Loretto Perfectus Walsh, First Woman to Serve in the U.S. Armed Forces

Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

At the age of 20, Loretto Perfectus Walsh (1896–1925) became the first woman to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces in March 1917, just weeks before the U.S. entered World War I. Women had served in the American military since 1901 but as nurses only. Walsh joined the U.S. Navy and was sworn in as a chief yeoman. She was expected to perform the same duties and was entitled to the same benefits and pay as any man of the same rank. Following the Armistice of November 1918, Walsh remained in the Naval Reserve until the end of her commitment.

In early 1917, as tensions in Europe were increasing and the U.S. was beginning to anticipate entering the war, the need for recruits became critical. The government issued orders allowing women to enlist. Lt. Cmdr. Frederick Payne, a Navy recruiter and husband of Walsh’s employer, encouraged Walsh to become the first female recruit. She did not hesitate to enlist. Following her example, more than 200 other women volunteered in March 1917. Her enlistment was widely publicized and over the next several months, Walsh inspired thousands of women and men to join the Armed Forces.

Walsh began her work for the Navy in the recruiting office but also spent time aiding influenza victims while stationed in Philadelphia. She spent a brief time overseas before contracting tuberculosis. In 1919 she was discharged because of disability. She then spent several years at White Haven tuberculosis sanatorium in Luzerne County and was married to a fellow patient before succumbing to the disease in 1925.

Many women, such as these yeomen photographed in Washington, D.C., c. 1918, followed Loretto Walsh’s example and enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War I. Library of Congress

Many women, such as these yeomen photographed in Washington, D.C., c. 1918, followed Loretto Walsh’s example and enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War I. Library of Congress

Walsh’s first name is unusual and somewhat controversial. Her tombstone in her hometown of Olyphant, Lackawanna County, reads “Loretta,” not an uncommon woman’s name. She is referred to as such in many secondary sources. The name on the Pennsylvania Historical Marker is “Loretto.” After the marker was approved, PHMC staff contacted a relative, James J. Walsh, to provide assistance with text development, and he supplied evidence of the spelling of her name. In the marker file are several official documents that refer to her as “Loretto” — her recruiting, medical and reserve records from the Navy. Also, perhaps most compelling is her signature on the cover page of a prayer book with “Loretto” written in her own hand. James Walsh also sent a letter explaining that when he was a child, the family had referred to her as “Lolly,” so he was unaware until he became an adult that there was any discrepancy. He explained, “There are numerous incidents where her name has been spelled with the more conventional “a,” but these are on papers made out by a second party.” He contended that the military papers with the “o” were likely “filled out by Loretto herself.”

The Pennsylvania Historical Marker for Loretto Perfectus Walsh was installed and dedicated at the American Legion Post in Walsh’s hometown of Olyphant on Veterans Day in 1995.


Karen Galle is on the staff of PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office and has been the coordinator of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program since 2005.