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This Day in History: Jonita Bonham, heroic flight nurse

On this day in 1922, a heroine is born. Jonita Ruth Bonham would go on to become a nurse—and to serve in both World War II and Korea.

She is best known for her service as a flight nurse during the Korean War.

Then-First Lieutenant Bonham had been assigned to the 801st Air Medical Evacuation Squadron, flying wounded soldiers in and out of Korea. The Air Force had converted a C-54 cargo plane into what was effectively a flying hospital.

Bonham was seemingly always on the move.

Bonham (left) with her friend, Vera Brown (right).

Within just a few months, she’d flown 245 hours and helped to evacuate about 600 wounded men. Indeed, she and fellow nurse Captain Vera Brown were so busy that they’d been reduced to taking 3-hour catnaps.

“We flew every day,” she later described. “Sometimes we made two trips going into Korea, but that was only when we were going into the southern part, when the flights were rather short.”

Bonham was awakened from one of her brief catnaps on September 26, 1950. The weather was stormy, but she and Brown were to board their C-54 anyway. New troops were needed in Korea. The cargo plane would take them there and return with a plane load of wounded soldiers.

Unfortunately, the C-54 didn’t make it. Soon after takeoff, the plane crashed into the sea. Twenty-three of the fifty-one Americans aboard were killed, including the pilot, co-pilot, and Brown. Bonham herself barely made it. She was briefly trapped underwater, pinned under the wreckage, but she managed to free herself and kick to the surface.

What a miracle. Bonham later discovered that she’d broken her wrist, fractured a shoulder blade, and sustained multiple head injuries in the crash.

“Well, when you’re in the water, you just have to relax,” Bonham later described. “There’s nothing else you can do. And there was a lot of luggage floating, so first you hold onto that until it became pretty well waterlogged, and then when it becomes necessary to swim, we swam. We did manage to inflate two life rafts.”

She was being modest. Bonham was one of the few who knew what to do. The men were soldiers who hadn’t been trained to survive in the water. They found life rafts, but they didn’t know how to inflate them. Bonham directed the effort and guided about 17 men to safety. She refused to be taken aboard until all the surviving soldiers had found a spot in one of the two rafts that had been inflated.

The pain of her injuries hit Bonham full force as she was pulled out of the water. Naturally, she kept going.

She couldn’t administer all of the first aid that she would have liked, but she did what she could. Importantly, she kept everyone calm.

“My mother was not an easily panicked woman,” her daughter later explained. “You know, she was hurt, she was injured. She knew things were bad, but her concern was to get the men calmed down because they were talking about trying to jump the raft and swim and stuff like that and a lot of them were injured. . . .”

Meanwhile, those back at base apparently had no idea that the cargo plane had crashed. The survivors bobbed in the water for three hours before a Japanese fishing vessel found them. Bonham again took charge, directing efforts so the rafts could be safely lashed together and towed toward safety.

She finally collapsed, but only after everyone was safe. Twenty-eight Americans had survived the ordeal.

Bonham would spend nine months in a hospital recovering from her wounds, but her country hadn’t forgotten her. She was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and promoted to Captain. The determined nurse tried to return to duty, but her injuries plagued her. She received a medical discharge in 1952.

Another heroine who deserves to be remembered.

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