World War II Army Flight Nurses
Jenevieve (Jenny) Boyle Silk, who died in June 2017, was the last living of the 25 World War II US Army flight nurses whom I interviewed in 1986 for what became Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II. I clearly remember each of my interviews with these remarkable women and still can picture them and hear their voices when I think of them.
Twenty of these interviews are now digitized and available as audio recordings on the Imperial War Museum website. Access the interviews here:
My short remembrances are in the order in which I interviewed these former flight nurses.
Dorothy White Errair (1920–2015)
807 MAES, North Africa
Dorrothy Errair née WHITE (Providence Hospital School of Nursing, Detroit, 1942) had already decided on military nursing so that she could be a flight nurse. Although she’d never been in an airplane, Dorothy thought, That’s it. That’s just what I want. She worked first for six months as an industrial nurse in Detroit to prepare herself better for “whatever I might come across in the military. And I was right,” she said, “because it was your emergency work, your emergency responses, you never knew what was going to happen the next minute.” Supplies were minimal, and in most cases a doctor was not available. Dorothy specified flight nursing when she applied to the Army, and after working as a hospital nurse at George Field, Illinois, her first duty station, from January to May, she was accepted for flight nurse training at Bowman Field, KY and graduated on 2 July 1943. Agnes Jensen was a class mate. Dorothy was assigned to the 807th MAES, as was Agnes, with initial home base in North Africa. When half of the flight nurses and half of the air evac technicians in her squadron were flown to Italy to begin transporting patients from Bari, Dorothy was not among them; Agnes was, and her experiences on the ill-fated flight will be the subject of the next Blog.
Dorothy and the remaining 807 MAES flight nurses essentially did double duty until their squadron mates returned. The plane had gone down in Albania, but all the crew escaped safely. After a month, the squadron knew they were alive but not when they would return. Dorothy continues the story:
So, we just looked – many times standing on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, and you’d look across, and you knew they were over there someplace. And it was like you were willing them to come home and making a bridge – a little air bridge sort of like a rainbow – so that they could climb over. But it was a very bad time for us, but we still worked so hard during that time. The work, of course, helped us to get through it. But in the back of your mind, you always knew – you just kind of had this tight feeling between your shoulder blades – that, Where are they? How are they? How are they surviving? Is everybody all right?
Their homecoming at the mess hall where the remaining squadron members were gathered for lunch was a joyous occasion.
Dorothy’s comment about flight nursing – “So I knew what I wanted, and I went after it, and I got it” – sums up her work as a flight nurse. Whether stranded in Naples with a planeload of patients, or on board with a load of psychiatric patients between Bari and Malta at night when St Elmo’s fire mimicked fire on the wings, or fashioning an oxygen-delivery system from a funnel and a rectal tube for a patient with a sucking chest wound, or faced with an aircraft in Italy that had just offloaded a cargo of mules, or with an aircraft interior covered with glossy photos of nudes, she took the bull by the horns – or in the case of the photos, a box of Band-Aides – and did something about it. Dorothy died in 2015 at age 95.
To listen to my interview with Dorothy Errair, click on the link:
Interviewed 24 May 1986, Cocoa Beach, FL
Learn more about my interview with Dorothy Errair on the Blog for 4 July 2016.
To be continued