Meet the former US Army flight nurses whom I interviewed for
Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II.
In 1986 as part of my research about flight nurse history and coping with war, I was privileged to interview 25 former US Army nurses about events of their flight nurse duty in World War II. Most of them are now deceased, but their stories live on in Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II.
The journal I kept of my time with each of them in 1986 when writing my dissertation offers a brief personal glimpse of these remarkable women. I am sharing edited versions of these journals, in the order in which the interviews took place. The actual interviews are in separate documents.
812 MAES Pacific
9 April 1986
I met with Dr. Elizabeth Pukas in her home in Walnut Creek, California. This was my first trip out of state for the purpose of interviewing a former World War II flight nurse, and it was a learning experience.
I arrived Tuesday morning. Elizabeth met me at the airport with a hug and a metal luggage carrier on wheels; both were most welcome after my long trip. After a short dinner, we went to the Navy Lodge at Alameda, where she had made reservations.
Elizabeth has never married and was the oldest of the women whom I interviewed. She is handicapped by her own description, but a healthy lifestyle keeps her in current good health. She wears hearing aids in both ears but can hear well without them. She has arthritis and often carries a cane but seldom uses it. I got the impression that her official disabled status, along with her senior citizen status and her retired officer status, were used to enhance her life, not to create barriers. She is fiercely independent and strong willed—a leader, not a follower. She always has aspired “for the top”, and by her expectations she has achieved it. She has strong views about a wide range of topics. I first noticed this when she asked about my career plans and then told me just what I should do for future assignments.
After she had served us coffee, we began our interview. Elizabeth was very articulate. She has a doctorate in psychology, and her intelligence is apparent in her speech. She is well read and well informed on current and past events. I felt that I obtained some good indications of coping behaviors.
Elizabeth was chief nurse of the 812 MAES stationed in the Pacific. She gave me copies of Christmas and Easter letters that she recently had sent to flight nurses of her squadron so that I could get to know her better.
She remembered how her squadron found out where they actually were to be assigned, which had been kept secret. When the squadron reached California, where they would travel overseas by troop ship, they were issued clothing and equipment for Alaska. But from the position of the sun Elizabeth observed during her daily 30 minutes on deck, their ship was sailing west, not north. And even in December, it wasn’t getting colder every day, but in fact the opposite — they didn’t need extra layers of clothing to keep warm. Hawaii, not Alaska, was their ultimate destination.
After the interview, at her request I let Elizabeth serve as my guide on a driving tour of the San Francisco area. For the rest of the day and all of the next morning I saw that region of California, which is really quite lovely, through a car window. Elizabeth enjoyed her role as my tour guide, and I didn’t want to appear ungrateful, but her driving made me uncomfortable at times. I was glad finally to be dropped off at the Oakland airport to await my flight back to Texas.
One of Elizabeth’s stories: “My flight nurses are very important to me,” Elizabeth told me during our interview. When the squadron arrived at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, their home station, the 25 flight nurses were assigned two three-bedroom houses as their living quarters. Elizabeth found this unacceptable so went to her commanding officer and asked for a third house. The nurses eventually did get more adequate housing, but only after Elizabeth had taken her request up the chain of command.
Elizabeth died in 2004.