Profiles In Nursing

Lt. Elsie Ott, RN (1913-2006), and the First Globe-Spanning Wartime Medevac

A WWII flight nurse takes a grueling, globe-spanning medical evacuation

Elsie Ott on the left is being pinned while wearing a military uniform. On the right she is in uniform standing with equipment

She’d never even flown before, but in 1943, 2nd Lt. Elsie Ott, RN, became the U.S. Army’s first flight nurse, assigned to the first-ever intercontinental medical evacuation flight: a seven-day, 11,000-mile odyssey that took her and five patients from Karachi to Washington, D.C.

Rare Air

In the ‘30s and ‘40s, many Americans had never been on an airplane. Commercial air travel was less comfortable and vastly more expensive than traveling by ship or train. If you lived far from an airport or airfield, you might never have even seen a plane except in newsreels.

Born in Smithtown, Long Island, and trained at Lenox Hill Hospital School of Nursing in New York City, Elsie Ott was somewhat more cosmopolitan than many Americans who served during World War II. Even so, she remained a stranger to air travel even after joining the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in September 1941. When her unit, the 159th Station Hospital, transferred to Karachi (in what is now Pakistan) in February 1942, they traveled by sea.

Nevertheless, in early 1943, Ott was selected for an extremely ambitious assignment: the Army’s first intercontinental medical evacuation flight.

Healthcare on the Fly

Until the disastrous military setbacks in the Pacific forced the issue in 1941–42, the U.S. Army was surprisingly ambivalent about the idea of medical evacuation by air. There had been experiments with air ambulances since before WWI, but early setbacks had soured the Army brass’s enthusiasm. It wasn’t until October 1942 that the Army Air Forces (USAAF) attempted to launch the first training programs for flight surgeons and flight nurses at Bowman Army Air Field in Kentucky.  Ott wasn’t part of this early program. In fact, it wouldn’t be until months later that she received any flight nurse training at all.

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On Jan. 16, 1943, however, her superiors gave her 24 hours to prepare an Air Transport Command C-47 transport to carry five seriously ill patients from Karachi back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., a journey of more than 10,000 miles. So disorganized was this effort that Ott received no medical instructions or supply list for her patients, whose conditions ranged from glaucoma to tuberculosis and polio.

Two of her patients were partially paralyzed and another was being shipped home due to severe manic depression and psychosis. Her only assistant would be a staff sergeant from the medical department who suffered from chronic arthritis. Ott outfitted the C-47 with bedpans, sheets, blankets, mattresses, two cots anchored to the floor and what simple medical supplies she could scrounge. In the early hours of the next morning, she was ready, and the trip began.

Around the World in Seven Days

The C-47 transport, popularly known as the “Gooney Bird,” was the military version of the Douglas DC-3 airliner. Compared to modern airliners, it was slow, loud and uncomfortable. Its cabin wasn’t pressurized, so flying above 5,000 feet was exhausting for passengers and crew. Exacerbating the discomfort for Ott was her uniform, whose tight skirt was totally impractical for flight duty. Since the C-47 had only modest range, they had to land regularly for fuel and servicing.

Their first stop was Salalah, in what is now Oman (then part of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman). Next came the British colony at Aden (today the capital of Yemen), followed by Gura, in what is now Eritrea, and then Khartoum and El Fasher in what was then called Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

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These stops presented a new complication: At any destination not controlled by the USAAF, Ott was expected to arrange and pay for meals for herself and her patients out of her own pocket! The same was true of lodging, although Ott spent her nights tending the two cot-bound patients.

Changing Planes

In Accra, Ghana, Ott and her patients were transferred to a bigger aircraft: a C-87 Liberator Express, the transport version of the Consolidated B-24 heavy bomber, which wasn’t any more comfortable than the “Gooney Bird,” but it had a much longer range. Eleven new patients joined the original five.

The British territory of Ascension Island was next on the itinerary. From there, the flight headed to the Province of Natal, South Africa. There, a doctor examined the patients, who were bathed and had their dressings changed.  After a few hours of downtime, Ott restocked for the Atlantic crossing. The C-87 made fueling stops in Belém, Brazil, and Borinquen, Puerto Rico, before landing in the U.S. on January 23.

During another fueling stop at Morrison Field in Florida, Ott had to help carry patients and then clean the plane, dragging out the mattresses and linens by herself. Later that day, Ott and her patients — all somewhat the worse for wear — finally arrived in Washington. Even then, the exhausted Ott’s work wasn’t done. She still had to chart and make her official report before she could finally collapse!

Photos above: At the end of her amazing 11,000-mile medevac flight, Elsie Ott said she was so tired that “I had to surreptitiously pull out my dog tag to find out what my name was.” Left: For her efforts, Ott became the first woman ever to receive the Air Medal. Ironically, she didn’t even hear about the Army’s flight nurse training program until after her historic flight. Right: Ott unloading a transport on a later flight to Calcutta, 1944. Trousers were much more practical than the skirt she’d had to wear in 1943. Source: U.S. Air Force

ELIZABETH HANINK, RN, BSN, PHN, has over 40 years of nursing experience and has contributed extensively to Working Nurse.

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