Navy: It's an adventure

Rear Admiral Martha Herb was one of the first female Navy divers

Story by T. Michael Stone, photos contributed


Rear Admiral Herb wearing the old Mark 5 diving suit she originally trained in.

Morgan County may be named for Revolutionary War General Daniel Morgan, but did you know it is home to a Navy admiral who was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame?

Rear Admiral Martha Herb, USN (ret.) now lives near the Oconee River in the eastern part of Morgan County with her husband, Mike, who is a retired Navy captain, meaning, of course, that the wife outranks the husband. What that says about women’s rights is a debate for another time, but it took patience and determination on Herb’s behalf to reach such a lofty plateau.

“It took me 30 years to get there,” Admiral Herb said. “Before that he always out ranked me.”

She was born in Connecticut and “grew up in the other Buckhead that doesn’t have a zip code,” she said. She attended Garden Hills Elementary School and North Fulton High for one year before transferring to Westminster, where she says she received a fabulous education.

It was also where she began her lifelong interaction with water. “I would go to swim practice in the morning, go to school all day and go to swim practice at night,” she said.

Admiral Herb was the youngest of four children and the only girl. Her oldest brother served in the Army and flew helicopters in Vietnam. He later became a dentist. The second oldest served in the Air Force, and the youngest was involved in ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps).

Rear Admiral Martha Herb

After attending Lake Forest College in Illinois, Herb returned to Atlanta and taught school while training a swim team at the Atlanta Swim Association

for a couple of years until her mother suggested that a military career might be an option for her youngest child. And so, the two visited a Navy recruiter, Lt. Bill Sullivan. While in the recruiter’s office they saw a magazine with a scuba diver on the front.

“I grew up in the era of Sea Hunt [a television series starring Lloyd Bridges as former Navy diver Mike Nelson],” Admiral Herb said. “I looked at the recruiter and said, ‘I want to do that.’”

It was 1979, and the recruiter told her the Navy had just opened the diving school program to women officers and added that if she could make it through training, she could become a Navy diver. As it turned out, Herb would be one of the first three women to complete the training and become a mixed gas diving and salvage officer. She would also become one of the first women to qualify as a surface warfare officer.

Serving in the Naval Reserves offered Herb many unique recreational diving opportunities.

According to Herb, the Navy seemed a little slow weighing anchor regarding women applying their talents in roles that had been traditionally performed by men. “It was a slow, slow process, and if you look at the history of women in World War II and some of the things these women did, there’s really no excuse for why people drug their feet on this,” Herb said.

At diving school, she trained in the old Mark V diving suit (think Cuba Gooding Jr. in “Men of Honor”). The Mark V allowed divers to work at significant depths, but the suit was heavy. The spun copper helmet and breastplate alone weighed about 55 pounds and each of the lead-soled boots weighed 17.5 pounds, according to The Divers Institute of Technology website. To make matters worse, the training was done in the middle of winter in what was at the time a highly polluted Anacostia River.

It was during her diving school training in Washington D.C. that she met her future husband, Mike Herb, who was also in the training program. “You know you have SCUBA buddies and you share a regulator, so we got married,” Herb joked.

The Navy stopped using the Mark 5 equipment after she finished diving school and she never wore the cumbersome suit again as the Navy moved to lighter equipment like the Mark 21, which became the Navy’s primary outfit for underwater ship husbandry, which was one of her primary duties. Ship husbandry involves tasks such as hardware changes and hull inspections. The fiberglass Mark 21 helmet weighed 27 pounds and was naturally buoyant in the water, according to the Divers Institute.

A shadowbox containing some of Admiral Herb's many citations, awards and insignias.

Herb served on active duty for four years and deployed with the U.S.S. Samuel Gompers (AD-37), which was a destroyer tender and one of the first ships to have female crew members. She was also the first female officer to command the second-class diving school.

The future admiral then transitioned to the Naval Reserve in 1983.

“My husband and I opted to start our family, and I was the best qualified to have the children,” she joked. “[Husband Mike] stayed on active duty and I went over to the reserve side, where you can still have a part-time career but still be a full-time stay at home mom.

The Herbs have two children, 39-year-old Jenny and 36-year-old Josh, who both live in the area. “Jenny and her husband, Jin Chiew, own the Oconee Coffee Roasters business in Madison,” she said.

Herb said there were several reserve diving commands spread across the country at that time which allowed her to be near husband Mike when he was transferred to another ship or base.

Adm. Martha Herb (right) awards Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Brenda Johnson with a command coin after having lunch with Seabees assigned to Afghanistan, 2011.

Herb said there were several reserve diving commands spread across the country at that time which allowed her to be near husband Mike when he was transferred to another ship or base.

“I got to do great diving jobs,” Herb said. “We did some rec diving with the National Park Service, so we got to dive in the Keys; we got to dive on the U.S.S. Arizona and the Utah in Hawaii; we got to dive on a Civil War wreck in Yorktown, Virginia. I got to do a lot of different kinds of diving on the reserve side of the house.

“The thing about reserve duty is you do one weekend a month and two weeks a year, but there are opportunities to do more things like active duty for special work,” she said. “As the kids got older, I would have more and more opportunities to do more than the two weeks a year.”

Admiral Herb served in the reserves until 2010 when she was sent to Afghanistan on active duty and put in charge of the Military Technical Agreement, which was an arrangement between NATO and the Afghan government that tested her skills as a problem solver in the world of political affairs.

In total, Herb spent 39 years in the Navy and was inducted into the Women Diver’s Hall of Fame in 2007. The WDHOF was founded in 1999 to recognize and honor the contributions of women pioneers like Admiral Herb. (Actress Lauren Hutton was also inducted to the WDHOF in 2007.)

Adm. Martha Herb

Herb says she was fortunate that she never had any equipment malfunctions and never suffered from decompression sickness, commonly referred to as “the bends,” during her long diving career.

“Because we’re qualified in mixed gas up to 300 feet and diving on a mixture of oxygen and helium, you have more of a chance of the bubbles not getting reduced enough and then having problems, but I never had an issue,” she explained.

Herb later learned of a heart issue that could have caused a serious health problem had she ever been unfortunate enough to experience the bends. But she later had that corrected.

Admiral Herb continued her education throughout her Naval career, earning a Master of Arts in Education and Human Development and later a Doctorate in Education, specializing in counseling, from George Washington University.

She has continued to serve America’s warriors as a therapist and created Lake Oconee Christian Counseling as part of that effort. She provides EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) services, which is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from emotional distress resulting from disturbing life experiences. She is also on the board of TRR (Trauma Resiliency and Resources) and volunteers with them to provide EMDR for veterans and first responders.

According to an article found at Navy.mil, her parents taught her “that life wasn't about becoming more than I ever thought I might be; instead, life was about my vertical relationship with God and giving my best at everything God put before me, no matter what it was. I learned to persevere, and I learned an attitude of never, never, never, never give up. Even when I failed, I knew I had to pick myself up and try again. And of course, three older brothers set the perfect conditions to persevere no matter what.”

And that hasn’t changed. As she told Lakelife magazine: “God is sovereign and leads us down the paths where we can best serve him.”

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Story by T. Michael Stone, photos contribute, published in the Nov-Dec 2022 issue of Lakelife magazine.