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."