Medical Air Evacuation in World War II—Part 3

I am so so pleased to host amazing author and fellow research hound, Sarah Sundin, back to Redwood’s this week. Sarah is a fabulous historical author whose novels highlight the WWII era. This week she is discussing her research into medical air evacuation and flight nursing.

Sarah has also graciously agreed to give away one copy of her newest release, With Every Letter, to once commentor on any of this weeks posts. Simply leave a comment with your e-mail address. Must live in the USA. Drawing will be midnight, Saturday September 29th. Winner anounced here at Redwood’s Sunday, September 30th.

Welcome back, Sarah!

The broad grin on the private’s face didn’t reveal how serious his condition was. “Hiya, nursey.”

“Lieutenant,” Mellie said, but she smiled back. “How are you feeling?”

“Depends. How many girls you got at that hospital in Algiers?”

“Oh, not one of them is good enough for you.”

“She wears a skirt, she’s good enough.”

Mellie clucked her tongue. “Too bad. All the women wear trousers.”

In my novel With Every Letter, the heroine serves as a flight nurse. If you’re writing a novel set during World War II, a soldier character may get sick or wounded, and you might need to understand medical air evacuation.

On September 24th I discussed general principles of air evacuation, on September 26th we followed one patient in his flight experience, and today we’ll meet the flight nurse.


The profession of flight nursing began in World War II. The US Army Air Force started the first training program at Bowman Field in Louisville, Kentucky in the fall of 1942. Training was haphazard at this point, and the first two squadrons (the 801st and 802nd) were sent overseas before training was complete. The formal program ran six to nine weeks, changing throughout the war. The first class of flight nurses graduated in February 1943.

The program was named the School of Air Evacuation in June 1943 and moved from Bowman Field to Randolph Field, Texas in October 1944. The US Navy started a flight nursing program in December 1944 in Alameda, California.

In training, the nurses studied academic subjects such as aeromedical physiology. They also learned field survival, map-reading, camouflage, ditching and crash procedures, and the use of the parachute. The program included calisthenics, physical conditioning, and a bivouac in the field with simulated enemy attack.


Each Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron (MAETS) was headed by a flight surgeon and chief nurse. The MAETS was divided into four flights, each led by a flight surgeon and composed of six teams of flight nurses and surgical technicians. A Headquarters section included clerks, cooks, and drivers.


The typical Army Nurse Corps uniform of white dress or a skirted suit uniform did not work in flight. Although some resisted—including in ANC leadership—the women were allowed to wear trousers. The first few squadrons improvised uniforms, often cutting down the dark blue ANC service jacket and purchasing trousers. Eventually an official flight nurse uniform was authorized—a waist-length gray-blue jacket and matching trousers and skirt, with a light blue or white blouse. Depending on the climate, nurses also wore the combat airman’s heavy flight gear.

The official insignia of the flight nurse was a pair of golden wings with a maroon N superimposed. These wings were changed to silver later in the war.


The role of the flight nurse was revolutionary. No physician accompanied her on the flight, and she outranked the male surgical technician, who worked under her authority. She was trained to start IVs and oxygen, tasks reserved for physicians at the time. In addition, she was trained to deal with medical emergencies including shock, hemorrhage, and sedation. One flight nurse even performed an emergency tracheotomy using improvised equipment.


The primary responsibility for the lives of the patients rested on the shoulders of the flight nurses. Their emergency training was put into use in many cases throughout the war. Flight nurses and technicians successfully evacuated patients into life rafts after a ditching in the Pacific, unloaded patients from a burning plane after crash landing in North Africa, and loaded patients under enemy fire in the jungles of Burma.

One flight nurse was taken prisoner briefly by the Germans after crashing behind enemy lines, and another parachuted to safety in the mountains of China. In one dramatic incident, a plane carrying a dozen nurses from Sicily to Italy was blown off course and crash landed in Nazi-occupied Albania. With the help of their survival training and Albanian partisans, the crew and nurses all evaded capture and crossed snowy mountains to be rescued at the coast—a two-month ordeal.

Seventeen flight nurses lost their lives during the war. Lt. Ruth Gardiner, 805thMAETS (pictured), was the first flight nurse killed, in a plane crash in Alaska.

Through professionalism and courage, the five hundred 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 is the author of the Wings of Glory series from Revell: A Distant Melody (March 2010), A Memory Between Us (September 2010), and Blue Skies Tomorrow (August 2011). She has a doctorate in pharmacy from UC San Francisco and works on-call as a hospital pharmacist.

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