Donna Tobias: The 1st Female Deep Sea Diver in US Military History

March 16, 2021Matt Fratus
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Donna Tobias cover image

The course of 10 rigorous weeks at the Second Class Diving School saw about 44 out of 100 candidates graduate each year. The school, held at the time at the Naval Amphibious Base in Little Creek, Virginia, prepared deep sea divers for underwater salvage, ship repair, and rescue operations. Women in the diving community were unheard of until Kati Garner came along. Garner became the first female US Navy diver in 1973 and proved women belonged in the male-dominated profession.

That was all Donna Tobias needed — if it were possible, she was going to try. No woman had ever joined the ranks of deep sea divers, but the 22-year-old native of California was determined to dive into the history books herself. And the extra scrutiny wasn’t going to make it easy.

“The first day of school, there was no mention about a woman being in the class,” Tobias told The Virginian-Pilot in February 1975, a month before she was expected to graduate. “I found out later that Chief [Pierce Chris] West turned down a request to take pictures when I did my first hard-hat dive. He said, ‘This isn’t a circus.’”

West, a senior instructor at the school, didn’t change any of the standards for the only woman in the class. “She has not complained once,” he said, as The Virginian-Pilot reported. “The men don’t (tease) her because she’s doing better than 85 per cent of them. You tell her you want a job done and she is able to do it, without your having to draw her a picture.”

Donna Tobias navy diver coffee or die
A ceremony acknowledging Hull Technician Fireman Donna Tobias, circa 1975 — believed to be upon Tobias’ qualification as a Second Class Diver. Photo courtesy of the US Naval Undersea Museum.

Becoming a deep sea diver is notoriously difficult and a great physical challenge. Each hard-hat diving rig that individual divers had to wear to conduct operations safely 200 feet below the surface weighed approximately 194 pounds. The only difficulty Tobias had was lifting her feet to climb a ladder while wearing the lead-weighted Mark V diving boots.

“On a daily basis, it was the single biggest obstacle,” she recalled. “I even had dreams about those shoes.” 

To improve her leg strength to have a chance of passing the school, West had her working overtime. “I made her wear the 35 pound pair [of] shoes after working hours until she went to bed at night,” West wrote in 2011 after her death. “By the end of the week, she was able to climb up and out with a minimal amount of difficulty.”

On March 14, 1975, Tobias graduated among a class of 13, which according to West had started with 46 or 47 original candidates on day one. 

“As a sidebar, in the next class, another woman presented herself as a candidate to become a diver, and as the ice had been broken, nothing stood in her way as a candidate once she had completed all the prerequisites that any male candidate had to meet,” West wrote. “Her classmates would attempt to hold her up and carry her on the morning runs and I demanded they allow her to drop out and either make it on her own moxie or lay where she fell. It was not their concern. She soon dropped out of the class, and this made what Donna Tobias had accomplished all the more real and positive.”

Donna Tobias deep sea diver coffee or die
Donna Tobias wearing a MK 12 surface-supplied diving system (SSDS) helmet. Tobias helped test and evaluate the MK 12 SSDS in 1976 while it was under development. Photo courtesy of the US Naval Undersea Museum.

Although Tobias became the first female deep sea diver, she had obstacles still to overcome within the Navy. She wasn’t granted sea duty orders because they were not available to women until 1978. 

Instead, she became an instructor at the Submarine Escape Training Tank at the Submarine Naval Base in New London, Connecticut. Here, she taught others how to escape from a submarine and ascend to the surface slowly, to avoid the bends. She also worked in the hyperbaric chamber treating embolisms, carbon monoxide poisoning, and other medical ailments divers suffer from. In her eight years with the Navy she also participated in search and salvage operations in the Atlantic Ocean and helped sink a World War II ship to create an artificial reef in the Chesapeake Bay.

After her military service concluded in 1980, she used the GI Bill to earn her bachelor’s in education and her master’s in psychology. She took a teaching job, working for 15 years with special-education classes at New London High School. The woman who enjoyed woodcarving and carpentry in her garage, snorkeling and swimming with friends in Long Island Sound, and camping and kayaking near local lakes and rivers, also battled depression. She was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2001. Tragically, in 2010, Tobias took her own life. She was only 58 years old.

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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