By André B. Sobocinski, BUMED Historian
Disclaimer. The names of nurses in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
October 12, 1962 – Hours into his first day as commanding officer of Naval Hospital Newport, Rhode Island, Capt. Edward Hogan learned he had a personnel problem, one for the ages.(2) Nothing, other than careful study of the “Parent Trap” film plot or an afternoon of soap operas, could have prepared him for the tricky situation he faced.
That morning staff nurse Lt. Cmdr. Mary Devereaux admitted to being an imposter. Her real name was “Margaret Devereaux.” She explained that for the last twelve years, she had been serving the U.S. Navy in her identical twin sister Mary’s place. When Mary got pregnant, she readily agreed to switch places, so Mary could evade the Navy’s no-pregnancy policy.
Bizarre but true, the case of the Devereaux sisters was born out of the Navy’s restrictive policies that affected women through the 1970s. For many years, Navy women were forbidden from marrying and, until 1972, pregnancy was cause for instant dismissal from the service.(3)(4) This policy proved especially hard on the Navy Nurse Corps and contributed to continual staff shortages at naval hospitals. Between fiscal years 1954 and 1962, more than 735 Navy nurses were forced to resign or were dismissed from duty because of pregnancy.(5) The Devereaux sisters succeeded overstepping official policy, and it can be assumed that if Margaret had not confessed, it’s possible nothing would have exposed the ruse.
Three days later, Hogan wrote Rear Adm. Edward Kenney, Navy surgeon general of the predicament, with his promise to keep the story from reaching the press.(6) He then ordered a complete investigation. On October 22, 1962, FBI Special Agent Edward J. Sheils and Navy Special Agent Edward Shevlin took statements from Margaret and her sister Mary. They would learn that the sisters had each graduated from St. Margaret’s School of Nursing in Dorchester, Mass., and had worked as staff nurses at hospitals until 1947 when they each applied for Navy commissions. Mary was accepted for service whereas Margaret was rejected for failing her physical.
In 1950, when Mary became pregnant out of wedlock, she continued to serve until she was no longer able to hide her condition. The sisters then devised a plan to switch places until Mary was ready to return to service. Mary gave birth in February 1951 and decided against returning. A year later she got a position as a district nurse in Warwick, Rhode Island, followed by a position with the U.S. Rubber Company under her sister’s name.
Meanwhile, Margaret flourished in the Navy. She served with the Military Sea Transport Service, as well as Naval Hospitals in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and was completing a tour at Newport in 1962. Despite having never been officially part of the Navy, she had proved herself an exemplary Navy nurse and been promoted twice—to Lieutenant and then to Lieutenant Commander. In her statement, she admitted that she couldn’t find a way out.
Following the investigation, Mary submitted her letter of resignation for the “good of the service.” Capt. Hogan forwarded the submission and the investigations statements to the Chief of Navy Personnel via Commandant, First Naval District, and Chief, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. Hogan advised against taking disciplinary actions, recommending that Mary’s resignation be accepted accordingly and without punitive action.
As he remarked, Mary’s “separation from the Naval Service was mandatory and would have been accomplished because of pregnancy and not concealed this fact by her absence. The actual loss of her service to the Navy as a result of her unauthorized absence was therefore minimal.”
Hogan and Kenney agreed that Margaret’s qualifications as a nurse were identical to Mary’s. And although she received pay and allowances for service, they suggested that she was a “de facto Navy nurse and, therefore, entitled to the fair value of the services she rendered.”
Since Mary left during the period of the Korean War, Capt. John Wellings, commandant, First Naval District, suggested that she could be accused of desertion in time of war. Despite his claim, the consensus agreed that since Mary was now the sole support of an 11 year-old daughter, the publicity from a court-martial trial would have regretful consequences.
On 25 February 1963, Mary’s resignation was finally accepted. Her discharge read “other than honorable.”
(1) Source material for this article comes from sworn testimonies of the key individuals as well as correspondence from CAPT Edward Hogan, CO of Naval Hospital Newport, RI (1962), and the Commandant of the First Naval District (1962) located in the BUMED Library and Archives.
(2) Capt. Edward Hogan, Medical Corps, USN (1909-1996).
(3) In February 1972, pregnant women or women who adopted children were allowed to request a waiver to remain in service. Only in 1975 were pregnant women allowed to stay in service unless they asked to get out (BUPERS Notice 1900 of 1 August 1975). Ironically, although pregnancy was forbidden the Navy and Marine Corps, on 15 June 1945, the Secretary of the Navy authorized maternity care at Naval Hospitals and Dispensaries for members of the Women’s Reserves of the Naval Reserve, the Marine Corps Reserve, and Coast Guard Reserve, and Members of the Navy Nurse Corps and NCR who had been discharged or separated from service because of pregnancy. Reference SecNav ltr. 45-612 N.D. Bulletin).
(4) Until 1965, the Navy Nurse Corps was restricted to women only.
(5) 2. Navy Nurse Corps Dismissals and Resignations due to Pregnancy. Stat Sheet. ca. 1972. BUMED Library and Archives
(6) Rear Adm. Edward Kenney served as Navy Surgeon General from 1962-1965.