Women’s History Month: Flight Nurses Revolutionize Military Medical Care

Courtesy of Af.mil

Before World War II, the U.S. military showed little interest in using aircraft and flight nurses to evacuate wounded troops to rear areas. The global war, however, forced the U.S. Army Air Forces to revolutionize military medical care through the development of air evacuation (later known as aeromedical evacuation) and flight nurses.

Graphic: At the AAF School of Air Evacuation at Bowman Field, Ky., student flight nurses learned how to handle patients with the aid of a mock-up fuselage of a Douglas C-47 transport. By Sylvia Saab

At the AAF School of Air Evacuation at Bowman Field, Ky., student flight nurses learned how to handle patients with the aid of a mock-up fuselage of a Douglas C-47 transport. Graphic by Sylvia Saab

The rapid expansion of USAAF air transportation routes around the world made it possible to fly wounded and sick servicemen quickly to fully-equipped hospitals far from the front lines. This revolution saved the lives of many wounded men, and the introduction of flight nurses helped make it possible.

In early 1942, airlift units in Alaska, Burma and New Guinea successfully evacuated patients using the same transport aircraft that had carried men and supplies to the front. Due to a pressing need, the USAAF created medical air evacuation squadrons and started a rush training program for flight surgeons, enlisted medical technicians, and flight nurses at Bowman Field, near Louisville, Ky.

The need for flight nurses became critical after the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, but the women at Bowman Field had not finished their training. Nevertheless, the USAAF sent these nurses to North Africa on Christmas Day.

On Feb. 18, 1943, the U.S. Army Nurse Corps’ first class of flight nurses formally graduated at Bowman Field. 2nd Lt. Geraldine Dishroon, the honor graduate, received the first wings presented to a flight nurse. In 1944, Dishroon served on the first air evacuation team to land on Omaha Beach after the D-Day invasion.

Since the aircraft used for air evacuation also transported military supplies, they could not display the Red Cross. With no markings to indicate their non-combat status, these evacuation flights were vulnerable to enemy attacks. For this reason, flight nurses and medical technicians were volunteers.

To prepare for any emergency, flight nurses learned crash procedures, received survival training, and studied the effects of high altitude on various types of patients. In addition, flight nurses had to be in top physical condition to care for patients during these rigorous flights.

Two of those flight nurses, 1st Lt. Aleda Lutz, and 1st Lt. Mary Hawkins, would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the second highest honor a military member can receive next to the Medal of Honor.

One of the most celebrated flight nurses of World War II, 1st Lt. Aleda E. Lutz flew 196 missions and evacuated over 3,500 men. In November 1944, during an evacuation flight from the front lines near Lyons, Italy, her crashed killing all aboard. Awarded the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters, she posthumously received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

On Sept. 24, 1944, 1st Lt. Mary Louise Hawkins was evacuating 24 patients from the fighting at Palau to Guadalcanal when the C-47 ran low on fuel. The pilot made a forced landing in a small clearing on Bellona Island. During the landing, a propeller tore through the fuselage and severed the trachea of one patient.

Hawkins made a suction tube from various items including the inflation tube from a “Mae West.” With this contrivance, she kept the man’s throat clear of blood until aid arrived 19 hours later. All of her patients survived. For her actions, Hawkins received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

On March 22, 1945, two CG-4A gliders landed in a clearing near the bridgehead at Remagen, Germany, to evacuate 25 severely injured American and German casualties. Once the gliders were loaded, C-47 transports successfully snatched them from their landing site and towed them to a military hospital in France.

In the second glider, 1st Lt. Suella V. Bernard, who had volunteered for the mission, cared for the wounded en route. One of the first two nurses to fly into Normandy after the D-Day invasion, Bernard became the only nurse known to have participated in a glider combat mission during World War II. For this mission, she received the Air Medal.

As the flight nurse on the first intercontinental air evacuation flight, 2nd Lt. Elsie S. Ott demonstrated the potential of air evacuation in January 1943. An Army nurse who had never flown in an airplane and had no air evacuation training, she successfully oversaw the movement of five seriously ill patients from India to Washington, D.C.

This six-day trip would have normally taken three months by ship and ground transportation. For her actions on this historic flight, Ott received the first Air Medal presented to a woman, and she also received formal flight nurse training.

Eventually, about 500 Army nurses served as members of 31 medical air evacuation transport squadrons operating worldwide. It is a tribute to their skill that of the 1,176,048 patients air evacuated throughout the war, only 46 died en route. Seventeen flight nurses lost their lives during the war.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/barry.burns3 Barry Burns

    This is an inspiring story. I tip my hat to the brave women who risked their lives to care for the wounded. My nephew just graduated nursing school and wants to be a flight nurse in the Air Force. If he makes it someday, he will have chosen a noble calling.