Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

November 9, 2009



Thirty years ago, a 21-year-old Air Force helicopter mechanic with a dishwater blonde pony tail landed on the U.S.S. Saipan in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  The mechanic, Sgt .Alice Surrency, was among a small group of fatigue-garbed maintenance crew chiefs dispatched in their HH-53s to the American warship off the coast of Nicaragua.

Once her rescue helicopter landed hard on the ship’s deck, she found herself face-to-face with hundreds of Navy men in khaki shirts and blue pants.  At that moment she did not know that she was the only women among 800 crew members aboard the massive 820-foot-long vessel.

A young Navy crewman was standing near her when her hat blew off and her ponytail tumbled out.  “The young man’s mouth was hanging open,” said Surrency, now a 51-year-old senior aviation safety inspector in Orlando, Fla., recalling that day in July 1979.  “He said, ‘You’re a girl.’ I said, ‘No kidding”

On that day, Surrency made history as the first woman in recent history to serve on a U.S. Navy ship in a combat zone.

Now, after years of memories of the experience but little public fanfare, Surrency is tentatively scheduled to receive a certificate of recognition this month from the 920th Air Force Rescue Squadron in a ceremony at Patrick Air Force Base on Florida.

 To Surrency, the renewed attention has brought back the experience of one of the “adventures” of her life.  In her 20’s, she sought a career in the Air Force’s predominantly male milieu.

After she graduated from high school in 1975, she decided to become a helicopter mechanic, seeing it as an out-of-the-norm challenge to work on HH-53 helicopters, nicknamed “Super Jolly Green Giants”.  She underwent basic training in Texas and later joined the 41st Air Rescue Squadron at McClellan AFB, Calif., where she met her future husband, Gary, who also worked in maintenance.  Together, they performed rescue work, such as retrieving lost skiers and boater along the western coastline.

Surrency was still a newlywed living in a small apartment in Sacramento when the couple received an emergency call to report to the California base.  She was assigned to provide helicopter support to the U.S. forces in the Panama Canal Zone.

Surrency was part of a crew of for HH-53 helicopters that were sent on a 14-hour flight to Panama on a mission to evacuate the U.S. ambassador and his staff out of Nicaragua, where fighting had erupted.  Weeks passed, and the crew received word that they would be sent to Costa Rica, but her supervisors initially denied Surrency permission to join her colleagues, which she perceived as a decision based on her gender.

After loudly objecting, a mission commander in her squadron gave her the go-ahead to fly closer to Nicaragua.  “He said, ‘Alice, get your stuff, get on the chopper, shut up, and don’t say anything to anyone, you’re coming with us,” Surrency said.

Once again, their plans were derailed when several countries denied them landing rights.  She heard the orders in her headset that the crew would instead land on a U.S. Naval ship off the coast of Haiti in the Atlantic Ocean – the U.S.S. Saipan.




Surrency was in for a big adjustment when she landed on the Saipan.  Attention poured on her from her all-male crew members.  She was assigned to sleep in senior officer’s quarters, was called “Miss Alice” and was told that she would one day make history.

“It didn’t dawn on me at that time that there would be no other woman,” Surrency said,. “When we went into the chow hall it was the parting of the Red Sea.”

Her time on the Saipan, however, was short lived.  At that time, the military did not allow women to serve on combat ships, and when the Joint Chiefs in Washington heard of Surrency’s placement, they ordered her to be shipped out as soon as possible.

A tropical storm delayed Surrency’s departure and she wound up remaining on board for six days and five nights, during which she was taken on tours of the ship, played games of hearts and watched preprogrammed TV with her Air Force colleagues and maintained her helicopter.  




When the weather cleared, she boarded a Huey helicopter that flew her back to Panama.  But before her departure, she heard a message from the Saipan’s loudspeaker; “Goodbye Alice, HH-53 crew chief.  The U.S.S. Saipan loves you.”

Later, a teletype message from the ship was sent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that read: “One female type HH-53 Crew Chief no longer on board the U.S.S. Saipan (Alice doesn’t live here anymore).”  It was reference to the 1974 movie starring Ellen Burstyn about a widow that learns to be independent and her son.

In later years, the Saipan ship was decommissioned.  Surrency was told in recent years that a plaque had been place on the ship bearing the words, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”  She even received letters from some of the men on board the Saipan.

“You don’t realize how much your life can have an impact on the world,” Surrency said.  “I was pretty awestruck about what happened to me.”


*Historian notes:

Alice Surrency and her husband went on to post military careers at Sikorsky, and now she is Senior Aviation Safety Inspector for the Manufacturing Division for the FAA in Orlando, Florida.




In 2000, she was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer. She successfully fought back with her characteristic spunk, sense of humor, and courage.

(2011) Now this inspiring, dedicated, and kind woman is in the fight of her life facing a very rare cancer, (Merkel) that has now metastasized. Conventional medicine available in the U.S. can do no more to fight her disease. But with her characteristic optimism, courage, and profound faith in God and the goodness of humanity, she is embracing hope as represented in this cutting edge treatment available in Israel. While Alice hopes that this will allow her to live a full lifetime of service to others, she is even more excited that her participation in this experimental vaccine program will hasten the advent of revolutionary changes in the way that all people can recover from even the most devastating of cancer diagnosis.