The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines

Nursing Book Club

The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines

Nurses Under Fire

By Cate Lineberry (Little, Brown & Co.,, 2013)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

I’ve always wondered if I’d be the kind of nurse who takes charge in a disaster; hopefully, I’ll never have to find out. For me, it’s enough just figuring out what to do when the air conditioning fails or which infection control protocol to follow when a patient with a mystery rash walks through the door.

In November 1943, 26 American flight nurses and medics got the chance to test their personal strength and courage when their plane went down in the mountains of Albania, behind enemy lines. The group spent months and walked hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles through mountainous countryside before making it back to Allied forces.

Tough Training
Flight nursing was still in its infancy during World War II. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, America had slightly more than 7,000 military nurses, but was actively trying to recruit 50,000.

In those days, military nurses were expected to receive their nursing training before joining the service. Nurses, who were all female, had ranks like commissioned officers, but earned only about half the pay of male officers and weren’t even considered to have permanent commissions. Flight nurses were required to be in good shape, between the ages of 21 and 36, weighing between 105 and 135 pounds and standing between 62 and 72 inches tall.

As part of their military training, flight nurses were put onto a plane to test their tolerance for aerial maneuvers, subjected to long marches and daily exercise (including loading supplies on and off of planes) and pelted with flour “bombs” to build up their tolerance for working under fire.

They also received a six-week course that included enemy aircraft identification and wilderness survival skills. This particular group probably didn’t imagine how useful those skills would shortly become.

The Journey of the 807th

The flight nurses of the 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron were charged with moving injured personnel to safer areas for further care. They worked hard: In their first three weeks of duty, this small group of nurses and enlisted male medics safely evacuated 1,651 patients.

The Secret Rescue is the story of their harrowing military service, from when they were first commissioned to their plane crash and march through the mountains of Albania weeks later. Despite having very little to eat or drink and being afflicted with lice, scabies and various viral and bacterial illnesses, the group weathered the storm. I’d like to think that the nurses’ training — or perhaps their personalities as nurses — played a major role in making their survival possible.

It’s a story that has never been told before. Even after the war, the nurses and medics were ordered to remain silent about their experience to protect the Albanians who had aided them from retaliation by Albania’s Communist government. It was only recently that the group’s last living survivor, medic Harold Hayes, was able to share his story with author Cate Lineberry. It’s fascinating and makes the work that we complain about today look easy by comparison.  

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, is a public health nurse who suggests joining a book club as a reason to put down trashy magazines and look smart on the subway.

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