Ninety-nine years ago, on December 6, 1920, in Detroit, Michigan, a little girl named Anna Der-Vartanian was born into a family of Armenian refugees. When the proud parents Mateos and Arousiag held their newborn baby, they knew she would be special, but who could have imagined that this little girl would make history.
Anna grew up in the Motor City and was a brilliant student with a remarkable capacity to learn and adapt. She learned five languages (Armenian, English, French, Spanish and German). After graduating from Southwestern High School, she attended Detroit Business University, but in December 1942, Anna felt it was her duty to be part of the war effort, so she joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).
The Der-Vartanian family knew only too well the profound dangers of hatred and oppression, so many members decided to leave their lives and loved ones to confront the forces of tyranny. Anna’s sister, Jeanne Oliver, served in the U.S. Navy, while her brother Andrew joined the U.S. Army and fought for freedom in the Pacific theater. Anna’s mother Arousiag, who had launched an Armenian radio station in Detroit, also wanted to join the Navy, but decided to stay home and serve the American Red Cross.
In 1943, Anna left the WAAC to join the U.S. Navy as an Apprentice Seaman in the women’s unit known as “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service” (WAVES). Throughout World War II, over 100,000 WAVES served in a wide variety of roles, such as mechanics, photographers, statisticians, control tower operators or top-secret code breakers. After basic training, Anna held an administrative position in Great Lakes, Illinois, before serving at the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Washington, DC.
Like many women who served in the Armed Forces in the forties, Anna was subjected to sarcasm and mockery, but nothing could stop this woman of character, courage and commitment from pursuing her career in the U.S. Navy. Anna remained 20 years in the Navy and was stationed in Washington, San Francisco, Boston, Hawaii, Paris and many other locations. Year after year, she overcame all the obstacles, fulfilled her duties and rose through the ranks.
In 1959, while serving at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, Anna Der-Vartanian made history by becoming the first woman in the U.S. Armed Forces to be promoted to the rank of Master Chief Petty Officer (E-9), the highest enlisted grade. She even received a personal letter from then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower congratulating her on her accomplishment.
Through hard work, dedication and perseverance, this outstanding lady broke a glass ceiling and paved the way for so many women. Anna had to make many sacrifices to achieve the impossible. When she joined the U.S. Navy, women were not allowed to serve in uniform after having children, so Anna never got married, devoting her whole life to her career.
After retiring from the Navy in 1963, she joined the CIA, where she became a specialist in European and Middle Eastern issues.
Master Chief Petty Officer Anna Der-Vartanian passed away on August 4, 2011 at the age of 90 and was laid to rest with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
As we celebrate her 99th birthday, let us all take a moment to salute and remember this extraordinary woman who made history and became one of the most respected and admired officers in the entire Armed Forces.
Rest in peace, Anna.