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This Day in History: Lillian Kinkella Keil, Flight Nurse

On this day in 2005, a heroine passes away. Captain Lillian Kinkella Keil served as a flight nurse in both World War II and Korea. She remains one of the most decorated women in American military history.

She wasn’t just any flight nurse. She was among the first, which made it more challenging. “She had to make it up as she went along,” retired Air Force Col. Barney Oldfield later said. “She was an airborne Florence Nightingale.”

When World War II began, Keil was a registered nurse working as a flight attendant. Her life changed forever when a passenger suggested that she join the Army Air Forces.

She could serve her country as a flight nurse.

The training was no picnic. Nurses were expected to be physically fit. They had to learn to escape a plane if it were forced down over water. They were taught to swim through a burning oil slick, and they learned techniques to survive in extreme temperatures.

Keil with Joan Leslie, star of Flight Nurse.

Keil persevered, and she was among the first to graduate from the USAAF School of Air Evacuations in Kentucky. She was soon on her way to Europe, where she served in notable campaigns such as the Battle of the Bulge and the D-Day landings.

“Wherever a toehold was established and called a battle zone,” she wrote, “that would be our destination. . . . Since we carried military supplies, we couldn’t hide behind the safety of the Red Cross insignia. . . . since sleep was something we never got enough of, I learned to doze with my head resting on my oxygen tank sitting atop an oil drum.”

Flights in and out of war zones were “bumpy” and “rough,” she described. “You had to be on your feet, so you couldn’t strap in. You’d hang on with one hand and tend to the patients with the other. If there were severe head wounds, you’d have to tell the pilot to fly low to keep the pressure from making them worse.”

Later, as she served in Korea, Keil was present at the difficult Battle of Chosin Reservoir. She worked for 72 straight hours in some of the worst winter weather of the war. Those evacuation flights landed dangerously close to the enemy, but the pilots and flight nurses managed to extract nearly 4,700 wounded in nine days.

“We were fired upon and often had to land in slush,” she later described, “which was dangerous because the planes could skid. One of the nurses was killed. Somehow, the Marines came through.”

By the time she returned to the states, Keil had flown 425 combat evacuation missions, and she’d treated about 10,000 wounded. She earned 19 medals and ribbons, but she mostly loved the opportunity to serve.

“I’m a nurse. I liked flying. I like being needed. It was my work, what I was put on this earth for,” she reflected.

Maybe she was put on this earth for her empathy, too?

“She always had her makeup done—lipstick and her hair in a chignon,” her daughter explained. “The lipstick was a big thing. She felt like she represented back home to them. Here they are in a foreign place—terrified. She represented their mother, their sister, their sweetheart . . . . for them to look at her and just feel sort of like they were going to be okay—it was a comfort to them.”

After the war, Keil was the inspiration for the 1953 film, Flight Nurse. She met and married a Navy intelligence officer. She appeared on “This is Your Life” in 1961. “Her appearance generated a record amount of mail,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “much of it from wounded veterans who remembered the tiny black-haired nurse.”

“She never questioned what she needed to do when there was a war,” her daughter concluded. “It was her calling, and she called the soldiers her ‘boys.’”

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