Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Part Three- Air Evacuation and The Nurse

There have been many "firsts" since the first graduation of Air Evacuation Nurses in 1943.

2nd Lt. Geraldine Dishroon received the first pair of flight nurse's wings and the honor graduate of the first class on Feb. 18, 1943.

The 802nd MAES was the first air evac squadron to serve in any theater of war - in North Africa.  The 801st followed suit in the Pacific.

Lt. Catherine Grogan was the first chief nurse of an air evac squadron to serve in a theater of war.

Lt. Ruth M. Gradiner, from the 805th MAES, was the first flight nurse killed in combat in Alaska.

Nancy Leftenant-Colon, was the first black nurse to be commissioned into the Regular Army Nurse Corps.

April 1945, the 806th MAES set a world record by evacuating 17,287 patients for that month.  This set a record for monthly evacuations in any theater of operations by any squadron.

May 18, 1944 the first major catastrophe of the 803rd MAES occurred while in flight.  Plane #372 received a radio message asking for the hospital ship to enter Myitkyina, Burma which the Allies captured the previous night.  Capt. Collins, flight surgeon, two nurses, Chief Nurse Audrey Rogers, 2nd Lt. E Baer and Sgt. Miller were the medical team on board.  They landed with enemy action still in play.  As they loaded the wounded, the Japaneese were strafing the runway and Capt. Collins and Sgt. Miller were struck by shell fragments and the patient on the litter was killed.  Lt. Rogers sustained shrapnel wounds to the right knee and thigh.  Lt. Baer, who was pushed out of the line of fire was unharmed.  The plane was riddled with bullets.  They treated each other's wounds, continued to load the injured, and flew the patients to Ledo.  They recuperated and returned to duty.  They all received the Purple Heart.

The first and only glider air evac in the ETO was made March 22, 1945 by 2nd Lt. Suella Bernard, flight nurse and Maj. Albert D. Haug, flight surgeon, members of the 816th MAES from Germany to an evac hospital in France with flying time of 30 minutes.

Lt. Dorothy P. Shikoski was awarded the Air Medal of Bravery for pulling crew members of her downed aircraft to safety and continuing to pull medical supplies into her raft all while being injured from the crash.

Reba Z. Whittle was the first flight nurse to be imprisoned by the Germans and the first repatriated.

Lt. Janette Pitcherella, 803rd MAES was near Calcutta when the plane she was in started going down.  She was the first nurse to bail out of a plane.  When she reached the ground she discovered she was missing a finger.  "I must have caught it on the door on the way out."

Lt. Thelma Le Fave of the 820th SWP was one of the first nurses into Tadji, and later was missing in action in the Philippines.

The first flight nurse to board a C-47 bound for France to evacuate wounded American soldiers was 1st Lt. Grace E. Dunnam.  On June 11, 1944, she made the first authorized evac trip to Omaha Beach and brought back 18 litter of patients.

Lt. Ellen Church was mentioned in a wire service story from General Eisenhower's headquarters.  It read, "Another woman, who did heroic work yesterday in the drive toward Bizerte was Lt. Ellen Church, a nurse in the Air Evac Unit of the AAF."

Lt. Ellen Church was also the first nurse employed as an airline stewardess in the US.

Women have continued to serve as flight nurses during war time.  They bravely stepped up for WWII and continued through Korea, Vietnam and today.

On a personal note, being from the Vietnam era, I have a particular admiration and heart of thanksgiving for the following story by a flight nurse named Patricia Clark Stanfill.  She was on the first air evacuation plane to land in Hanoi and retrieve American prisoners of war in Vietnam.  It was a mission of anticipation and anxiety.   Friends and I stayed up until 2:30 AM glued to the TV, and watched the arrival of the first POW's to touch American soil.

"On a misty morning in February 1973, a U.S. cargo plane veered toward the only Hanoi airport runway that wasn't bombed out.  Rows of North Vietnamese soldiers stood stiffly at attention in the grass along the runway and thinking, they have guns laying in the grass.

We had been told that if something happened, they weren't going to come get us.  There was no question in my mind this was not a peaceful thing."

Many of the POW's had been captured five and six years earlier, some longer.  As one boarded the plane he grabbed Nurse Stanfill and kissed her.

"I don't think any of them really believed we were leaving until we were airborne.  They had been told, yes we are coming; no, we are not.  It was very difficult to believe it was finally over.  I can still remember that as soon as we got up and the landing gear came in, everybody just stood up and cheered."

Miss Stanfill recalls the anguish of Vietnam, she also remembers the last assignment, flying POWs out, in a very positive way.  "Knowing that it was over and that this was the last of it, and we weren't going to have to bring pieces home any longer.  It was a good way of ending the tour and in a way helped me a lot, being part of it, that happy era at the end."

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Part Two - Air Evacuation and The Nurse

By the end of 1940, Miss Mary Beard, Director of the Red Cross Nursing Service, acknowledged that Shimmoler had the idea of something that was needed.  However, there was a general lack of enthusiasm among most medical officers.  As late as July 1940, the Chief of the Medical Division felt that in time of war, nurses would not be used on airplane ambulances.  He felt it was too dangerous for a woman and that they could not handle the physical and mental demands.

Without the personal interest of General David N. Grant, an air surgeon, the concept of the flight nurse as a part of the medical team might not have ever been realized during this time because of the military's indifference and the danger during war time.  But, on Nov. 30, 1942, an urgent appeal was made for graduate nurses for appointment to the Army Air Forces Evacuation Services.  The nursing program at Bowman Field, KY was at this time under the direction and leadership of Capt. Grace Mundell.

On Feb. 18, 1943 the first formal graduation of nurses of the 349th Air Evac Group was held at the base chapel at Bowman Field.  The 30 members of this group had completed a program on instruction that was only in the experimental stage.  The 4 week course included class work in air evac nursing, air evac tactics, survival, aeromedical physiology, mental hygiene in relation to flying, training in plane loading procedures, military indoctrination and a one day bivouac.

Gen. David N. Grant officiated over the first class graduation.  At the end of his address, realizing no one had thought of an insignia for the flight nurse, he unpinned his own miniature flight surgeon's wings and pinned them on the honor graduate, 2nd Lt. Geraldine Dishroon, remarking that the insignia of the flight nurse would be similar to that of the flight surgeon, with the addition of a small "N" superimposed on it.  Having created this insignia on the fly without authority, there was much difficulty having it manufactured as no insignia manufacturer would make the wings without the War Department's approval.

The School of Air Evacuation was the first of its kind and its influence was world wide.  During 1943 nurses from the Royal Canadian Air Forces attended the school.  The Brazilian Government, in cooperation with the Brazilian Red Cross, sent a representative to study the school so that one could be instituted in Brazil.

The training of the flight nurse was designed to equip her for her duties in connection with the evacuation of the sick and wounded and prepare her for duty with ground medical installations.  In order to become a flight nurse, graduate nurses were required to apply for a commission in the Army Nurse Corps.  After a minimum of 6 months in the Army Service Forces unit hospital, she could apply for admission to the school.  She had to be 62-72 inches in height, weight from 105-135 pounds, her age between 21-36.  Physical fitness was important, in view of the fact most of the work was done at altitudes of 5,000 to 10,000 feet.  Work at that altitude is very tiring.  The work of the flight nurse was not without danger.  The aircraft used, usually C-46, C-47 or C-54 types, acted in a dual capacity.  They carried cargo and troops to the battle fronts, after the planes were unloaded they were rapidly converted into ambulance planes for the return trip.  Because of the dual use of the planes, they were not marked with the Geneva Red Cross, and on the return trip they were fair game for the enemy.  Thus all nurses, who entered this field were volunteers.

In July 1943, 2nd Lt. Ruth M. Gardiner died in an aircraft crash en route to evacuating patients in Alaska. She was the first USAAF flight nurse killed in a combat theater.  She was with the 805th MAES.  Gardiner General Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, is dedicated to the memory of Second Lieutenant Ruth M. Gardiner as the first Air Evac nurse killed in the line of duty.