On this day in 1919, a heroine is born. Reba Z. Whittle would go on to become the only U.S. Army flight nurse to be held as a prisoner of war in the European theater of World War II.
Second Lt. Whittle would log more than 500 hours of flight time during her months as a flight nurse. She would serve aboard 40 missions.
Things took a turn for the worse on September 27, 1944. On that day, Whittle and her colleagues from the 813th Aeromedical Evacuation Transportation Squadron were dispatched on a mission to pick up casualties.
They never made it.
Whittle was “sleeping quite soundly in the back of our hospital plane,” she later wrote, “until suddenly awakened by terrific sounds of guns and cracklings of the plane as if it had gone into bits.” The Surgical Tech near her was badly wounded in one leg. “But to see the left engine blazing away,” she added, “is simply more than I can express.” She didn’t know if they would make it safely to the ground—but they did. The pilot was suffering from his own wounds, but he landed that plane, “nearly blazing and holes every place,” as Whittle described.
The Americans were safe, but only for the moment. They’d been met by a group of German soldiers. The crash would prove to be the beginning of a 4-month ordeal for Whittle.
The Germans didn’t quite know what to do with her. “Too bad having a woman as you are the first one and no one knows exactly what to do,” a German doctor told her. She’d been wounded in the crash and was suffering from a concussion and a deep gash to her forehead.
None of the Germans could believe their eyes. “Each of everyone taking a good glare,” she would say of the attention she received, “and saying Swester which means nurse and a very startled look. Don't know how monkeys feel in the zoo with so many people looking at them but thought I must know by now.”
Whittle surely would have loved knowing that her fiancé, Lt. Col. Stanley Tobiason, was already looking for her. He’d asked for—and received—permission to conduct his own search and rescue. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find her. Instead, Whittle ended up in captivity at a hospital near a POW camp.
The Germans relied on her to take care of wounded prisoners.
Our soldiers were happy to see an American nurse—and they all wanted to know how she was doing. “Shall never forget one of our boys by the name of Davis from Dallas,” Whittle wrote, “who had lost his right arm. His kind words and hospitality was really appreciated.”
She was well treated compared to the average POW, presumably at least in part because of her gender. “Some of the boys made little what nots for me,” she wrote. “Some sending them up and wouldn’t give their names. Usually found out later and thanked them as certainly appreciated each and every one.”
No one seemed to know what to do with an American nurse! Yet she was still a captive far away from home.
Finally, help came. The American government had been unwilling to recognize her status as a POW—apparently because it was too embarrassing. Fortunately, the International Committee of the Red Cross discovered where she was and what she was doing. It negotiated her release in January 1945.
Whittle was awarded the Purple Heart and the Air Medal within weeks of her return to the States. She married the fiancé who’d gone looking for her, Lt. Col. Tobiason, soon afterwards. They raised two sons together before she passed away of cancer in 1981.
Oddly, it would be decades before the official record was corrected to reflect her status as a prisoner of war.
“She would have been very delighted,” Tobiason concluded.
Charlotte Grimes, Nation's Women POWs Are Recognized—Finally—Commemoration Coincides With War Anniversary (Seattle Times; July 5, 1992)
Kelly Boyer Sagert, Whittle, Reba Zitella (1919-1981), in Women and War: A Historical Encyclopedia from Antiquity to the Present (Bernard A. Cook ed. 2006) (Vol. 2)
Lt. Col. Mary E.V. Frank, The Forgotten POW: Second Lieutenant Reba Z. Whittle, AN (1990)
Prerana Korpe, Women's history: Honoring WWII AF flight nurse (Air Force; March 31, 2016)
Reba Whittle: First Female POW in World War II (National D-Day Memorial website)