On this day in 1943, Second Lieutenant Elsie Ott becomes the first woman to receive the U.S. Air Medal. She’d performed an invaluable service: She'd been the flight nurse on the first intercontinental air evacuation flight.
Believe it or not, she’d never even flown in a plane before. Where would this country be without brave ladies such as these?
Ott joined the Army Nurse Corps in September 1941, a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. After a few brief assignments in the States, she was dispatched to Karachi, India.
Little did she know it, but she was about to make history.
Air evacuations were still in their infancy during World War II. The military was working to train nurses and other medical personnel for these flights, but that training remained incomplete. Instead, necessity would place the untrained Ott on the first intercontinental trip in January 1943.
With mere hours’ notice, Ott was told that she’d be the flight nurse on a trip from India to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. She would have five patients: Two were paralyzed from the waist down. Another had tuberculosis, while a fourth had glaucoma. The last patient had manic-depressive psychosis.
Ott gathered blankets and other basic necessities, but the only medical equipment available to her was a simple first aid kit. Armed with these bare provisions, she hopped on the plane. Also on board was a medical tech, but he was still recovering from his own illness.
The plane departed India on January 17, 1943. The trip was longer than you might think. Multiple fuel stops were needed, but these stops served a dual purpose: At each, Ott’s patients were removed from the plane and taken to nearby military hospitals. Once there, the patients could get proper baths, new dressings for wounds, and meals.
Ott was with her patients every step of the way.
Finally, on January 23, the mission came to an end when the plane landed at Bolling Army Air Force Base in Washington, D.C.
Throughout the trip, Ott had taken meticulous notes. She knew that the military would be looking to learn from her trip, and she had recommendations on how planes could be better prepared from a medical standpoint.
Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that Ott opted for formal training as a flight nurse once she was back in the States? She was choosing a risky job, though: Planes couldn’t mark themselves as noncombat aircraft if military supplies were aboard. Thus, flight nurses were often in danger from enemy fire, just like any military pilot.
Ott was one of about 500 total flight nurses that served during the course of World War II. These nurses helped to evacuate nearly 1.2 million wounded individuals, losing only 46 patients in the process.
Unfortunately, 17 of these nurses also lost their lives in the line of duty.
When we talk about the Greatest Generation, perhaps we should remember women such as Ott, too.
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2nd Lt. Elsie S. Ott (National Museum of the United States Air Force website)
American Nursing: A Biographical Dictionary (Vern L. Bullough & Lilli Sentz eds. 2000)
Lisa Tendrich Frank, An Encyclopedia of American Women at War: From the Home Front to the Battlefields (2013)
Winged Angels: USAAF Flight Nurses in WWII (National Museum of the United States Air Force website)
Women's History Month: 2nd Lt. Elsie S. Ott (Hansom Air Force Base website)