World War II Army Flight Nurses – 14 Apr 2018

Personal Reflections on Coping with War
Part 10 When Food and Supplies Were Scarce

For the 25 flight nurses interviewed for Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II, wartime service was beset with potentially difficult circumstances that could exact a toll on even the most hardy of nurses. To cope with these professional and personal challenges, these women drew on many sources of support, tangible and intangible, physical and mental. Social support, one’s physical condition, and abilities and skills fostered in nurses’ training all helped the flight nurses cope behaviorally with the multiple demands of the war. Reasonable expectations, devotion to duty, an optimistic outlook, and faith in one’s God, one’s colleagues, and one’s self all helped them cope emotionally with the war.

Flight nurses in the Pacific, like their colleagues on the European front, had very little to work with as far as supplies and equipment. Lee Holtz of the 801 Medical Air Evacuation Squadron [MAES] recalled that her squadron had “no equipment, really,” and what they did have was of poor quality. “We had bandages and morphine in the pocket, and I told you [about] the pistol under the arm. We had plasma that we could give IV, which we did have a lot of.” When one of Holtz’s patients started bleeding under a makeshift cast and she had no cast cutters, she had to cut it off with bandage scissors. “It was terrible,” she remembered. “I had the navigator come back and try to help me, because, you know, it really got very hard to cut this hard cast off, and yet I could see the red creeping through the cast, and I knew I had to get to it to put pressure on it.”

The flight nurses interviewed displayed an uncanny ability to make do admirably with what was on hand or could be scrounged to augment deficient supplies for patient care. The 807 MAES nurses in the Mediterranean considered the bulky 95-pound ambulance chest filled with medical supplies that they took on board aircraft unsuitable for their work. Fewer supplies in a smaller medical kit worked just as well and opened up needed space to evacuate another patient from the front lines. Dorothy White, assigned to the 807 MAES, became very adept at procuring supplies for her medical kit from offices and dispensaries she visited. “I used to walk through an office,” she said. “They used to be afraid to see me coming, because they didn’t know what I was going to leave with.” Covers for field telephones that she appropriated on one scouting mission made the perfect medical kit when laced together with shoestrings. The bags quickly caught on with the other flight nurses in her squadron, until “all the field telephones in the area were naked,” having been put to medical use.

Wherever she landed in the Pacific, Helena Ilic of the 801 MAES got to know the cooks and made little deals for food that she fed her patients in flight, so that “my men were always well fed.” She “scrounged around,” Ilic explained. “I was a true-blue. I did what they told us to do – improvise.” The Red Cross had only donuts and fruit juice, Ilic recalled, but the Salvation Army had “real food! Like cans of stuff. And they would make me sandwiches.” As soon as the plane on which she was flying to pick up patients landed, Ilic would find the Salvation Army and head immediately for the kitchens, making little deals for food for her patients “all over the place. … I always knew the cooks.” She even heated up soup on the planes. “And my men were always well fed, and they always had food. We never landed any place that they were hungry.”

Helena Ilic with Crew Chief, South Pacific
[Author’s Private Collection]

Nothing was insurmountable to these women who had been taught to improvise in their basic nurses training. Nurses training taught White to be frugal: “Well, you never throw things away – you find another use for it, see.” Resourcefulness was the most valuable lesson Ilic learned in her nurses training. As she stated, “Ideal situations don’t exist in wartime. …You don’t have all the equipment. … And you work with what you have.” She fell back on her own ingenuity, making do with what she had and improvising for what she did not have. Brooxie Mowery, a flight nurse with the 816 MAES in Europe, summed up the situation: “So there was a lot of theory, but I think it’s true of everything in nursing – theory is fine, but then you have to improvise.”

 

World War II Army Flight Nurses – 24 Mar 2018

Personal Reflections on Coping with War
Part 9 When Missions Went Awry

For the 25 flight nurses interviewed for Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II, wartime service was beset with potentially difficult circumstances that could exact a toll on even the most hardy of nurses. To cope with these professional and personal challenges, these women drew on many sources of support, tangible and intangible, physical and mental. Social support, one’s physical condition, and abilities and skills fostered in nurses’ training all helped the flight nurses cope behaviorally with the multiple demands of the war. Reasonable expectations, devotion to duty, an optimistic outlook, and faith in one’s God, one’s colleagues, and one’s self all helped them cope emotionally with the war.

Potential aircraft emergencies were not uncommon on many air evacuation missions. The possibility of ditching at sea was foremost in many flight nurses’ thoughts, since so much of their flying was over water. Jocie French, who flew with the 818 MAES in Europe, wished she had remembered more from her survival training in flight nurse school when she had to don a parachute as a precautionary measure. “I kept thinking, Do I get out of this parachute before we hit the water … or do I hit the water with the parachute?

Denny Nagle, who flew with the 815 MAES in Europe, recalled a flight with a full load of patients during which the plane lost one of its engines. ”I was thinking what we were going to do when we go down in that zero [degree] water down there.” The flight nurses had been told that a person could survive only for twenty minutes in such cold water, she said. “You didn’t have a chance. But you’d think, Can you get them out of here? And what can you do if you do?

“Dingie” Life Raft Instructions
815 MAES Flight Surgeon Captain Wormsley
[Author’s Private Collection]

Flights with patients on board exacted fortitude that at times conflicted with a flight nurse’s natural instincts. Jo Nabors, assigned to the 812 MAES, recalled a flight into a Pacific island where the harbor was being bombed. “They were shooting at us. … I was panicky. And when we landed, and we got our load of patients and started back out, I was never so glad to leave an island as I was that day.” Despite her panic, Nabors appeared cool and calm to her patients, telling little jokes. When the plane ascended to get out of the range of ack-ack, a patient with an open chest wound began bleeding. Nabors thought, “Oh, what’ll I do, what’ll I do?” She gave him morphine for his pain, administered oxygen, and re-plugged the chest wound to stop the bleeding. “Any emergency that comes up, you have to do it. Well, all I could think of was if we were shot down. … I was deathly afraid that I would have to ditch first, and then save myself, and then try to save all these boys.”

Nabors struggled with the expectation that in the event of an emergency her safety came before that of her patients. She was more valuable than her patients, her commander had said, and unless she and the rest of the crew saved themselves, they would not be able to help the others. “I had to get out of the plane first,” Nabors stated. ”And that’s where I felt that sometimes that it was a little bit difficult to make a decision. How could you make a decision like that?” On one occasion, when her plane lost a propeller, Nabors had to prepare her patients to ditch. The plane landed safely on land, but Nabors had already made up her mind about what she would do. She had planned to shove all her able-bodied patients out the door first, throw a raft down, and then leave the plane herself. As she told her commander afterward, with the water and waves so high in the Pacific, she could never open the raft herself at five-feet-two-inches tall and weighing only 102 pounds. He replied, “Well, the good Lord has to be looking out for you.” Nabors said, “Yes, plus my rosary beads.” It was a standing joke – Nabors always had her rosary beads with her.

Blanche Solomon, a flight nurse with first the 822 MAES, then the 830 MAES, was stationed at Harmon Field Newfoundland between May and September 1944, then at Lajes Field in the Azores and finally at Orly Field near Paris, June through October 1945. Much of her flying was between the Azores and Newfoundland. On a mission with a planeload of patients, one of them in a body cast, Solomon worried about that patient during a bad storm. The flight had passed the point of no return, and she wondered what she would do about him, should the plane have to ditch at sea. She explained: “We were taught that in case we were going down, and we knew we were going down, and if there was a patient that couldn’t be moved into one of the rafts, just to overdose him with morphine.” The plane landed safely with fifteen minutes worth of gas left.

On another flight Solomon had at least three blind patients, two in litter tiers, and one whose litter was on the floor of the plane. This last one concerned her most. He had lost his eyes as a result of combat wounds, and Solomon had to irrigate his eye sockets fairly frequently. On an earlier leg, the wheels on the plane’s landing gear had not rolled properly, but the plane had been taken up and tested without the patients on board, and everything seemed to be working fine. Yet there was still a chance that the wheels would not roll when they landed. So Solomon informed the patients about the situation and told the blind patients in the litter tiers that she would yell a warning just before the plane hit the ground so they could hold onto their litters. When she told the blind patient on the floor, she almost wept when he said, “Lieutenant, when you leave me, tell me you’re going so I’m not left talking to myself, because the nurse in the hospital did that, and I was talking for the longest time.” As they were getting ready to land, Solomon yelled, “Okay, hang on tight, and you’ll know when you’re rolling.” She sat on the floor next to the blind patient, because he was scared. The wheels rolled, Solomon said. “And we all breathed a sigh of relief.”

 

 

 

 

World War II Army Flight Nursing – 4 Mar 2018

Personal Reflections on Coping with War
Part 8 When Flying Was Not Smooth

For the 25 flight nurses interviewed for Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II, wartime service was beset with potentially difficult circumstances that could exact a toll on even the most hardy of nurses. To cope with these professional and personal challenges, these women drew on many sources of support, tangible and intangible, physical and mental. Social support, one’s physical condition, and abilities and skills fostered in nurses’ training all helped the flight nurses cope behaviorally with the multiple demands of the war. Reasonable expectations, devotion to duty, an optimistic outlook, and faith in one’s God, one’s colleagues, and one’s self all helped them cope emotionally with the war.

Youth, naiveté, and a trusting nature helped flight nurses cope when flying was not smooth. Ethel Carlson of the 815 Medical Air Evacuation Squadron (MAES) assigned to England remembered an unusual flight to the Continent in a plane transporting hand grenades and gasoline for Patton’s troops.

And that was strictly not according to Hoyle, but I think we just didn’t think about it. We did what we were told to, and besides that, we figured somebody was taking care of us. They wouldn’t get us in trouble. You know, we had a chief nurse and a Major Traub was in charge of the squadron, and we had our flight surgeon, and all of those people were going to take care of us. They weren’t gonna get us into any trouble. Besides that, if it was necessary, that’s what we were doing. I think it was a different way we lived, too, in those war years, because everybody was totally involved. It wasn’t a question of whether you wanted to volunteer for military service. The men were drafted, but everybody did what they could. And if your training put you in a spot like being in the Army Nurse Corps, this is where you went. You weren’t being terribly patriotic, but yet you were. It was the thing to do.

Ethel Carlson [Author’s Private Collection]

Flight nurses often were often during air evacuation flights, but they kept their fears to themselves in order to project calmness to their patients One nurse assigned to the Pacific front never did conquer her fear of flying: “I was petrified of flying. I was scared to death to fly. I was scared on every trip. The smooth trips, which were few and far between, were fine; they didn’t bother me. But the minute we started bouncing around, I thought, How am I going to get these forty patients into life rafts? … I think I prayed harder and longer through those years of flying than I have ever done in my life.”

Blanche Solomon, who flew with the 822 MAES, then the 830 MAES on the North Atlantic run, worried about a large patient in a spica cast on a flight from Bermuda to Miami when her the plane with 28 litter patients on board encountered “an awful storm.”

I mean, lightning was hitting all around, the plane was bouncing and such, so the pilot said he was going to try to head into the Bahamas into Nassau. I imagine they had an airfield there. And he still couldn’t fight the storm. So he fooled round with that for a while, and he decided he was heading back to Bermuda. Well, by that time we were beyond the point of no return. So that’s when I was thinking about that one patient.

She knew that the other patients could get out of the plane if necessary. Blanche talked to the navigator about the procedures for ditching and getting the patients out in the life rafts, all the while worrying about the patient in the spica cast. “And, anyhow,” she continued, “we got into Bermuda. All the crash boats were out, the crash trucks were out. We had about fifteen minutes worth of gas left — that’s what they told me, anyhow.”

Carlson remembered another flight from England across the Channel to France on a cargo plane to pick up patients after D Day. She was napping on top of cargo – probably hand grenades – when the plane lurched, tossing her into the air, resulting in a bruised side. She was angry at the pilot “for doing something stupid” that caused her to hurt herself. Even after she found out he was avoiding enemy fire, she still blamed him for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She didn’t even think about being shot down.

Ethel Carlson (bottom right) with members of 815 MAES
[Author’s Private Collection]

Said Lee Holtz in the Pacific with the 801 MAES about wartime service, “We never realized the danger of it. That never entered our mind.” As Dorothy White, who flew with the 807 MAES in the Mediterranean, explained, she and her colleagues were young, cocky, and ready to tackle the world. “So there was a war going on,” she quipped, “it just kind of got in the way.”

 

 

 

 

 

World War II Army Flight Nurses – 10 Feb 2018

Personal Reflections on Coping with War
Part 7 When Patients Were in Crisis

For the 25 flight nurses interviewed for Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II, wartime service was beset with potentially difficult circumstances that could exact a toll on even the most hardy of nurses. To cope with these professional and personal challenges, these women drew on many sources of support, tangible and intangible, physical and mental. Social support, one’s physical condition, and abilities and skills fostered in nurses’ training all helped the flight nurses cope behaviorally with the multiple demands of the war. Reasonable expectations, devotion to duty, an optimistic outlook, and faith in one’s God, one’s colleagues, and one’s self all helped them cope emotionally with the war.

Louise Anthony, a flight nurse with the 816 Medical Air Evacuation Squadron (MAES) in England, who made her first trip into Normandy on 15 June 1944 after D Day, flew over, as did other medical crews, in planes loaded with gasoline for Patton’s army. As the patients were brought on board the plane now configured for air evacuation, enemy shells were getting close, and an officer told the crew to shut the door and take off. Anthony saw that one of her patients was dying and, realizing that he might not survive the flight, tried to find someone to remove him from the plane. But it was too late – the ground crews had left. As soon as they were airborne, Anthony asked the radio operator to call for a doctor to meet the plane. When the patient died over the English Channel, Anthony successfully hid the fact from the other patients: “I did not cover his face, I turned his head, I adjusted his pillow, I checked his pulse, I pulled the blanket back to check his dressings – the same as all the rest of the patients. … And so no one knew anything.”

Toward the end of the war Dorothy White, assigned to the 807 MAES in the Mediterranean, transported a German POW with a sucking chest wound. Because of the extent of the wound, his breaths gasped out his back. He was “a horrible shade of gray” and needed oxygen, but the plane was not equipped for its use. White discovered that the crew chief had a tank of oxygen and a funnel, and, using a rectal tube as the connection, she held the apparatus to the patient’s face for three hours to give him some relief. The crew meanwhile radioed ahead for a physician to meet the plane at the airfield. When the British doctor came on board and saw White’s “fancy gadget,” he said, “I don’t believe it – American ingenuity!” The patient survived the flight thanks to White’s ability to improvise.

 

Dorothy White [USAF Photo]

Jo Nabors of the 812 MAES volunteered to be the first flight nurse from her squadron to fly into Okinawa, never thinking that hers would be the first of eight names selected from a hat. The fourth day after the bombing had begun, she flew into the island to pick up a load of patients and was petrified, because she could see the devastation from the bombing and hear the firing. When the plane landed and the soldiers saw Nabors, they ran up and crowded around her, asking what she was doing there. “Don’t get out of the airplane, you’ll get shot,” they warned her. Nabors said to the flight surgeon on board, “My God! Get me out of here, because I don’t think it’s safe here. Even by our boys!” He replied, “You have a gun, don’t you? Just use it!” Twenty-four minutes later the patients were loaded and the flight was on its way. The plane was full with newly wounded patients en route to Guam, many of them double amputees. One patient was blind, and Nabors worried about him the most. Only eighteen years old, he had lied about his age. He did not want to go home, because he was afraid of what his family would say – he had no will to live. “They say nurses are hard,” Nabors commented, “but we aren’t hard. I cried and cried with that boy.” Nabors sensed that he was near death because of his despondency, and indeed he did die, not on her flight, but on his flight out of Guam.

Honolulu newspaper clipping [USAF Photo]

Helena Ilic, assigned to the 801 MAES in the Pacific, summed up the flight nurses’ bond with their patients:

Well, I think that you owe your patients everything that you possibly can give them. You know, everything. Your knowledge. I think it is absolutely imperative to think of your patients’ comfort, safety, before you think of your own. … And I think that you owe your patients not knowledge just in treating them, but, like, feeding them – in every aspect. … I think resourcefulness is the word. That’s what you owe your patients, and not just the minimum care. And I think you owe your patients hope, and you owe your patients, I suppose, hope and cheerfulness. That’s very, very important.

 Flight nurse and enlisted technician tend to litter patients
on an air evacuation mission [Author’s Private Collection]

 

 

 

 

World War II Army Flight Nurses – 20 Jan 2018

Personal Reflections on Coping with War
Part 6 When Grooming Was Important

For the 25 flight nurses interviewed for Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II, wartime service was beset with potentially difficult circumstances that could exact a toll on even the most hardy of nurses. To cope with these professional and personal challenges, these women drew on many sources of support, tangible and intangible, physical and mental. Social support, one’s physical condition, and abilities and skills fostered in nurses’ training all helped the flight nurses cope behaviorally with the multiple demands of the war. Reasonable expectations, devotion to duty, an optimistic outlook, and faith in one’s God, one’s colleagues, and one’s self all helped them cope emotionally with the war.

Once they began their actual air evacuation duties, the flight nurses entered a topsy-turvy world. An obvious manifestation of their circumstances of work was seen in their uniforms. Helena Ilic of the 801 Medical Air Evacuation Squadron (MAES) in the Pacific recalled that they didn’t have a set uniform – it was catch-as-catch-can. The flight nurses often were issued men’s uniform items to wear and had to modify them as necessary to make them fit. Clara Morrey, stationed with the 802 MAES in North Africa, recalled that her squadron was sent overseas before the flight nurse uniforms were finished, so the nurses were told to take two pairs of navy blue slacks and blue regulation shirts with them. Their first three shipments of uniforms were sunk. “We didn’t get our uniforms until about nine months after we were there, and so you should have seen our uniforms in that hot African sun,” said Morrey. “They were bleached to a purple. And when we were on trips, we would put them under the mattress to press them out. Oh, they were terrible!”

Helena Ilic in Emerau, 1944
[Author’s Private Collection]

For chief nurse Grace Dunnam in England with the 806 MAES the most difficult thing about being a flight nurse was trying to keep her flight nurses properly dressed in their uniforms. For example, they were not supposed to mix items from two different types of uniforms. She chose to overlook some minor transgressions such as the wearing of red nail polish, which she felt was good for morale. But if a uniform infraction was reported to her, she felt obligated to talk with the flight nurse about it. What was not brought to her attention, however, Dunnam was willing to ignore.

806 MAES Chief Nurse Grace Dunnam (2nd from left)
[USAF Photo]

A neat, well-groomed appearance was expected of every flight nurse during the war. While most nurses experienced some inconvenience in keeping up their appearance, Jocie French, a flight nurse with the 818 MAES in England, admitted concerns about having to wear the same uniform all the time and about having trouble getting hose, makeup, and permanents for her hair. Concerns such as these may appear trifling, but the flight nurses realized that their appearance had a definite effect on the morale of the men fighting the war. For this reason, Elizabeth Pukas, chief nurse of the 812 MAES in the Pacific, attached extreme importance to grooming:

I expect my nurses to be as if they just came out of Elizabeth Arden’s salon, with her hairdo, with her makeup, with her uniform absolutely immaculate. … She is to be immaculately clean, and as beautiful and as presentable as she has been trained in flight nursing school to be.

The flight nurse was, according to Pukas, ‘”to be the most beautiful woman that the wounded are going to rest their eyes on.”

Jo Nabors, one of Pukas’s flight nurses, explained her chief nurse’s grooming requirement:

Yes, we had to look nice. We had to be dressed nice, our hair always had to be done right. And before we came in, we had to go and put lipstick on, you know, before you picked up a flight of patients. We had to be all groomed. We had to smile. We had to smell nice. You know, that’s true. We did. And we were there for a morale booster, also, because I think they liked to see some American girls. After all, they’d been on the islands for so long that they didn’t know what we all looked like. And I think they were happy to see flight nurses all prettied up with permanents and their hair done and their eyelashes taken care of. I think that was one of the prime requisites, I think, to be a flight nurse. They didn’t expect us to be beautiful, I don’t think so. But we had to know how to wear our hair and wear our makeup and be neat.

A sense of humor helped, as Lee Holtz assigned to the 801 MAES explained:

You know, we laughed about many things that happened. Like … you’d get in [from a flight] and … it was too late to take a shower, and you sort of splashed a little water on your face from your helmet, which you always had with you. Or once I came back from a flight, and the tent or something had leaked, and all my clothes were wet, and I didn’t even have anything dry to put on. But we hung them all out, and, you know, we just laughed about it. You couldn’t get upset about anything, you just couldn’t. You couldn’t survive that kind of life.

The patients were worth the extra effort that these women put into their appearance during the war. Ilic summed it up: “I think that you owe your patients everything that you possibly can give them. … I mean, you owe your patients your best.” Clearly, that included good grooming.

World War II Army Flight Nurses – 1 Jan 2018

Personal Reflections on Coping with War
Part 5 When Health and Hygiene Were a Concern

For the 25 flight nurses interviewed for Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II, wartime service was beset with potentially difficult circumstances that could exact a toll on even the most hardy of nurses. To cope with these professional and personal challenges, these women drew on many sources of support, tangible and intangible, physical and mental. Social support, one’s physical condition, and abilities and skills fostered in nurses’ training all helped the flight nurses cope behaviorally with the multiple demands of the war. Reasonable expectations, devotion to duty, an optimistic outlook, and faith in one’s God, one’s colleagues, and one’s self all helped them cope emotionally with the war.

The often primitive conditions in which flight nurses lived and worked, as well as the demands of air evacuation duty, required a great deal of physical stamina.

Physical fitness was a positive outcome of the flight nurse training. Lee Holtz, a flight nurse with the 801 Medical Air Evacuation Squadron (MAES) in the Pacific recalled that physical training had been rugged, but it paid off when her squadron got to the jungle, where they needed to be in top physical shape. Denny Nagle, assigned to England with the 815 MAES, also found the physical training “really rough, but I never felt better in my life [than] when we finished … all that exercise.”

Flight Nurses on Parade, Bowman Field, KY [USAF Photo]

Keeping busy was important to surviving the rigors of wartime service. When on transatlantic flights, Jenny Boyle, assigned with the 816 MAES in England, was surprised “how much time you can spend without doing anything spectacular, just by being there and helping out and talking with the patients, but you stayed busy for the whole time.” Elizabeth Pukas, chief nurse of the 812 MAES in the Pacific, recalled the simple joys of well-earned crew rest the first 24 hours after landing, making her report, off-loading the medical equipment, and returning to her home base.

Mental exhaustion – which flight nurse Hilda Halverson, assigned to the 826 MAES and later the 830 MAES in the Pacific, described as always being alert thinking “what you can do for the next person” – was not as easily remedied, though overall good health helped.

Matters of hygiene, including health concerns, were the most frequently discussed demands of the flight nurses’ living conditions. While most flight nurses maintained their health during their air evacuation assignments, many of the nurses were plagued by minor ailments such as diarrhea, constipation, bladder infections, and skin fungus. The flight nurses continued to work despite their discomfort, often to the point of exhaustion.

Irregular hours accounted for much of the indisposition. Flights could be as short as a 40-minute English Channel crossing or up to 20 hours long on a transoceanic mission. Food was nonexistent or unpalatable, served from a back burner of a stove in the mess hall, by a Red Cross worker, or in a container of C-rations or K-rations. While most flight nurses learned to sleep while deadheading on a flight with no patients, these naps did not compensate for a full night’s sleep on the ground. Crew rest varied in length depending on plane schedules and the number of patients needing evacuation by air.

Exhaustion was the inevitable result of the hectic pace of flight nursing during the war. Halverson remembered that Japanese aircraft raids constantly interrupted her sleep. “Oh, they were tiresome. And the minute you got back [from the bomb shelter], it seemed like you’d get back to sleep, then they’d come again. And you’d think, Oh, who cares?”

Class 43H resting before start of 13-mile hike during bivouac
Bowman Field, KY, January 1944 [Author’s Private Collection]

Two of the nurses I interviewed returned to the United States as patients because of health problems; both were assigned in England. Ethel Carlson of the 815 MAES had a kidney flare-up; Louise Anthony of the 816 MAES could no longer tolerate a back injury she sustained during the flight nurse course when she had to lift a litter with two 60-pound sandbags on it. She hid the fact of the injury as long as she could, because she realized it would disqualify her as a flight nurse.

For some women the most difficult aspect of flight nursing was the lack of bathrooms on the aircraft in which they flew. Some planes had chemical toilets, but some nurses would not use them. As Adele Edmonds assigned to the 801 MAES in the Pacific related, “They [chemical toilets] weren’t enclosed in a cabinet type. It was really just open. … Men have a different feeling about things like that. But if you were a woman aboard a plane with all men, you would naturally be a little reluctant to go to the bathroom practically on display.” Dorothy White with the 807 MAES in the Mediterranean, shed additional light on the problem:

Most airplanes did not have any toilet facilities. If you were lucky, and you had a long flight, there might be a pail in the back that we had to use. It is possible for a nurse with slacks on to aim at the pilot’s relief tube, but, believe me, it’s very difficult, and you have to hope that the plane is going to fly steady while you’re there!

White remembered another bathroom arrangement, on the ground. When no facilities were available for women when the plane landed in Naples, a medical officer “would come up to the airplane, and across his jeep was a sign, ‘To the bushes.’ And we would all get on the jeep and go off to the bushes.” The flight nurses carried their own toilet paper with them.

In Rome the flight nurses had an outhouse, which they painted blue and named “the blue room.” But, as White recalled, some of the soldiers on one field felt sorry for them.

And we got over there one day, and they said, “We’ve got a surprise for you!” So we went, and they had made us a beautiful six-holer. Someone had made us the fanciest toilet-paper holder you have ever seen. They had a stone walkway around so that the entrance was [in] back out of the way, and they even had some flowers planted around. I mean, it was the most up-to-date facility in the whole theater.

But even a new bathroom facility could not guarantee good health. White remembered a time when the flight nurses and other troops in her area had what they called “the golden glitters” because of the jaundice – some type of hepatitis. She didn’t turn gold, and she discovered that she could keep going by living on black coffee. “I worked all during the time – everybody else was in bed. You didn’t feel good, but you were better than those that were in bed, and somebody had to work. And so you survived.”

Frances Sandstrom, who flew with the 816 MAES in England, recalled a mission in which, because of fog, a flight that should have lasted approximately 90 minutes lasted about seven hours. “The worst part of it was that we had no place to go to the little girls’ room. … I can remember that was very uncomfortable, to say the least.”

The flight nurses dealt with the lack of bathroom facilities in different ways. Many nurses simply regulated their food and fluid intake. “We just dehydrated ourselves; it took care of that,” said Sandstrom. White remarked, “If you saw our original uniforms – our [Eisenhower] jackets, … the air evac nurses were always looked on as being very buxom. … [The] pockets were always filled with toilet paper and Kotex.”

Nurses occasionally ran out of sanitary napkins. Some locations lacked post exchanges or towns in which to buy more. Chief nurse Lucy Wilson of the 801 MAES recalled flying on a mercy mission to another island in the Pacific to stock up on Kotex for the nurses in her squadron.

801 MAES Chief Nurse Lucy Wilson
[Author’s Private Collection]

Water for bathing, washing one’s clothes, and washing one’s hair was limited. On flights, a nurse often had only the water that she carried in her canteen. On the ground, water was rationed at some bases. Nurses might have to resort to a quick shower in the men’s community latrine at a prearranged hour; clothes might be washed in the ocean. And washing one’s hair was often dependent on a timely rainfall. For all hygiene needs, the flight nurses’ helmets came in handy. Alice Krieble of the 818 MAES in England said, “It [helmet] was a potty, emesis basin, and wash basin.”

Most of the nurses took the undesirable conditions of wartime living in stride and applied themselves to their flight nurse role. Said Dorothy Vancil, who flew with the 805 MAES in Central Africa, “I didn’t expect to be carried around, you know, [to] have all the comforts of home.” Sally Jones, who was stationed with the 812 MAES in the Pacific, summed up the situation: “How could you have everything plush when there was a war going on? That’s ridiculous!”

World War II Army Flight Nurses – 10 Dec 2017

Personal Reflections on Coping with War
Part 4 When the Holidays Came

For the 25 flight nurses interviewed for Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II, wartime service was beset with potentially difficult circumstances that could exact a toll on even the most hardy of nurses. To cope with these professional and personal challenges, these women drew on many sources of support, tangible and intangible, physical and mental. Social support, one’s physical condition, and abilities and skills fostered in nurses’ training all helped the flight nurses cope behaviorally with the multiple demands of the war. Reasonable expectations, devotion to duty, an optimistic outlook, and faith in one’s God, one’s colleagues, and one’s self all helped them cope emotionally with the war.

The flight nurses displayed a broad range of creativity, most apparent in their uncanny ability to make do admirably with what was on hand or could be scrounged. Lee Holtz, assigned to the 801 Medical Air Evacuation Squadron (MAES) related a humorous incident of making do for Christmas in the Pacific:

So here we were, a bunch of women bemoaning the fact that we wouldn’t get anything for Christmas, so we made each other little Christmas presents. I remember somebody dyed – I don’t know how they dyed – a bra purple for me. That was my present. … But we all made each other something or stole something from them and did something to whatever they had.

Their Christmas tree was very saggy and looked like a weeping willow, but the flight nurses decorated it with whatever they could find, including spoons from the mess hall. But the coup de grace, Holt said, was a package from the Red Cross – a man’s sweater for a female nurse assigned near the equator, about the most useless gift possible.

Christmas packages from home were in transit for months; when they did arrive, boxes of chocolates were reduced to a mound of goo, and cakes had mildew for icing. Holtz explained, “Of course, our folks at home didn’t know how we were living, really. You know, we really couldn’t say much in our letters. We could never say where we were, so they didn’t really know that we were on the equator.”

801 MAES Flight Nurses Helena Ilic (L) and
Eloise Richardson (R), Bougainville, 1943
[Author’s Private Collection]

Hilda Halverson, who flew with the 826 and 830 MAES in the Pacific, shared a similar story. One of her four sisters had sent her a Christmas box, which caught up with Halverson months after the holiday, at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. When she received the box, Halverson said, “Oh, fellows, I’m going to be able to treat you, I got a box.” But when she opened the package, she discovered about an inch of “mildew” covering the cake and cookies that her sister had baked. “And here [she was going to share] – oh, it was so awful! We opened that and cut it all up.”

Adele Edmonds, a flight nurse with the 801 MAES in the Pacific, had a vivid memory of Christmas Eve 1944 in the Philippines. Because of reasons she had forgotten, the crew couldn’t make it back to their home station and wound up sleeping in a Catholic church that also housed patients cared for by nuns. An alert sounded, and the crew had to go under cover. “And you could see them – the bombing and the effect of it, nearby.”

Like many of her flight nurse colleagues, Jocie French of the 818 MAES spent Christmas Day in an unexpected location. For several days the weather had prevented flying from England into France to pick up patients. She continued the story:

And on this one particular day, I think it was the twenty-third of December, two girls went out – myself and another girl that was our turn to go. And we were carrying blood and medical supplies. And just as we got down to the coast … the crew chief or the copilot came back and said, “Get into a parachute.” And he was getting into one. We’d lost an engine. …. I kept thinking, Do I get out of this parachute before we hit the water? Because I knew we had been gone long enough to be over the Channel. Or do I hit the water with the parachute?

That’s when French wished she’d remembered a little more from her parachute training. Fortunately the plane was able to make it to a base on the British side of the Channel, where the crew stayed overnight until the engine was fixed.

The next morning, the crew resumed their mission to France, but the weather again closed in for days; for two nights Adele and her colleagues stayed in an old bombed-out building with blankets for their beds. Once all the troops left for the Battle of the Bulge, the Red Cross sent word that any nurses who were there could come down and stay at the Red Cross. French continued:

So I went down, and that was a happy day. I went down and had a hot bath and slept between sheets that night. And the next morning I got up and took a subway back to Orly Field [near Paris], and that was Christmas Day, I guess. … [We] stood in line in the open. They had dinner prepared in tents. But we had Christmas dinner, and then we left that afternoon, and we did not take patients back. … I got home the day after Christmas, and the weather had cleared up just miraculously, and every one of our girls had gone out, and I was rambling around in that big building all by myself.

For Agnes Jensen, one of 12 flight nurses and 13 medical technicians trying to get back to allied territory when the plane on which they were flying from Sicily to new duty assignments in Italy had to make an emergency landing in enemy occupied Albania, Christmas of 1943 was unforgettable. A British contingent had linked the stranded troops up with a lieutenant, a sergeant, a wireless, and donkeys to facilitate their trek to the coast where they could be returned by ship to Italy. The pilots had found an abandoned German airstrip along the way where allied planes could attempt an air rescue. Jensen picked up the story:

And it was December twenty-second. We began to think we were going to make it out the twentieth, before Christmas. And the Germans and partisans started fighting up and down this valley that we’d gotten into. It was kind of decent terrain, but it was between river and roads. And we didn’t know how far the fighting would spread, so … we backtracked for a couple of days, to get back across the river, across the road, and up in a higher mountain. We could see this town of Gjirokastër, which is one of the larger towns, too, and we’d stayed there one night. But the Germans occupied it the day after Christmas. … And then the weather socked in for 10 days. … So we just sat in this town waiting over Christmas.

The travelers finally made it to the coast, where a boat returned them to Italy, after the New Year. See Beyond the Call of Duty for more about the flight nurses’ time in Albania.

807 MAES Flight Nurses after Return from Albania
[USAF Photo]

 

 

 

World War II Army Flight Nurses – 18 Nov 2017

Personal Reflections on Coping with War
Part 3 When Away from Family

For the 25 flight nurses interviewed for Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II, wartime service was beset with potentially difficult circumstances that could exact a toll on even the most hardy of nurses. To cope with these professional and personal challenges, these women drew on many sources of support, tangible and intangible, physical and mental. Social support, one’s physical condition, and abilities and skills fostered in nurses’ training all helped the flight nurses cope behaviorally with the multiple demands of the war. Reasonable expectations, devotion to duty, an optimistic outlook, and faith in one’s God, one’s colleagues, and one’s self all helped them cope emotionally with the war.

Social support from squadron and family members was a key element in dealing with the demands of war. Almost two-thirds of the flight nurses interviewed mentioned the importance of esprit de corps and camaraderie in helping them through the war. To four flight nurses it was like a family relationship. What Jenny Boyle, stationed in Europe with the 816 Medical Air Evacuation Squadron (MAES), found helpful was that the people she was with were “like a family.” The other flight nurses often were viewed as sisters. To Randy Rast assigned to the Chine-Burma-India (CBI) Theatre with the 803 MAES, the flight nurses in her squadron “seemed more like sisters to me than my own sisters.” Clara Morrey, initially stationed in North Africa with the 802 MAES, turned down a chance to accompany a patient back to the United States, because she might not have been assigned to her own squadron on her return from the temporary duty.

815 MAES “Sisters” Denny Nagle, Betty Taylor,
and Ethel Carlson [Author’s Private Collection]

The esprit de corps extended to other members of one’s squadron and to one’s colleagues in flight. Flight nurses praised the work of the medical technicians and emphasized the importance of teamwork in providing patient care. “The rapport between the corpsmen and our flight nurses was magnificent,” said chief nurse Elizabeth Pukas, whose 812 MAES was stationed in Hawaii. “Oh, it’s a team – it was definitely a team,” she added.

The flight crew earned the flight nurses’ respect as part of the air evacuation team. Said Helena Ilic, assigned with the 801 MAES in the Pacific, “The crew chief was invaluable to us. … He helped all of us. It was great.” “Crew chiefs … played a big role in patient care,” remarked Adele Edmonds, also assigned to the 801 MAES, who once was saved from the neck grip of a psychiatric patient by the timely entrance of the crew chief into the cabin of the plane. Frances Sandstrom of the 816 MAES recalled the role of the pilots in Europe: “They were so proud to be doing what they were doing. … were so tickled to be able to do this, that they were so glad to help.”

Good leadership contributed to esprit de corps and fostered teamwork. Rast spoke of an exceptional commanding officer who saw to unit morale. Grace Dunnam, chief nurse of the 806 MAES in Europe, spoke of physicians and commanders who were “right in there with you.” A flight nurse in the Pacific stated, “I think our chief nurse was good for us. She didn’t nag, she didn’t pump, she joined us with our laughter, she joined us with our fun, she didn’t pick. I think that she had something to do with our being content.” Louise Anthony, who flew with the 816 MAES, credited her good assignment in the war at least in part to the quality and fair-mindedness of her chief nurse who the flight nurses knew would always “go to bat right away” for her nurses.

Several flight nurses mentioned the support and pride of family members, who could be relied on to send necessities such as casual clothes and underwear and to provide news from home in the form of letters and newspapers. Even the patients whom the flight nurse evacuated by air were a source of support. Dorothy Vancil, who flew with the 805 MAES in Central Africa, noticed how grateful the patients were for “everything you did for them”; for Morrey, “how appreciative these boys were as bad as they were … for every little thing that you did for them” helped her cope with the war.

You never knew a stranger in the war, Rast remarked. Many flight nurses found that the war had its compensation in the people that they met during their military service. Five of the women interviewed met their husbands during the war. Other flight nurses befriended the natives in an overseas location, saw colleagues from their days of nurses’ training, and met up with relatives.

For most of the nurses interviewed, an active social life helped see them through the war. “We worked hard,” remarked Blanche Solomon, who flew with the 822 MAES and later the 830 MAES on the North Atlantic run, “but I think most of us played hard, too, in our free time.” Hosting and attending parties, seeing sights in a foreign country, playing cards in the mess hall, and joining in a songfest – all in the company of friends – provided outlets to help take one’s mind off the war.

Quonset Hut Bar, Clark Air Base, Philippines, 1945
[USAF Photo]

 

World War II Army Flight Nurses – 28 Oct 2017

Personal Reflections on Coping with War
Part 2 When Living Conditions Were Primitive

For the 25 flight nurses interviewed for Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II, wartime service was beset with potentially difficult circumstances that could exact a toll on even the most hardy of nurses. To cope with these professional and personal challenges, these women drew on many sources of support, tangible and intangible, physical and mental. Social support, one’s physical condition, and abilities and skills fostered in nurses’ training all helped the flight nurses cope behaviorally with the multiple demands of the war. Reasonable expectations, devotion to duty, an optimistic outlook, and faith in one’s God, one’s colleagues, and one’s self all helped them cope emotionally with the war.

Quarters in which the flight nurses lived gave some nurses an exercise in coping. The flight nurses often were billeted together in one large room or several of the nurses shared smaller rooms. Living quarters were often old buildings in poor condition converted to house the nurses. Jocie French, who was assigned with the 811 Medical Air Evacuation Squadron (MAES) in England, recalled living in an old, abandoned, dirty mess hall with vines growing inside through the windows and mice “all over the place.” The nurses had to clean up the building when they moved in.

Furniture was usually minimal, and bathrooms often were located away from the living quarters. On one island in the Pacific, the flight nurses had to call for a guard to escort them from their quarters to the outdoor latrine. Lee Holtz, serving with the 801 MAES in the Pacific, described the situation:

And they were still finding … stray Japanese around there. So when we got to the back door of the Quonset hut to go to the bathroom at night, … you’d call, “Guard!” And he’d come and walk you to the latrine. I bet he loved his duty during the war!

Guadalcanal [Author’s Private Collection]

Ethel Carlson of the 815 MAES in England remembered her first quarters, Boxford House, near Welford, as far from primitive. The flight nurses expected to pitch tents and instead found themselves in a gorgeous mansion with formal gardens on an acre of land. They couldn’t believe it – a great entrance hall, spiral staircase, heads of game on the walls, a marble fireplace. “And this was our own private little barracks,” she concluded.

Boxford House near Welford [Author’s Private Collection]

Alice Krieble, assigned with the 818 MAES in England, remembered that it was not always easy living with so many of her colleagues. She used to go out to a cemetery on the base and just sit and talk to the dead to get away from “a bunch of females.”

Jo Nabors of the 812 MAES recalled the difficulty she had showering on one of the islands in the Pacific:

We had an outdoor shower, and the shower was a large drum, and it had holes in it. … And it was the shower that everybody used. So this one time I was in there taking a shower and went to rinse the water, and I see a face up there. Well … I screamed, and of course everybody came running. It was one of the fellows who hadn’t seen a white woman for so long. So from then on we wore bathing suits in the shower.

Just how livable the quarters were often depended on the flight nurses’ assertiveness and ingenuity. Elizabeth Pukas, chief nurse of the 812 MAES, was upset to learn that the 25 flight nurses in her squadron were to be housed in two three-bedroom houses on a base in Hawaii.

I simply went to our commanding officer – flight surgeon – and said, “This is really asking a little bit much. Please get us another house so that three divided into twenty-four is a little bit more livable.” And then of course I was told, “Well, remember this is very, very temporary. All of you will be out in the Pacific.” I said, “Yes, but there will be a number of us having to stay home in between flights to recuperate, to refurbish, to repack. And this is just a little bit – a lot – of equipment, and our personal property, our clothes are still in the closet, our toiletries are still there. This is our living quarters. And I’m very sure you would not ask a male counterpart to live in such close quarters.” And we did get a little more adequate housing as time went on. … But it did take a little more than just speaking to our squadron. … I did have to go to headquarters to say, “I’m asking if the request has come in and what action is being taken.” I’m not too forward, but I am a chief nurse. … My flight nurses are extremely important to me.

The amenities of home were also important to Pukas. Having obtained the third house eventually, she decorated the houses with paintings on loan from a local art museum and stocked the kitchens with good foods obtained from the nearby navy commissary.

While flight nurses in the North Atlantic, Europe, and Alaska were contending with cold temperatures, flight nurses in the Pacific had more tangible irritations. Mosquitoes galore were dealt with by wearing protective clothing and sleeping under mosquito nets at night, but the larger insects, lizards, and snakes were not so easily endured. Said Adele Edmonds, in the Pacific with the 801 MAES, “But there were so many crawly things! Lizards and snakes. I don’t know how you can prepare yourself for something like that, because I’d always been terrified of them.” Two nurses identified the snakes as the worst thing about being a flight nurse during the war. Holtz remembered:

Oh, we were so frightened of snakes and bugs and stuff! But we lived with them. There wasn’t anything else we could do. … They were tremendous things! And of course I’m a coward about those things anyhow. Those are the things I think that were really hard to take, because we could laugh about everything else, but not that.

Helena Ilic, also in the 801 MAES, recalled that the snakes taught her something about herself: “I’ve always been deathly afraid of snakes. … I couldn’t even look at them before the war. And if I got through that, I said … psychologically I must be a pretty strong person, because if I didn’t go absolutely berserk over those snakes!”

Food was another concern. Flight nurses often had to resort to C-rations and K-rations for sustenance and to such items as found their way to overseas mess halls. Holtz described the culinary situation:

You know, we lived out in the jungle, and we had very poor food. We all complained about the food constantly, because it was mostly stuff shipped from Australia, and the meat – we called it Australian bully beef. It was really canned meat of some sort, but it really was tasteless, so we got to the point we didn’t eat it anymore. And I think once they even sent us canned liver, but I’m not sure of that. But I know most of us survived on peanut butter.

Nurses in the Pacific compensated for the poor food when they managed to get back to the United States or to one of the larger islands on a flight, where they stocked up on fresh food, milk, and pastries. Those flight nurses assigned in the Pacific looked forward to the times that they would be invited to dine with the navy officers aboard a ship. Holtz remembered:

We were invited out lots of times to dinner by the navy, and it didn’t matter who invited you, you always went, because they always had the best food. We’d go with anybody to go eat a meal with the navy. You got to that point. And they would give us things, besides. They would give us canned stuff like Vienna sausages or Spam or something to bring home with us, and that was really great!

Added Nabors, “They would give us all the fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat. … We’d say we’d sell our soul … for an invitation to get over there.”

 

World War II Army Flight Nurses – 8 Oct 2017

Personal Reflections on Coping with War
Part 1 When the War Started

For the 25 flight nurses interviewed for Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II, wartime service was beset with potentially difficult circumstances that could exact a toll on even the most hardy of nurses. To cope with these professional and personal challenges, these women drew on many sources of support, tangible and intangible, physical and mental. Social support, one’s physical condition, and abilities and skills fostered in nurses’ training all helped the flight nurses cope behaviorally with the multiple demands of the war. Reasonable expectations, devotion to duty, an optimistic outlook, and faith in one’s God, one’s colleagues, and one’s self all helped them cope emotionally with the war.

Work experiences prior to military service varied, with hospital, clinic, private duty, and industrial nursing all represented. Dorothy White – eventually a flight nurse with the 807 Medical Air Evacuation Squadron (MAES) in the Mediterranean – considered this last type of job ideal preparation for flight nursing, because it involved emergency cases and responses when a physician was not in attendance and supplies were limited. About half of the nurses whom I interviewed already knew they wanted to be flight nurses when they entered the military; the others learned about this new field of nursing when at their first duty assignments.

The opportunity to enter the military and serve as a flight nurse was linked closely with patriotism.

“It was very easy to do,” said Louise Anthony, who had worked as a private duty nurse prior to joining the military. “There was no decision to be made. It had already been made. War had been declared. I had two brothers that would be in service. I had lots of cousins and nephews, my half-brother’s children. There was just no question. I was single. I couldn’t have stayed out had I wanted to.” Anthony later served as a flight nurse with the 816 MAES in England.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, civilian nurse Elizabeth Pukas still had six months left on her contract with the Army Corps of Engineers in Antigua, where they were building the airfield that became Coolidge Field. As soon as she returned to her former job in New York City, Pukas was recruited by the Red Cross for military service and agreed to join with the stipulation that she be assigned as a flight nurse. But the military was too slow in granting her request, the impatient Pukas thought. “There is a big, big war going on, and it’s going on in the Pacific,” she told her chief nurse. When Pukas entered the army, she had been given a choice of where she would want to go if sent overseas. She answered, “Definitely not Europe, but the Pacific.” Pukas eventually got her wish. She graduated from the flight nurse course on 2 July 1943, was selected as chief nurse of the 812 MAES, and traveled with her squadron to Hickam Field, Hawaii just before Christmas in December 1943.

Helena Ilic and Brooxie Mowery initially had dreams of work as a flight attendant with the airlines when a prerequisite for the work was a nursing diploma. But when America entered the war, and nurses were in such demand both in civilian life and in the military, the airlines stopped hiring nurses and changed their policy to require some college education instead. Ilic already was in the army when she saw a notice on a bulletin board concerning the need for flight nurses. “And, of course, I was all gung-ho, because, you see, before the war, that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “The reason I went into nursing was I wanted to be a stewardess for Pan American. That’s the reason I went into nursing – to fly. And so the war broke out, of course – here I had a chance. I signed up immediately, and I went to Bowman Field, Kentucky.” Ilic later served with the 801 MAES in the Pacific.

Helena Ilic [Author’s Private Collection]

Mowery had been working in a psychiatric hospital when she decided she’d rather have a job for which she could travel. “So I tried to apply to the airlines, and I’d had two interviews with TWA in Chicago,” she said. “And they said that everything was fine so far, and that I should then await word about going to Kansas City for the final interview where they had their school. And, of course, in those days they only used registered nurses on the airlines.” She continued:

And while I’m waiting for this final interview, December seventh came along. And so I kept waiting and got through the holidays. And in January in the Midwest, you always get the doldrums because of the weather. So I got to thinking about it, and I remembered the letter I’d had from the airlines saying, “We’re awfully sorry. We have to change our program, because the armed forces need registered nurses now.” They wished me all kinds of luck. So I got to thinking, The armed forces need me? Okay. So I went down and started application and so forth.

She hadn’t heard about the possibility of being a flight nurse, Mowery said – “I was just being patriotic.”

World War II was not a passive event for the army nurses who served as flight nurses. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the fear that the United States would be invaded gave Lee Holtz of the 801 MAES in the Pacific and other flight nurses like her their gung-ho attitude about going to war. “That bomb at Pearl Harbor really stimulated everybody,” Clara Morrey of the 802 MAES in North Africa said. “There was patriotism all over the place. No matter what you had to do, you were going to go. … We had an advantage there, because we all said we didn’t care if we got killed, we were going. All those who did volunteer felt that way, and the others stayed at home.”