The Flying Feats of 2nd Lt. Elsie Ott

Profiles in Nursing

The Flying Feats of 2nd Lt. Elsie Ott

First woman recipient of the U.S. Army Air Medal

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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You’ve taken trips, I’m sure, that were  arduous. Security delays, lost luggage, maybe turbulence — many things can go wrong. Still, don’t complain until you’ve heard about 2nd Lt. Elsie Ott’s flight, an 11,000-mile trek from Karachi, Pakistan to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Not so much a trip as a long, long haul, her adventure took six and a half days, during which she was the only medical person to care for five seriously ill patients.

On Jan. 16, 1943, superiors instructed her to prepare a D-47 Air Transport Command plane for departure within 24 hours. No medical instructions or supply list came with the order. Her only assistant would be a sergeant with a medical technician background and severe arthritis.

No flight surgeon vetted the patients. They suffered a variety of conditions: active tuberculosis, paralysis from multiple fractures, bedsores, unstable manic/depression and polio. Ms. Ott outfitted the plane with bedpans, sheets, blankets and two cots anchored to the floor. In the early hours of the next morning, she was ready and the trip began.

2nd Lt. Elsie Ott, U.S. Army Air Medal, nurseThe first stop was Salalah, Arabia. Next came Aden (now the capital of Yemen), Gura in Ethiopia, then Khartoum and El Fasher in Egyptian Sudan. Ms. Ott discovered that, at every stop not under the control of U.S. Army Air Forces, she had to arrange and pay for meals for all the patients and herself from her own pocket. Lodging and luggage were extra.

She spent her nights tending the two cot-bound patients. In Accra, Ghana, the patients were transferred to a B-24 equipped with mattresses. When the flight resumed, there were 11 new patients.

Ascension Island was next, and from there the troop headed to Arr Natal in South Africa. A doctor examined the patients; they were bathed and had their dressings changed. After a few hours downtime, Ms. Ott restocked for the Atlantic crossing. Continuing its refueling hops, the plane first landed in Belém, Brazil, then Borinquen, Puerto Rico. Finally, on Jan. 23, Ms. Ott and her charges, all the worse for wear, landed in the United States.

However, the trip wasn’t over. The stop at Morrison Field in Florida was supposed to take an hour. Due to snafus, it lasted several hours. Few soldiers were available to carry the patients to the field hospital, so Ms. Ott helped move litters. Then she cleaned the plane, dragging mattresses and linens out by herself.

When the last leg of the flight finally reached Bolling Field outside of Washington, medics met the plane and transferred the patients to Walter Reed. Of course the trip wasn’t really over then, either. Now came the reports and charting. When Ms. Ott sat down to write her notes, “I had to surreptitiously pull out my dog tag to find out what my name was.”

She made 20 suggestions for future flights, including the need for oxygen, dressing supplies, extra coffee and blankets. In addition, she suggested, skirts were impractical.

For her efforts, the army awarded Ms. Ott the Air Medal; she was the first woman recipient. In the ultimate irony, several months later the army assigned her to flight evacuation school. The trip, her first flight ever, had demonstrated the practicality of long-range evacuation for ill and injured military personnel. Now the serious training of flight nurses could begin.   

Elizabeth Hanink RN, BSN, PHN is a freelance writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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