing continued resistance and institutionalized discrimination from the male-dominated medical community, Higbee rose from her position as a rank-less nurse who was paid considerably less than her male peers to become the second superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps. In 1910 Lenah was promoted to the Chief Nurse at Norfolk Naval Hospital and she was responsible for overseeing 86 nurses across the US, Guam, and the Philippines. In 1911, became the second Superintendent of the Corps– a role she held for eleven years.
“Nurses were assigned to duty at the Naval Hospital, Washington, D.C.,” said Beatrice Bowman, one of the Sacred Twenty nurses who later became the third superintendent of the NNC in 1922. “There were no quarters for them but they were given an allowance for quarters and subsistence. They rented a house and ran their own mess. These pioneers were no more welcome to most of the personnel of the Navy than women are when invading what a man calls his domain.”
Despite all of those hurdles, Lenah grew the NNC from 160 to over 1300 nurses, served on multiple healthcare committees to prepare the Red Cross for the impacts of World War I, began training hospital corpsmen, and survived the Spanish flu epidemic.
After being exposed to the horrors from World War I, the complexities of battlefield wounds, and shell shock, Superintendent Higbee managed the development of Vassar Training Camp, the finishing school where nurses gained operational experience before arriving at their first assignments.
The following year, in 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic rocked the world — and as Higbee and her nursing corps did best, they adapted to the evolving demands of medicine. Their focus shifted from the war wounds to an invisible disease. A total of 431 US Navy personnel had lost their lives during World War I, and 819 more were wounded. The humanitarian crisis between 1918 and 1919, in contrast, saw 5,027 sailors die as a result of the pandemic.
She also lobbied for expanded healthcare for military dependents, equal pay and rank for nurses, and formalized Navy nursing uniforms bearing the oak leaf and acorn over an anchor. Her efforts in shaping the NNC caused one paper to conclude “the most needed woman was the war nurse,” and defined her as “a soldier, fighting pain, disease and death with weapons of science and skill.”
“Every qualified nurse released for military duty brings upon her community the honor of having given another soldier to the defense of the country. She may be the only woman from her community who will face the actual dangers of war and is entitled to distinction as such.” – The Sun, 9 Jun 1918
Another one of her initiatives was to build a force of hospital corpsmen that assisted in “nursing training methods” as well as to “develop in the hearts and minds of these ‘pupil nurses’ the principles of conscience care of the sick.”
Higbee and her team worked early mornings and late nights to diagnose patients and aid in their recovery. In 1920, Higbee became the first living recipient of the Navy Cross for “distinguished service in the line of her profession and unusual and conspicuous devotion to duty as superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps.”
Three other nurses, Marie Louise Hidell, Lillian M. Murphy, and Edna E. Place, were awarded the Navy Cross posthumously, as they were among the casualties of the Spanish Flu.
Chief Higbee retired from the Navy in 1922 after fourteen years of service.
She essentially shaped the Navy Nurse Corps and had left a significant influence on the Navy.
Higbee passed away in 1941 so she did not get to see nurses receive the rank, pay and respect they deserved. In 1942 the Navy granted nurses “relative rank.” In 1944, the Navy finally approved nurses for “full military rank” with equal pay.
After her death, Chief Higbee also became the first woman to have a U.S. Navy warship named after her. The names of Navy destroyers are of deceased members of the Navy, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard.
On Nov. 13, 1944, the USS Higbee was commissioned and was converted into a radar picket destroyer. The “Leaping Lenah,” as she was referred to by her crew, “screened carriers as their planes launched heavy air attacks against the Japanese mainland” and helped support occupying forces in the clearing of minefields during World War II. She also earned seven battle stars in the Korean War and was the first warship to be bombed in the Vietnam War.
In 1950, Higbee continued its carrier screening duties off the coast of Korea as part of the Fast Carrier Task Force 77, as well as supported the shore bombardment at Incheon, South Korea. Although the ship returned to San Diego in 1951, Higbee completed two more deployments to Korea to support carrier operations and shore bombardment.
When the Leaping Lenah was decommissioned in 1979, she held the record for the highest score for naval gunfire support of any warship in the US Navy. It was a remarkable achievement and the ultimate tribute to Superintendent Chief Nurse Higbee.
In 2016, the spirit of Chief Nurse Higbee reared up once more to impact the U.S. Navy. Then Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced plans for USS Lenah H. Sutcliffe Higbee (DDG 123). In November, the new Higbee’s keel was laid at Huntington Ingalls Shipyard. The new warship will be configured as a Flight IIA destroyer, equipped with the Navy’s Aegis Combat System. DDG 123 is planned to commission in 2024.
Chief Nurse Higbee is buried in Arlington National Cemetery beside her husband.
CAPTAIN MARY KLINKER
Mary Klinker was born at Lafayette, Indiana, in October of 1947 to her parents Paul and Thelma Klinker. Mary was one of six children she had one sister and four brothers.
Mary graduated in 1965 from Central Catholic High School in Lafayette. She went straight into nursing school at St. Elizabeth’s School of Nursing, which was also in her home town. She graduated as a Registered Nurse, May 1968 and worked at that same hospital until she joined the Air Force.
In January of 1970, Mary joined the United States Air Force as a lieutenant in the Nurse Corps. She completed the training for flight nurse and not only worked as a flight nurse, but also as an instructor, and a flight examiner.
She was promoted to captain and in 1974, Mary was stationed at Travis Air Force base in California. There she was assigned to the 10th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron.
Mary volunteered to go to Vietnam and was then assigned to the 22nd Aircraft Squadron at Clark Air Base in the Philippines in 1974.
It was during her time in the Philippines that operation baby lift was ordered.
We talked about this operation during episode 4 when I told the story of Regina Aune.
Mary and Regina were on the same flight together, so I am sure you know where this is going.
Mary volunteered to help transport the children from Vietnam to the Philippines.
The evacuation of this sea of babies had to have been over whelming. I can only imagine what Mary must have been thinking when she saw all these little ones.
The children were moved from the orphanages to Tan Son Nhut Air Base for the evacuation. They were loaded onto C-5A Galaxy cargo planes, which are big enough to drive a truck into.
The flight that Regina and Mary were on took off on April 3, 1975. As we know from Regina’s story it was only a few minutes into the flight when the lower rear fuselage was torn apart. The explosion and following crash killed Mary and many of the passengers. Mary was the last female American SM to be killed in Vietnam.
Mary is buried in her home town of Lafayette, Indiana in the Saint Boniface Cemetery. Mary’s name is listed on Panel O1W Row 122 of The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.
There is also a nonprofit charity that was established in her name. The Mary T. Klinker veterans resource center helps veterans in the state of Indiana. They are a 501c charity, however I did not vet this charity in anyway.