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.
Helena Ilic Tynan
801 MAES Pacific
26 April 1986
When I arrived at Helena’s home in San Antonio, Texas for our scheduled interview, Helena wasn’t there—my first clue that something was amiss. Her husband said she was at the neighbor’s with the grandchildren. He invited me in, called the neighbor’s house, and Helena arrived a few minutes later with two granddaughters ages 1 and 4. Helena had been asked unexpectedly to watch the children for the day and had forgotten about our interview. It was apparent from the children’s behavior that an interview was out of the question, so I offered to return on another day. Helen obviously was relieved but insisted I stay for lunch, which I did. She mentioned how pleased she was that I was there to help her look after the children—together they were more than Helena and her husband Harold could handle. I’m still being thanked for helping them babysit; Helena says she doesn’t know what she would have done without me.
This afternoon I returned to Helena’s home for our rescheduled interview. It was quieter, since the grandchildren were not there. I learned, however, that a nephew had been seriously injured in a motorcycle accident in San Antonio the night before. Helena was waiting to learn more details about the accident and the nephew’s status. I offered to reschedule our interview again, but Helena wanted to do the interview.
Helena was born in Yugoslavia and moved to New York at age 14. She is casual in dress and lifestyle, very warm, friendly, and personable. For our interview we sat on chaise lounges on her sun porch. Unlike the last woman I interviewed, Helena was very talkative, but she didn’t always finish her sentences. Helena had so much to share that she sort of flitted from topic to topic, often losing her train of thought. Perhaps Helena actually needed more direct questioning to help her stay on track. But after my last interview when I perhaps provided too much guidance and possibly stifled what the woman might have said, I was trying hard not to do too much talking.
Helena had some difficulty remembering things that she wanted to share, and she occasionally needed reassurance that she was remembering enough to make the interview worthwhile. Once the interview was over, she recalled more experiences, especially about scrounging for food for her patients.
One of Helena’s stories: Helena was, as she put it, a “true blue”, making deals “all over the place” for food to serve her patients. When she flew onto an island, she got to know the military cooks, the Salvation Army, and the Red Cross, and returned to her plane with sandwiches and cans of drink for the soldiers on board. She even had a burner on the planes with which to heat up soup. She said with pride, “And my men were always well fed, and they always had food. We never landed anyplace that they were hungry.”
Helena died in 2010.
This Post Has 4 Comments
Nice write-up, those were my children and they could be a handful, but she loved every minute off it! One correction, she arrived in this country at the age of 9, in sept. 1929, a month before the stock market crash and the beginning of the depression, spoke no English, and just a few years later was a flight nurse in the south Pacific. She had many other experiences that could be a book itself, i wish you had more time with her. Unfortunately, when you met her, she was beginning a long road with dementia.
Thank you, Robert, for visiting my website and for your comment, which I somehow overlooked. I have pleasant memories of both visits to interview Helena, although the first one didn’t go as planned. She was a very special person.
I was the 4 year old you met when my grandmother was taking care of us. Thank you so much for your work in preserving the special memories of these extraordinary women. We are so proud of my grandmother, Helena Ilic Tynan, and now generations of our family will be able to hear her story! My sister Katie, the one year old you met, is now a nurse and proudly continuing the tradition of service that our grandmother started.
Thank you, Tara, for visiting my website. I’m delighted to hear from you. I remember that day when you were visiting your grandmother and my rescheduled interview with Helena to learn about her experiences as a WW2 flight nurse. I still hear her voice when I picture her in my mind and see photographs of her. I’m pleased that I’ve given you this opportunity to revisit her past.