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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.


A diver's life depends on being part of a team. Divers train and dive in teams. Divers working in the water are supported by their shipmates on the surface. Teamwork is at the core of everything divers do.

Click photograph for a larger image.

Karin Lynn climbing a ladder in a Mark 12 diving suit

"...the diving community is also a very tight-knit, close group....the friends that I made at the Supervisor of Salvage and Diving...have been friends for life."

Karin Lynn

Tender checking Debra Bodenstedt's diving equipment

"...women are part of the community within the Navy divers, and they are equally trained, equally capable, and equally successful as their male counterparts...you get out of it what you put into it."

Debra Bodenstedt

Karen Kohanowich entering the water in SCUBA gear

"...having separate standards is almost like sabotage. There's no way you can have a good team. You know, what we're here for is to do the work and be part of the team."

Karen Kohanowich

Debra Bodenstedt putting on a diving helmet

"One of the other jobs that I'm probably most proud of was, while [I was] CO of this underwater ships husbandry unit, we removed 30-ton propellers from a carrier in the water...That is quite a task, an engineering feat, that's done underwater..."

Debra Bodenstedt

Donna Tobias and tender checking her equipment

"And one of the things that exists...is the camaraderie. We all have each other's lives in our hands. ...But you're all in it together...you get weary together, and you get cold together, and you laugh together."

Donna Tobias

Marie Knafelc posing with a Mark V diving dress

"When divers see a dive-pin on your chest, no matter who you are, they know you went through a rite of passage unique among divers. Everyone went through the same rigors of physical training. Navy diving is based up on a buddy system. Your life depends upon that buddy in the water with you. You have to trust them in their knowledge and ability, as well as they have to trust you to take care of them if things go sideways. The result is that the Navy diving community is another family within the Navy family."

Marie Knafelc

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