Flight Nurses of World War II

Before World War II, women’s positions in the military were limited. With the changing times of World War II, modern warfare called for a more active and present role for women in the Armed Forces. Not only were droves of women volunteering for nursing, but also their skills were needed across the board! From office, clerical jobs to truck drivers, airplane mechanics and laboratory technicians, radio operators, test pilots, to the new occupation of flight nursing, women’s roles in the military were vital to victory.
Flight Nurses in Guam, WWII
Flight nurses were introduced into the US Army Air Force in 1942. The new program, the School of Air Evacuation, began in the fall of 1942 at Bowman Field, Louisville, Kentucky and ran for six to nine weeks, eventually moving to Randolph Field, Texas in October 1944. Training was disorganized at best, a few squadrons even deployed overseas before training was officially over for them. The first group of flight nurses to complete the full course graduated in February 1943. Training consisted of aero-medical physiology, field survival, map reading, crash procedures, and physical conditioning.

A flight surgeon and chief nurse were assigned to each Medical Air Evacuation Squadron.  Each squad was then divided into four flights consisting of six teams of flight nurses and surgical technicians. Cooks, clerks, and drivers were situated at headquarters section.

Typical Uniform:
– White dress or skirted suit, not user friendly
– Eventually adopted a waist-length gray-blue jacket and matching trousers/skirt, with a white or light blue blouse
– In 1944, colors changed to olive drab
– The insignia was a pair of golden wings with a maroon N in the middle. Later changed to silver.

Duties of a Flight Nurse:

Evacuation Flight, WWII
Flight nurses were truly unique for their time. Not only did they operate under their own authority, they outranked the male surgical technician that accompanied them. Believe it or not, in the 1940s, only trained physicians could start IV’s and oxygen on a patient, but the flight nurses were doing it on their own and in hostile and dangerous environments. They also had to deal with extreme medical emergencies, including shock, hemorrhage, and sedation.
As with any military profession at the time, flight nursing did not come without its risks and dangers. Those brave women had to keep the fighting men alive while combating the dangers in the air over the European and Pacific theaters. Many women were taken as POWs after crash landing behind enemy lines. In all, sixteen flight nurses were killed during the war. “Through professionalism and courage, the women who served as flight nurses in World War II saved many hundreds of lives and comforted over a million sick and wounded servicemen.” – Sarah Sundin

Our Very Own Angel of the Airfields: Evelyn Kowalchuk
Like many women, Evelyn felt compelled to serve her country during the war, by taking care of the men who volunteered to fight for their democracy and freedom. When she volunteered, nobody could answer her question of what flight nursing was, but she viewed it as an adventure and began training in Kentucky on C-46 and C-47 cargo planes transformed into ‘flying ambulances’. She used to joke about how many times their uniforms changed throughout the war and how disorganized it was for them. During training, she and the twenty-four other girls living in one quonset hut with only one bathroom, with one toilet and one sink! She has said before that it was a team effort; everyone helped each other because they were all partaking in something unheard of in modern warfare.
Evelyn Kowalchuk in uniform.
When training was over, the women were sent to England. From there they were sent on various missions to retrieve badly wounded soldiers. Evelyn landed on Omaha Beach on D plus 3. She recalled that many of the nurses had never seen such horrific wounds before in their lives. Many men had to be treated immediately, so they could not be properly cleaned off or even remove clothing before their limb was amputated. Each time they went back to England, the flight nurses were to get on another fully stocked plane and travel back to retrieve more men. Jeeps and ambulances had to be ready for their return to take the wounded to the hospital as soon as possible. Fighter pilots were the only ones able to fly them back and forth; however, if it was too late, the nurses had to sleep on the beaches in the plane. Evelyn even spent a night in a foxhole on Omaha Beach. She remembers hearing the bombs and guns in the distance. It was hard for her and the other nurses to reconcile with the fact that so many young men would live the rest of their lives without their limbs.
After the day was done, it was rare when the women would talk about the events and scenes of the day; they carried on and pushed forward. “We were patriotic”, said Evelyn. Whenever she and her ‘sisters’ would get together throughout the years for various events, they never really discussed the extraordinary and horrific events they all went through, they wanted to look forward and continue living their lives, proud of their past.
Take care,
P.S- Are you are interested in learning more about Evelyn? If so, go to the February 2013 post entitled, “Voices by Land, Air, and Sea: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Were There”, where you can watch a video interview with Evelyn!

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