Raye Montague was honored by the Navy as a “Hidden Figure” in 2017 for her influential contributions. Photo courtesy of David Montague.

Honoring a Trailblazer

Published January 19, 2022

Newport News Shipbuilding’s Engineering and Design Division is paying tribute to naval shipbuilding trailblazer Raye Montague in a unique way.

The division’s new unclassified high-performance computer (UHPC) has been named “Raye” in honor of Montague, who was the first person to design a naval ship using a computer. The UHPC is a shipyardwide computational resource that supports large engineering analyses.

It is standard practice to name high-performance computer systems. They’ve been named after stars such as Polaris, inspiring people, and sometimes with simple acronyms. As a group of shipbuilders brainstormed names for the new system, Chris Joseph (E05) added Montague for consideration.

“When people started reading what she accomplished during her career, it was a pretty universal decision to name it after Raye Montague,” he said.

Fellow engineer Matt Davis (E46) said NNS continues to build upon Montague’s contributions, which set the pace for computational design in shipbuilding. “It was kind of an against-all-odds story, and it’s a compelling one when you look into it and see what she was able to accomplish in the 1960s as a Black woman,” he said.

The odds were indeed stacked against Montague, who faced race- and gender-based discrimination growing up in segregated Arkansas.

“She knew there were a lot of strikes against her,” said Montague’s son, David Montague, who co-authored a book about his mother’s life. “She was always taught to work hard and to get as much education, training and professional development as possible in order to achieve her goal.”

At 7 years old, a visit to a captured Japanese submarine – which was on display and open for tours in downtown Little Rock to raise money for war bonds during World War II – piqued Montague’s interest in engineering.

However, when it was time to attend college in the 1950s, racial discrimination threatened to derail Montague’s aspirations. The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, home to the only engineering program in the state at the time, didn’t accept minority students. Montague went on to earn a business degree at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

After graduation, she left for Washington, D.C., and began her career with the Navy as a clerk typist. Although she didn’t have an engineering degree, Montague took night classes and learned everything she could about large-scale computers.

Despite the challenges she faced, Montague moved up the ranks, and in 1971 was tasked with designing a Navy ship using a computer – a request from President Richard Nixon. The process of designing a first-in-class ship by hand took about two years on average. Montague used a computer to produce the first draft for the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate in 18 hours and 26 minutes. Following this feat, she received accolades and even a death threat, according to her son.

Montague went on to help design several other first-in-class ships and became the Navy’s first female program manager of ships.

“Even though there were a lot of problems for her breaking barriers, she still was able to use her access to try to really support others. She used it to always pull people up,” David Montague said. “And she had a distinct passion and love for the fact that – even though she wasn’t active military – she was doing something that was helping our country and helping to protect sailors and Marines. She took great pride in that and got to meet a lot of people who served on her ships.”

David Montague said his mother – who passed away in 2018 – would be “floored” to learn about her namesake at NNS. “I’m just so thankful that she’s being recognized in this way,” he said.