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Patriotic Article
By Van E. Harl

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WWII Flight Nurse
(May 30, 2010)

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The movie Saving Private Ryan looked real to her, and Army Air Force Flight Nurse Lieutenant Merilys Brown would know since she was one of the first females on Omaha Beach just days after the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion of France.

As soon as the Allies got a toe-hold the combat engineers with their bulldozer tanks started to blade out a crude airstrip just above the beach. They laid down the metal interlocking Marston matting and the first US combat runway was put into action on French soil. Because the C-47s hauled in combat troops and equipment they could not paint red crosses on the sides of the planes. So when the aircraft lifted off of Omaha Beach they were not protected under the Geneva Convention as non-combat medical planes.

The dreaded German 88mm artillery continued to fire onto Omaha Beach even days after they had been routed from the waterline. A makeshift tent hospital was set up next to the runway and the injured allies, as well as German troops were triaged to determine who was seriously wounded enough to be flown back to England, but not so serious that they would die in transit. Medical evacuation from the battlefield by air was brand new to the Army.

Prior to WWII the wounded were taken from the fight in trucks, field ambulances, and even the venerable old two wheeled handcart. The primary problem with these older forms of transport was the lack of speed in getting the injured to the rear area. Moving the wounded to hospitals that had surgeons, life saving drugs, and cleanliness – something that could not be found in an active combat zone.

The first class of Army Flight Nurses completed training in February of 1943. Aeromedical Evacuation was used by the US military in North Africa but the wounded troops were picked up from rear area hospitals out of harm's way. The landings on Omaha Beach were the first time in the European Theater that C-47s with one Flight Nurse and one medical technician was flown into a hot combat zone to get the wounded out of France and back across the English Channel. Some wounded were flown to Allied hospitals in England but many of the airfields were too busy with bomber and fighter missions being flown round the clock to deal with the off loading of the injured.

A thousand-bed field hospital was established in Prestwick, Scotland and the C-47s were flown directly to it after clearing French airspace. In the first days after D-Day a single C-47 Air Evac crew could fly three missions off Omaha Beach in a day. Lieutenant Brown was temporarily posted at Prestwick to fly C-54 Air Evac missions out of Scotland using that vital air bridge, transporting the wounded on a thirteen hour flight back to New York. Many of these wound patients had never been away from home before joining the Army, never been wounded in combat and never been on an airplane. All three created increased stress factors for the Flight Nurses on the long trip to the States.

Over one million patients were evacuated by air during WWII, with 4,707 wounded transported in one day. In WWI all the wounded returned to the US on troop ships and actual military hospital ships. In WWII, one fifth of all patients returned to the States by Air Evacuation.

Speed saves lives in combat. The Army Air Force had 500 Flight Nurses and formed 31 Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadrons to meet the needs of the seriously wounded in WWII. They flew in all theaters of operations during WWII. After Germany surrendered, the Evac Units in Europe were re-directed to the Pacific to transport the wounded during the impending invasion of the Japanese mainland.

I met now retired Captain (Army equivalent Colonel) Merilys Brown of the US Public Health Commissioned Corps at the Labor Day weekend 2007 convention in Colorado Springs of the WWII Flight Nurses Association and the Society of Air Force Nurses. There were seven combat tested, WWII nursing aircrew members at the convention. They are always looking for their fellow WWII Flight Nurses. or 248-623-7883 will put you in contact with this wonderful veteran's organization. These Nurses aimed high before the phrase was fashionable. They set the standard for today's Air Force medical evacuation flying missions. If you were wounded in combat during WWII or any conflict since and made it home, you most likely need to thank a Flight Nurse.
Van E. HarlBy Van E. Harl
Copyright 2007

About Author:
Major Van E. Harl, USAF Ret., was a career police officer in the U.S. Air Force. He was the Deputy Chief of police at two Air Force Bases and the Commander of Law Enforcement Operations at another. Major Harl is a graduate of the U.S. Army Infantry School, the Air Force Squadron Officer School and the Air Command and Staff College. After retiring from the Air Force he was a state police officer in Nevada.

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