Tuesday, September 9, 2014
Service in the Air
Even with all the hassles that can be associated with traveling by plane – crowds, long security lines, lost luggage, delays, etc. - I love to fly. I'm not brave enough to get my pilot's wings, but I do enjoy being a passenger. The longest trip I ever took was from Washington, DC to Hawaii during which we had one stop in Los Angeles to refuel. However, my journey is nothing compared to the arduous adventure experienced by 2nd Lt. Elsie Ott in 1943 when she was the lone nurse on the first aerovac flight.
Elsie was born in 1913 in the tiny hamlet of Smithtown, New York and went into nursing after high school. She received her degree from Lenox Hill Hospital School of Nursing and held positions in several New York hospitals. In September, 1941 she joined the Army Nurse Corps and after stints in Louisiana and Virginia, Elsie was assigned to the 159th Station Hospital in Karachi, India, located on the Arabian Sea coastline, an area with little rainfall except during the monsoon season.
The Army recognized the necessity of getting wounded soldiers from the battle front to hospitals in order to save lives, but many in command felt that evacuation by air was neither feasible nor economical. The Army Air Force continued to push for a battalion of “Air Ambulances” on which patients could by-pass terrain obstacles, thus preventing further injury and getting them the medical help they needed sooner.
In January 1943, after months of meetings and discussions, authorities decided to test the evacuation system with an 11,000 miles flight from India to Washington, DC – now that's a test! By all reports, Elsie was given twenty-four hours to prepare for the trip on which she would tend five critically ill patients destined for Walter Reed Hospital; two of whom were paralyzed from the waist down, one of whom suffered from tuberculosis, another with glaucoma and the last who suffered manic-depressive psychosis. Despite the fact she had no flying experience or information on the condition of the victims, Elsie pulled together the supplies for the trip.
The plane made multiple stops to refuel including Salala and Aden, Saudi Arabia; Khartoum and El Fasher, Egyptian Sudan; Ascension Islands; Natal and Belem, Brazil; Borinquen, Puerto Rico and Morrison Air Field in Florida. The plane landed at Bolling Air Field in Washington, DC on January 23, 1943 – a “mere” six days after take-off - a trip that would have normally taken three months by ship.
Considered a rousing success, this flight was the first of many to come. Elsie's suggestions for future trips: oxygen, more wound dressing supplies, extra coffee and blankets. She also noted that “wearing a skirt was impractical for this kind of duty.” I must say I agree!
Two months later, Elsie received the first U.S. Air Medal given to a woman in the Army. The Air Medal was created by President Roosevelt in 1942 for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. Elsie was sent back to India in October, 1943 where she served with the 803rd Military Air Evacuation Squad. She was soon promoted to Captain and eventually discharged in 1946. In 1965, she was selected to christen a new type of air ambulance, the C-9 Nightingale, the only aircraft specifically designed for the movement of litter and ambulatory patients. Elsie had certainly come a long way!
What's the longest journey you've ever taken?
A freelance writer for over ten years, Linda Matchett also writes historical fiction. She is currently seeking a publisher for her series about war correspondent Ruth Brown. Visit her at www.lindashentonmatchett.com