FALLS CHURCH, Va.
On April 24, 2021, newly completed destroyer USS Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee (DDG-123) was christened at the Ingalls Ship Yard in Pascagoula, Miss.
The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer holds special meaning for Navy Medicine. The ship’s namesake—Lenah Higbee— entered service in 1908 becoming part of the “Sacred Twenty,” the first nurses (and women) in the U.S. Navy. Just three years into her military career, Higbee ascended to the leadership of the corps, becoming only its second Superintendent (the forerunner of today’s Director of Nurse Corps.)
In attendance at the ceremony were two descendants of her leadership lineage, Rear Admiral Cynthia Kuehner, Director of the Nurse Corps, and Rear Admiral Eric Peterson, Reserve Director of the Nurse Corps. Both took part in the mast stepping ceremony earlier in the day before the christening.
Kuehner, who served as the representative of the Chief of Naval Operations at the ceremony, spoke about the symbol of Higbee for the Nurse Corps and Navy Medicine.
“As the 26th Director of the Navy Nurse Corps I recognize that I am here in no small part because of the vision, initiative and conspicuous achievements of this great warship’s namesake,” said Kuehner. “As the second Superintendent she led the Navy Nurse Corps with awe inspiring distinction. In this evening’s ceremony we celebrate her legacy. We honor her service. And we ensure that the permanence of her indomitable spirit is enshrined and revered by all who behold her.”
Also in attendance was Higbee’s first Commanding Officer, Cmdr. Douglas Brayton. A 2004 graduate of the Naval Academy, Brayton’s previous assignments include: electrical officer aboard USS Monterey (CG-61); assistant officer in charge of Inshore Boat Unit 52; engineer officer, USS Oscar Austin (DDG-79); operations officer, USS Mesa Verde (LPD-19); and executive officer, USS Somerset (LPD-25). On shore he taught seamanship and navigation at the Naval Academy and served at the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center Amphibious Warfare Division.
“It’s a humbling experience and an honor to have been selected as the ship’s first CO,” said Brayton.
Brayton has witnessed the ship’s construction from the keel up and during this time has had the opportunity to assemble and train his fellow plankowners. “You get to build your team and really come together as the ship does,” said Brayton. “So to walk aboard and see the development of both—it is truly a unique leadership opportunity.”
Superintendent Higbee led the Navy Nurse Corps from January 1911 until November 1922. Throughout her career she fought for their acceptance of her nurses into a Navy that was not always welcoming and dedicated herself to establishing new opportunities for them. Under Higbee, Navy nurses began taking on new roles including teaching hospital corpsmen at hospitals and corps school, and serving aboard ships and at overseas activities—the first women ever to do so in the Navy. During the influenza pandemic Navy nurses operated in infectious disease wards caring for the most virulent cases, some even sacrificing their own lives in the process; and by the end of World War I—under Higbee’s guidance—nurses had more than proved themselves as a vital part of the Navy. For her courageous leadership she was later awarded the Navy Cross and to date is the only living woman ever to receive this award.
“Lenah Higbee understood in the context of World War I and the influenza pandemic of 1918 that nursing’s presence on the front and in the fight is as essential to victory as any other element of modern warfare,” said Kuehner. “With uncommon vision and valor Superintendent Higbee pursued credible standing for the all-female Navy Nurse Corps, fighting within the institution against overt discrimination and for the common basic features of military service including pay, rank, uniforms and even housing.”
There are few greater honors in the Navy then having a ship named after you. Higbee now holds the distinction of having two ships named in her honor. Her first namesake—USS Higbee (DD-806)—was launched in 1944, just three years after her death.
In World War II, USS Higbee served in the Pacific where she screened carriers as they launched air attacks on the Japanese mainland and was later tasked with clearing minefields. During the Korean War, Higbee was re-designated a radar picket destroyer (DDR-806) and took part in the screening and shore bombardment in the Inchon Invasion. And in the 1960s, Higbee supported the fight in Vietnam and participated in Gemini capsule recovery missions in the Western Pacific. Her final years were spent in the Naval Reserve Force off Long Beach, California, and later Seattle, Washington. She was decommissioned in 1979 and sunk as a target off of San Diego in 1986.
Former Secretary of the Navy the Honorable Ray Mabus spoke at the event and is credited for selecting the name of the ship. Higbee was one of 87 ships Mabus named during his tenure in office from 2009 to 2017. Although each naming and christening was special to Mabus he noted that this was especially so. “The story and legacy of Lenah Higbee and what she represents will live on in decades around the world through this ship’s voyages and through the lives of the crew who sail aboard her,” said Mabus.
For Brayton, having the ship named after Lenah Higbee gives it an identity, and helps define its character. It also challenges the crew to best represent her and her namesake ship as warfighters.
“There is a great historical lineage here,” remarked Brayton. “It’s our challenge to be those next torch bearers and hoist up the mantle in the way we are best able. It’s all about getting this war ship built, the crew ready, trained and qualified and out–to-sea for tasking.”
As the motto of the ship, Brayton and his crew looked for an adage that captured the spirit of both Superintendent Higbee as a courageous leader as well as the important role of her first ship namesake. After much deliberation they selected “Bellatrix Illa,” meaning “She is a Warrior.”
In the coming months USS Lenah S. Higbee will be undergoing sea trials before commissioning and ultimately joining the fleet. But the hope of this new ship remains bright and will be one that Navy Medicine continues to follow.
“I know USS Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee will protect and defend our nation with the same zeal, courage and valiant resolve of the Navy nurse for whom she is named,” said Kuehner. “I share your inspiration for the many things she is and has yet to become.”