The Nurses and Medics of the 807th
More than ninety personnel of the newly formed 807th Medical Air EvacuationTransport Squadron (MAETS) piled into two railroad cars in Louisville, Kentucky,on a sweltering afternoon in the second week of August 1943. As sweat soakedthrough their summer uniforms, the group, including twenty-five female nurses,stashed their heavy field packs and settled into their assigned seats. Theofficers, including the nurses, sat in one car, while the enlisted men wereassigned to another. Both groups talked with the new friends they'd made overthe last few months in Louisville; but with officers and enlisted men prohibitedfrom fraternizing, many in the squadron were almost strangers as they startedtheir journey to uncertain fates overseas.
As new members of the Army Air Forces' MAETS, the men and women were part of aninnovative program that transported the wounded and sick from hospitals near thefrontlines to better-equipped medical facilities for additional care. In thecourse of the war, the MAETS would move more than one million troops, with onlyforty-six patients dying in flight. It was so successful that in 1945, Generalof the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower deemed air evacuation as important as otherWorld War II medical innovations, including sulfa drugs, penicillin, bloodplasma, and whole blood, and credited it with saving thousands of lives.
Among those on board was the 807th's commanding officer, thirty-six-year-oldCapt. William P. McKnight. A medical doctor just over six feet tall with a shockof sandy-red hair and a mustache, McKnight was known for quietly but effectivelyenforcing his authority and was well-respected by the men and women of hissquadron. McKnight and the four other doctors in the 807th had been trained asflight surgeons at the School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field, Texas,before arriving at Bowman Field Air Base in Louisville and joining the new 807thjust a few months before. Despite their titles as flight surgeons, their primaryduty when they arrived overseas would be to serve as liaisons between airfieldsand forward hospitals and to screen patients brought for transport to make sureit was medically safe for them to travel.
First Lt. Grace Stakeman, a thirty-year-old blonde from Terre Haute, Indiana,nicknamed "Teach" by the young women who reported to her, was also finding herseat on the stifling train. As the 807th's head nurse, Stakeman was in charge ofthe squadron's twenty-four other flight nurses, all second lieutenants who weretrained as nurses before joining the military. Like Stakeman, the nurses wereallotted relative rank, which, since 1920, had given nurses the status ofofficers and allowed them to wear insignia but at half the pay of their malecounterparts, though as flight nurses they earned an extra sixty dollars permonth. Military nurses would be awarded full but temporary rank in 1944 andpermanent rank in 1947. Though Stakeman's delicate features gave her a somewhatfragile appearance, she, like the other nurses drawn to volunteer for the Army,was far from frail. After recovering from a car accident in her early twentiesthat broke six of her vertebrae and required her to wear a full-body cast, shehad joined the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) more determined than ever to help others.
The squadron also included twenty-four enlisted men who had just been trained asmedics and been promoted to the rank of technician third grade, or T/3. Themedics came from a variety of backgrounds and places, with some just out of highschool and others with a host of jobs under their belts. While some hadenlisted, others had been drafted. The rest of the 807th was made up of amedical administrative corps officer in charge of supplies and dozens ofenlisted men who would serve as the squadron's cooks, clerks, and drivers andheld ranks between private and master sergeant.
Twenty-one-year-old Harold Hayes, a reserved but inquisitive medic with wire-rimmedglasses, dark hair, and a deep voice that rivaled any radio announcer's,sat in the enlisted men's car and was as anxious as the rest of the squadron tolearn of their destination overseas. They were now headed to their port ofembarkation, where they would undergo last-minute preparations before shippingout.
Hayes had volunteered for the 807th after working under McKnight at a dispensaryat Bowman Field Air Base and was one of the first four medics to join thesquadron. He and the three other young men sitting in the car that morning hadbecome fast friends. Twenty-year-old Robert "Bob" Owen from Walden, New York,was a tall, lean, and handsome young man with hazel eyes who still looked likethe star high school football player he'd been only a few years before and whosefavorite topic of conversation was "Red," the beautiful woman he'd recently metat a USO club in Louisville and would eventually marry. John Wolf from Glidden,Wisconsin, twenty-one years old, was a quiet outdoorsman and avid hunter who hadmarried at seventeen. The oldest at twenty-three and the shortest at just fivefoot six was Lawrence "Larry" Abbott from Newaygo, Michigan, whose childhoodnickname was "Windy" because he liked to talk so much. The four had been nearlyinseparable at Bowman and spent their free time swimming, watching movies,drinking beer at Louisville bars, and attending USO dances. These new friendsreferred to one another fondly as Brother Owen, Brother Wolf, and Brother Hayes,while Owen dubbed Abbott "Little Orville," a reference to his middle name andshort stature.
Agnes Jensen, a twenty-eight-year-old brunette with blue eyes and highcheekbones, from Stanwood, Michigan, took her place in the car reserved for the807th's officers. Nicknamed "Jens," she and Helen Porter, another fresh-facednurse who was two months shy of turning thirty, from Hanksville, Utah, had beenlast-minute additions to the 807th after being reassigned from another squadronjust ten days earlier. The two considered it a lucky break that they would getto travel overseas earlier than expected.
Also among the nurses was twenty-seven-year-old Eugenie "Jean" Rutkowski, aformer airline stewardess raised in Detroit, who had joined the military in Mayafter her fiancé went missing while ferrying a plane to England. Nearby wasnewly married twenty-three-year-old Lois Watson, a blonde with hazel eyes fromChicago, Illinois. Watson had been a senior in nursing school with plans tobecome a stewardess when hundreds of Japanese planes attacked the American navalbase at Pearl Harbor, trying to destroy the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet. She andthe rest of the country had reeled from the shock and horror of the assault,which left thousands dead, including one of the residents she used to go with ondouble dates. When she and her father had stopped in an enlistment center indowntown Chicago only to inquire about her joining the Army, she signed up.
By the following December, Watson had found herself at Camp McCoy in Wisconsinand away from home for the first time. Within days of arriving, she met NolanMcKenzie, the young man she would marry just a few months later. Both wereinterested in flying, and he left in April for training to become a B-25 pilot,while she joined the MAETS in May.
All of the 807th's nurses and medics had just completed a six-week trainingcourse in air evacuation at Bowman Field Air Base and were ready to put theirskills into practice. The air evacuation program—the first of its kindanywhere in the world—was only months old. The first two MAETS squadrons,the 801st and 802nd, had been activated in early December 1942 and were indemand before they could even finish the training the Army Air Forces (AAF) hadrushed to put together. The 802nd had begun its journey to North Africa onChristmas Day, while the 801st left for New Caledonia in the South Pacific inJanuary.
By the time the 807th started its training, the nurses' program includedeverything from aeromedical physiology and enemy plane identification tochemical warfare and religious procedures in an emergency. They were taughtsurvival skills for the arctic, the jungle, and the desert to prepare them forwherever the war might take them and learned how to unload patients in the eventof a water landing. To give them experience in the air, the nurses were flownover the Ohio River. Watson kept telling herself "I won't get airsick" as oneflight twisted and turned so much that one of the nurses became ill. To learnwhat happened to the body without oxygen at ten thousand to fifteen thousandfeet, they were put into a low-pressure chamber and watched the dizzying effectson one brave volunteer who went in without an oxygen mask. These trainingprocedures were powerful reminders of the challenges they would face in the airas the unpressurized transport planes traveled at a range of heights and in avariety of weather conditions.
Physical training was as important as the lectures and demonstrations, and thenurses performed daily exercises and long marches, where they were sometimespelted with flour bombs in simulated air attacks to teach them to take cover.Military drills included navigating obstacle courses that required them to crawlunder barbed wire with live machine-gun fire overhead, first on their stomachsand then on their backs. As they practiced on one particularly hot and humidKentucky day, Watson watched as several of the nurses struggled to finish andpassed out on the course after completing it.
Unlike the very first flight nurses, the women of the 807th didn't have to fightto be able to wear pants rather than skirts as part of their uniforms. Monthsearlier, Col. Florence Blanchfield, the assistant superintendent of the ANC, hadordered flight nurses who were wearing the more practical men's one-piece flightsuits without authorization back into their regulation skirts. That policychanged after Blanchfield showed up at Bowman Field wearing the popular "pinksand greens" dress uniform, an olive-drab jacket with a taupe skirt. Having neverflown before, the colonel accepted the offer of a demonstration flight. As sheawkwardly tried to put on the required parachute while wearing a skirt, thenurses on board explained to her that she would only need to lace it intoposition in an emergency. Soon after takeoff, the plane experienced enginetrouble and the pilot announced that all on board should prepare to jump.Blanchfield fumbled with fastening her parachute until the pilot was able torestart the engine. Shortly after, flight nurses were allowed to forgo theirskirts and were given slate-blue uniforms consisting of short Eisenhower jacketswith waistbands and matching pants and caps.
Unlike the nurses, the medics, all enlisted men, had received basic militarytraining before volunteering for the air evacuation program. Their specializedinstruction in air evacuation covered some of the same material the nurses'program did, including survival skills and additional physical conditioning; buttheir medical experience, which included working with the nurses for a few weeksin local hospitals, was limited mostly to first aid. Their main focus waslearning how to quickly and smoothly load and unload patients, which would beone of their primary tasks. To test their skills and to have a little fun, themedics in the various squadrons often challenged one another to see who couldload and unload planes the fastest on practice runs. The 807th couldn't be beat.
Though air evacuation was still new in 1943, medical evacuation itself had onlybeen around since the Civil War. In 1862, the medical director of the Union Armyof the Potomac, Maj. Jonathan Letterman, created a system to manage masscasualties, which included first-aid stations on battlefields, mobile fieldhospitals, and ambulance services. In late August 1862, it took a week to removeinjured soldiers from the battlefield at Second Manassas, with many young mensuccumbing to their injuries as they waited alone and in pain for help to come.Less than a month later, the Battle of Antietam left twenty-three thousandcasualties after twelve hours of bloody combat. With Letterman's new triagesystem in place, medical personnel were able to remove all injured soldiers fromthe field within twenty-four hours. Though the lifesaving system was refinedduring the Spanish-American War, it remained virtually unchanged until the ageof the airplane.
In 1910, seven years after the Wright brothers made the world's first successfulpowered flight at Kitty Hawk and one year after the Army received its firstplane, Capt. George H. R. Gosman and Lt. Albert L. Rhoades built an aircraft forthe sole purpose of transporting wounded soldiers from the battlefield to thehospital. Though the plane they built crashed during its test flight and the WarDepartment turned down Gosman's pleas for financial assistance, the idea of anair ambulance had been born.
Despite the advantages of rapid evacuation that air ambulances could offer,concerns regarding the safety of planes, a technology still in its infancy,would linger for years to come. When Col. A. W. Williams, a retired Armyofficer, recommended at a meeting of the Association of Military Surgeons inNovember 1912 that the airplane be used to evacuate patients, the Baltimore Sunresponded with an editorial stating, "the hazard of being severely wounded issufficient without the additional hazard of transportation by airplane."
Undaunted by the risks, French physicians and aviation enthusiasts beganexploring the use of air ambulances, even proposing a monoplane that carriedpatients in a box under the fuselage. When French military surgeon Dr. EugeneChassaing asked for government funds to develop a modified plane, one criticresponded, "Are there not enough dead in France today without killing thewounded in airplanes?" Chassaing persevered, however, and using a Dorand AR.2, aFrench observation biplane, he designed a side opening that allowed room for twostretchers to be placed in the fuselage behind the pilot. In April 1918, two ofhis planes helped evacuate wounded from Flanders, marking the first successfuluse of air evacuation on specially equipped aircraft, a victory that helpedensure air evacuation's future.
Though most of the world had been at war since 1914, the United States didn'tofficially enter the fray until April 1917. With the rush to train thousands ofnew pilots at temporary flying fields in the States, the inexperienced flyboyscrashed regularly, and getting medical care to the injured proved difficultbecause of poor roads. A surgeon was typically flown to the accident scene andprovided medical care on site before transporting the flier to a base hospitalin a motor ambulance over bumpy and unpaved roads. It took hours to deliver apatient, and many died along the way.
By 1918, Capt. William C. Ocker, the officer in charge of flight training atGerstner Field in Louisiana, and reserve medical officer Maj. Wilson E. Drivermodified a standard Curtiss JN-4, a biplane called a "Jenny," to allow the craftto carry a patient in a litter, or stretcher, in the rear cockpit. That sameyear, they transported the first patient to be flown by plane in the UnitedStates. News of their success traveled, and air service personnel at nearbyTexas airfields replicated their efforts and made their own modifications. OnJuly 23, the Director of the Air Service ordered all flying fields in the UnitedStates to employ air ambulances.
Overseas, however, the U.S. Army Medical Department continued to evacuate troopsusing litter bearers, horse-drawn and motor ambulances, and hospital trains.Many patients, who frequently couldn't be moved from trenches until dark,suffered long and difficult journeys over war-torn roads to get to a hospital.
When the war ended, several European countries continued experimenting with airevacuation and developed equipment and procedures for transporting casualties.The U.S. military, however, still continued to favor ground evacuation. In May1921, the War Department stated, "In case of accident, the use of airplanes forthe transportation of sick and wounded soldiers, when other safer means oftransportation is available, could not be justified."
Excerpted from The Secret Rescue by Cate Lineberry. Copyright © 2013 Cate Lineberry. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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