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Women Divers: Part of the Navy Team

Tradition and equipment discouraged women from becoming divers. Navy divers were exclusively male for over one hundred years. Dive gear, designed to fit men, was heavy and oversized for female divers. Hull Technician Donna Tobias made history in 1975 when she graduated from the Navy's Deep Sea Diving School as the Navy's first female hard hat diver. "She had to prove herself, to be twice as good at everything, and she was," remembered retired Master Diver Steven Lechner.

This exhibit examines the challenges and achievements of some of the first women Navy divers. Through determination, persistence, and a love of diving, these early pioneers proved themselves in a male-dominated world to become valued, respected members of the diving community.

Challenge and Determination

In the face of physical hardship and institutional barriers, the first women Navy divers were determined. They struggled with equipment sized for larger bodies and an organization that was not always welcoming.


Click photograph for a larger image.

Donna Tobias graduating from dive school

If you ever uttered the words, 'I quit,' you could never take them back, and there were plenty of eyes waiting to see me fail. I didn't want them asking less of women, for anything."

Donna Tobias

Linda Hubbell standing inside an atmospheric diving suit

"Being a female Navy diver has to do with perseverance. You get tired of being told you can't go on some job because you might get hurt."

Linda Hubbell

Tenders dressing Karen Kohanowich in a Mark 12 diving suit

"You need to be strong. You need to be dedicated. You need to practice. You need to be serious about it."

Karen Kohanowich

Tender securing Mary Bonnin's Mark V breastplate

"It's a matter of determination rather than skills. It helps to have someone behind you telling you that you can't do it. To work in a man's world you have to have an awful, awful lot of patience."

Mary Bonnin

Sue Trukken peeking out of a Mark V helmet

"My diving class started out with 20 diving candidates of whom I was the only woman. By the end of the first two weeks we were down to thirteen. I survived this attrition by smiling the whole way through physical training and working myself to death."

Sue Trukken

Linda Hubbell posing with Second Class Dive School classmates

"[My detailer] on the phone was offering me a job in Hawaii as an assistant biology technical officer. Only catch, I had to go to Navy diving school. Then he informed me there was one other bit of news that went with this diving school stuff. I would be the first female officer to ever go through. My Dad was a Navy Seabee qualified in underwater demolition, and I knew what Navy diving school meant. Gulp."

Linda Hubbell

René Hernandez posing with a Mark V diving dress

"...it's very hard work... but it's something that if you really want...in your life you just go for that. And so once you work that hard and you do it...you become...part of an elite group of people..."

René Hernandez

Marie Knafelc using SCUBA gear underwater

"Diving and submarine duty were part of the job that I had to do. To make a naval career in diving medicine, I had to become qualified in submarines. A dive school classmate found a submarine commanding officer willing to have a woman undersea medical officer to care for his crew. Because I was willing to go down in the bilges, through sonar domes, crawl up inside a missile and learn whatever the crew was willing to teach... [I] broke down any barriers the crew may have had when I initially appeared on deck."

Marie Knafelc


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