“Old Ironsides” Manned by First Woman

Women’s History Month – Military

Commander Billie Farrell

Source: New York Times, America’s Navy, CNN

Cmdr. Billie Farrell is the first female to captain the USS Constitution (aka Old Ironsides) in the historic warship’s 224-year history, beginning in 1797.  Farrell assumed duties as the 77th commanding officer of Old Ironsides following a change-of-command ceremony held January 21st, 2022, at Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard.

A 2004 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Cmdr. Billie J. Farrell takes the helm of the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat and America’s ship of state. About 70,000 women are serving in the U.S. Navy. Billie J. Farrell is the first to command Old Ironsides, a hero of the War of 1812.

“To be the commander of her, and have ties to the heritage of our Navy and our country, is just an unbelievable experience,” she told CNN. “And to be the first woman to do it is also special because there are so many women serving our country right now, and so I get a chance to represent them.”

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Farrell is not the first woman to command or be second in command of a Navy vessel.   The first woman in the Navy to command a combatant ship, Cmdr. Maureen Farren, assumed the role in 1998, and more and more have joined the ranks ever since.

An 18 year veteran of the Navy, she was first inspired to join the Navy when she was in sixth grade.  “I was watching television at home in Paducah, Ky., and saw a Naval Academy graduation. I became fascinated with the tradition and ceremony and started looking into joining. I saw that it was an opportunity for a great education and a chance to serve my country. After finishing my senior year of high school, I headed to Annapolis for my first six weeks of training.”

Farrell credits mentorships for her beliefs, “I was fortunate that all the captains of the ships I served on took me under their wings and taught me lessons that I carry with me today. But these lessons were by actions, not words. The most important one I learned is that bad news doesn’t get better with time. If you know something, say something so that the situation can be helped or resolved in the best possible way. The other big lesson is to keep your calm. If you’re reactive, people won’t feel comfortable coming to you.”

Background

Her military career started with her first two tours aboard the USS Vella Gulf, whose homeport is in Norfolk, Virginia, from 2004 to late 2007.

Farrell was then assigned to the Navy Personnel Command in Millington, Tennessee, from 2008 to 2011, during which she received her Master of Science in Operations Management from the University of Arkansas.

She returned to the sea, reporting to the USS San Jacinto in March 2012 as the weapons officer and later as the combat systems officer.

Farrell served a stint at the US Naval Academy as the deputy director for professional development from 2015 to 2017. She then reported to Commander, Naval Surface Force Atlantic until 2020, when she left to serve on the USS Vicksburg.

She has been awarded numerous military decorations for her service, and, as Farrell breaks barriers as the USS Constitution’s first female commander, women have been a part of the ship’s crew since Rosemarie Lanam became the ship’s female crew member in 1986. Lt. Cmdr. Claire V. Bloom, was the first female commissioned officer to serve aboard the USS Constitution and led a historic sail in 1997, when the ship sailed for the first time under her own power since 1881.  Today, women make up more than a third of the ship’s 80-person crew.

What is your favorite story from the history of the Constitution?

The battle with H.M.S. Guerriere, a British ship, during the War of 1812. It is where the ship earned her Old Ironsides nickname. When sailors saw British cannonballs bouncing off the sides of the Constitution, they shouted, “Huzzah, her sides are made of iron.” In fact, they are made of wood, but the story speaks to her resilience as well as to the resilience of the sailors who fought during that battle.

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