Flying Angels: The Unsung Heroes of World War II

Once again, my journey through history has branched into an area previously unknown to me. As is the ‘norm’ of late, a short snorter piqued my interest and led me down this particular path. I picked up this particular short snorter because it featured the signatures of Brigadier Generals Henry Benton Sayler & Robert C Mason along with that of OSS Captain Temple Fielding (Fielding’s Guide to Europe). These names are impressive, and I will start my journey with a brief bio of each, but more impressive to me was the name Edith Jackson. When acquiring this note, the seller noted that Edith Jackson was a Flight Nurse with the Medical Air Evacuation Transport System (MAETS) and flew over 50 missions behind enemy lines at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge among many other European Theater battle grounds. While researching Edith Jackson, I found a dearth of information surrounding the nurses who volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way in order to save the lives of our soldiers in the field. In fact, these courageous women did not begin to gain mainstream recognition until the mid-1980s.

The concept of air evacuation of soldiers wounded in battle was conceived shortly after the first successful flights made by the Wright Brothers. Over the period between the Great Wars, the air transport planes evolved from simple conversions of commercial aircraft to specialty air craft. However, these early models could not accommodate more than four to six wounded – some of which had to sit rather than lie in a stretcher. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1938) saw the first execution of mass air evacuation of wounded soldiers when the Germans used converted transport planes. This provided a spark of ingenuity to Dr Richard Meiling who was studying in Germany at the time. When he returned to the States, he was commissioned in the US Army as the Air Evacuation Officer, a title that he would solely own in the history of US military aviation. The first Medical Air Ambulance Squadron was authorized on 19 November 1941, consisting of a single headquarters and three aircraft medical squadrons. The initial response to the idea of assigning flight nurses to air evacuation transports was met with the typical chauvinistic attitude of the era in regards to women in the military. The pool of qualified candidates was quite extensive due to a specific requirement of nursing qualifications for stewardesses on commercial aircraft. General David N Grant, Air Surgeon, was finally able to push an urgent appeal through to train nurses for the Army Air Forces Evacuation Services late in 1942. The first group of Flight Nurses graduated from Bowman Field, KY on 18 February 1943. It should be noted that these doctors, nurses, and flight crews were flying into and out of hot combat zones in unmarked C-46, C-47, & C-54 troop transport planes – often without fighter escort. Not only did they place themselves in harm’s way treating and loading the wounded soldiers onto their aircraft, they were subject to aerial assault by enemy forces.

Prior to Operation Overlord, the MAETS Squadrons were assigned  Troop Carrier Commands. On D-Day plus four, the squadron began evacuation of the Normandy wounded. As the Army fought forward into German held territories, the C-47’s would fly in necessary supplies and the medical crews. After the supplies were off-loaded, the Flight Nurses and Corpsmen converted the C-47 to receive ambulatory and litter patients. Often times, when this conversion was being done, the medical crew was performing under intense enemy fire and bombing. With emphasis on the crucial time elements, the aircraft was converted and patients loaded. The pilots of the C-47s had to fly at treetop level to avoid detection and often did not have fighter escort. This cycle would continue until all the wounded were transported. As the war progressed, MAETS squadrons would follow the ground troops on the front lines as the Allied Forces stormed to Paris and Berlin. These same processes were in operation during the North Africa Campaign, Italian Campaign, and Throughout the Pacific Theater. These brave women served bravely alongside their surgeons in the field and flight crew in the air. They held the highest regard for their wounded brothers. The women that I found on this particular short snorter served behind the lines at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge along with the steady fight from the beaches to Paris and Berlin. To the soldiers in their care they were angels of mercy. To their following generations, they were the unknown inspiration for the ever advancing areas of field medicine such as the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) Units that were first utilized during the era of the Korean Conflict. However, these pioneers remain as a piece of lost or forgotten history. They never wanted glory or accolades, their mission was to bring every possible soldier home. For this we can never thank them enough.

I would like to personally thank all members of the MAETS program, without these brave souls, many generations of Americans would not have lived the memories of time with loved ones. Edith Lewis flew over 50 missions during the war, all to front line units like Normandy.

Names and units from my Short Snorter (married names in parenthesis)

Edith Jackson (Mize-Lewis);Gary IN;2nd LT;816th
Leona Winwood;Bellingham WA;2nd LT;815th
Merilys Porter (Brown);Green Valley AZ;2nd LT;816th
Evelyn Anderson (Taylor);Fort Meyers FL;Major;810th
Gertrude Cruthirds;2nd LT;810th
Geraldine (Jinny) Lysne;2nd LT;822nd
Eva Croce;Livermore CA;2nd LT;810th
Julia Burgess;2nd LT;810th
Elanor Reed;Grove City PA;2nd LT;817th
Grace (Kit) Kethcart (Rooley);Hermitage TN;2nd LT;816th
Margaret Langdon (Wood);Batavia IL;2nd LT;811th
Jennie G Swanson;2nd LT;822nd
Helen Louise Janek (Jasik);Waco TX;LT Col;819th
Alice T (Mickie) McClelland;Chicago IL;2nd LT;822nd
Cleo Marie Swann (Hiam);2nd LT;2nd LT;822nd
Louise Hancock (Smith);2nd LT;822nd

For some basic information and a list of known Flight Nurses, visit the  Legends of Flight Nurses

Brigadier General Henry Benton Sayler :

With the United States entry into the War, Sayler’s old West Point Classmate, now Commanding General of the U.S. Forces in the European Theater of Operations, Dwight D. Eisenhower, appointed him as Chief Ordnance Officer of ETO. In this capacity, Eisenhower tasked him to plan, assemble, and execute the logistical support for the North African invasion.During D-Day invasion he solved many problems which include waterproofing of vehicles and disposing bombs which didn’t explode. Due to his great work at that time, U.S. Forces was one of the best equipped fighting force in the history of warfare.

Brigadier General Robert C Macon :

In April 1942, Macon, now a colonel, took command of the 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. He commanded the regiment during Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa in November 1942, and the subsequent occupation of French Morocco. In February 1943, he was promoted to brigadier general.

In April 1943, Brigadier General Macon was appointed as assistant division commander of the 83rd Infantry Division. He succeeded Frank W. Milburn as commanding general of the division in January 1944 and was promoted to major general on June 1, 1944.

Major General Macon commanded the 83rd Infantry Division during operations in Normandy, including Operation Cobra and the drive on Saint-Malo. The division then screened the Allied advance along the Loire River Valley, and accepted the surrender of 20,000 German troops at Beaugency. The division drove through Lorraine and into Luxembourg, and then fought in the Battle of the Bulge. In 1945, the division advanced through Germany and linked up with Soviet troops on the Elbe in April.

OSS Captain Temple Fielding:
Temple Fielding was a noted travel writer. During World War II, he was a psyop operative in Europe under the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Morale Operations Branch (MO) unit, 2677th Regiment OSS (Provisional). The “2677” was the subject of an inside joke at MO Rome, since the Pantone color code for the ink used in the forgery of the 6 pfennig Hitler head stamp was 2677. MO Rome was headed by Eugene P. Warner, a civilian, formerly of the Associated Press.

Links:

The Story of Air Evacuation (downloadable .pdf)

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