An evacuation plane could be loaded and airborne within 10 minutes, usually with one flight nurse and one medical technician. A flight surgeon briefed the nurse on each patient's condition prior to takeoff, and during the flight she was responsible for the safety and comfort of the patients. Here, Lt. Katye Swope checks patients being evacuated from Sicily to Africa for further medical treatment in July 1943. (U.S. Air Force photo)
A medical technician and a flight nurse (lower right corner) tend to patients on a C-54 aircraft. The C-54 allowed larger numbers of patients to be air evacuated great distances. (Photo courtesy AFRL Research Division)
Before World War II, the U.S. military showed little interest in using aircraft and flight nurses to evacuate wounded soldiers to rear areas. The global war, however, forced the U.S. Army Air Forces to revolutionize military medical care through the development of air evacuation (later known as aeromedical evacuation) and flight nurses.
The rapid expansion of USAAF air transportation routes around the world made it possible to fly wounded and sick servicemen quickly to fully-equipped hospitals far from the front lines. This revolution saved the lives of many wounded men, and the introduction of flight nurses helped make it possible.
In early 1942, airlift units in Alaska, Burma and New Guinea successfully evacuated patients using the same transport aircraft that had carried men and supplies to the front. Due to a pressing need, the USAAF created medical air evacuation squadrons and started a rush training program for flight surgeons, enlisted medical technicians, and flight nurses at Bowman Field, near Louisville, Ky.
The need for flight nurses became critical after the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, but the women at Bowman Field had not finished their training. Nevertheless, the USAAF sent these nurses to North Africa on Christmas Day.
On Feb. 18, 1943, the U.S. Army Nurse Corps' first class of flight nurses formally graduated at Bowman Field. 2nd Lt. Geraldine Dishroon, the honor graduate, received the first wings presented to a flight nurse. In 1944, Dishroon served on the first air evacuation team to land on Omaha Beach after the D-Day invasion.
Since the aircraft used for air evacuation also transported military supplies, they could not display the Red Cross. With no markings to indicate their non-combat status, these evacuation flights were vulnerable to enemy attacks. For this reason, flight nurses and medical technicians were volunteers.
To prepare for any emergency, flight nurses learned crash procedures, received survival training, and studied the effects of high altitude on various types of patients. In addition, flight nurses had to be in top physical condition to care for patients during these rigorous flights.
Eventually, about 500 Army nurses served as members of 31 medical air evacuation transport squadrons operating worldwide. It is a tribute to their skill that of the 1,176,048 patients air evacuated throughout the war, only 46 died en route. Seventeen flight nurses lost their lives during the war.
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