Sub base names dive locker after Navy's first female deep-sea diver
Groton — It was the boots. Weighing 17 pounds each, and sized much too big for her feet, they had toes that would point down no matter how hard she tried to lift her feet. That was the single biggest obstacle on a daily basis for Donna Tobias as she made her way through the Navy deep-sea diving school, the first woman to do so.
"I even had dreams about those shoes," she told The Hartford Courant in April 2001, not long after being inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame.
On Tuesday, the Naval Submarine Base held a ceremony to name its dive locker, the facility used by divers who perform underwater maintenance on the 15 attack submarines based in Groton, after Tobias, the Navy's first female deep-sea diver.
The idea to name the facility after Tobias came from divers at the base after the new dive locker was opened in 2015, according to base spokesman Chris Zendan. There are currently no women divers assigned to the facility now known as Tobias Hall.
The ceremony took place on what would have been Tobias' 66th birthday. She died by suicide on Sept. 21, 2010, after a long struggle with depression.
Tobias grew up in southern California, the daughter of a World War II bomber crewman who had spent 18 months in Germany's prisoner of war camp Stalag 17. She grew to love snorkeling off the California coast and chose to join the Navy "because it was the one on the water," she told The Day in March 2001.
She enlisted in the Navy in March 1974. When she asked a recruiter about going to dive school, he reportedly told her, "Women don't do that."
"In the Navy of the 1970s, the roles for women were at a crossroads," Capt. Paul Whitescarver, commanding officer of the base, said at Tuesday's ceremony.
In August 1972, the head of the Navy, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr., committed to opening sea duty billets and other opportunities to women. But the changes didn't happen immediately.
Tobias worked as a hull technician for the Navy and underwent a lengthy process of applying for and getting a waiver to attend dive school. In January 1975, less than 48 hours before the deep-sea diving class began, she got word that she could attend, and she was told it was that program or nothing.
She had to be able to handle the Mark V diving suit, which weighed 200 pounds, as well as scrutiny from some of her peers and others who didn't want women in the historically male-dominated field.
"There were a lot of eyes waiting to see me fail. But unbeknownst to them, that just fed my intention to finish the course. I didn't want them asking less of women, ever, for anything," she told The Day in 2001.
Her brother, Gary Tobias, 68, of Norwich, who also served in the Navy, recalled how he was assigned to a submarine at the sub base, which was in need of divers, and they picked him. He was sent to the diving school on base, where his sister was an instructor.
"It was tough. But they were always a little tougher on me, for some reason. I don't know why," he quipped. "They would always remind me, 'That's all the pushups you can do? Your sister can do twice as many. You can't run any faster than that? Your sister can run a lot faster than that,' and so forth."
If his sister had been present Wednesday, "she would've been overwhelmed with gratitude," Gary Tobias said, but added "she didn't do it for these reasons."
After eight years in the Navy, Tobias went on to receive a bachelor's degree in education and a master's in psychology. She taught special-education classes for 15 years at New London High School, where she was beloved by her students, according to her brother, who said they couldn't get through a trip to the Crystal Mall without being stopped by one of her current or former students.
She was involved with Second Step Players, a theater group that performs educational sketch comedy to help raise awareness and reduce stigma around mental health issues, and the group Art Reach, which has a similar mission.
As Melanie Meredith of Middletown, who said Tobias was one of the first friends she met when she moved to the area, put it: "Donna was passionate about everything she did."
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