Watch CBS News

Billie J. Farrell, first woman to command the 224-year-old warship USS Constitution, takes over

U.S. Navy commander makes history on the high seas
U.S. Navy commander makes history on the high seas 01:39

History was made aboard the U.S.S. Constitution on Friday.

Commander Billie J. Farrell became the first woman to lead the crew of the 224-year-old warship known as Old Ironsides during a change-of-command ceremony on Friday. She takes over from Commander John Benda, who has led the ship's crew since February 2020.

USS Constitution New Commander
This undated photo released by the U.S. Navy shows U.S. Navy Commander Billie J. Farrell.  / AP

"I know the crew is in great hands with Commander Farrell," Benda said in a statement. "This historic barrier is long overdue to be broken. I cannot think of a better candidate to serve as USS Constitution's first female commanding officer."

Farrell is a native of Paducah, Kentucky, a 2004 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and most recently served as the executive officer aboard U.S.S. Vicksburg, a guided missile cruiser, according to her Navy biography.

"Even if I told her that one day she would be commanding the ship, she wouldn't believe me," Farrell told CBS News correspondent Nancy Chen when asked what she would tell her younger self. "I think I would just tell my younger self to keep doing your best, and you'll find yourself in some unusual places." 

The Constitution, based at Boston's Charlestown Navy Yard, is the world's oldest commissioned warship still afloat. It played a crucial role in the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812 and defended sea lanes from 1797 until 1855. The ship was undefeated in battle and destroyed or captured 33 opposing vessels.

USS Constitution
In this July 24, 2017, file photo, the USS Constitution is docked at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. Steven Senne / AP

It earned the nickname Old Ironsides during the war of 1812, when British cannonballs were seen bouncing off its wooden hull, according to the U.S. Navy.

The ship partners with the USS Constitution Museum "to promote maritime heritage, naval service and the legacy of Old Ironsides," the Navy said.

The first woman to serve on the Constitution's crew was enlisted sailor Rosemarie Lanam in 1986. The first woman to serve as a commissioned officer on the ship was Lieutenant Commander Claire V. Bloom, who served as executive officer and led the 1997 sail, the first time Old Ironsides had sailed under her own power since 1881.

It is crewed by active-duty sailors, about one-third of whom are women.

"It's such a special opportunity, not just for this ship, but the Navy as a whole," Builder First Class Hilary Lemelin told CBS News. "Especially having all the public here, they get to see that there's a female leading us." 

The ship, which underwent extensive restoration work in 2015, returned to Boston's waters in 2017.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.