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Angel of the Airways: Westfall chooses to become a flight nurse

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Part 3 of 4

As a registered nurse serving in the U.S. Army in 1944, Lt. Rosalind Westfall decided to become a flight nurse. Flight training, 8-10 weeks at Bowman Field in Kentucky, was very intense.

Rosalind got terribly air sick. But she was going to be a flight nurse and nothing would stop her. She just dealt with it. Finding that she didn't feel as bad if she was lying down, Rosalind volunteered to be the patient which made training more tolerable as she was able to be prone much of the time.

Rosalind lived with the anomaly throughout her career. It was not uncommon for her to get airsick while tending to a patient. She would step out of sight of the wounded soldier, regurgitate in whatever receptacle was available and return to her patient. She didn't miss a pulse. They never noticed.

The grueling flight training was six days a week from early morning to evening. After supper, they studied until bedtime. The nurses had to learn how to take care of their patients in turbulent planes in tight quarters with limited supplies and very little help.

They had to treat the soldiers' physical injuries while trying to help them deal with a wounded psyche and the emotional scarring of war. The nurses also had to learn self-preservation and survival. They had to go through infantry training which included learning to shoot and how to take apart and reassemble a gun. Rosalind was a sharpshooter because her brothers had taught her to shoot.

To test their endurance, the nurses had to go through maneuvers on the infiltration course.

"It was big," Rosalind said. "Probably as large as a football field, with barbed wire above it about 12 inches high. We had to get down on our bellies and crawl the distance. They shot live ammo above us. If you raised your head you could get shot so you hugged the ground.

"At the end of the field was a water-filled trench. You had to roll into the trench and climb out the other side to get out. We were trained just like the men."

Once trained, nurses were assigned to a flight schedule. Rosalind was first stationed in Newfoundland, where injured troops were transported from the European theater. She then escorted the soldiers from Newfoundland to New York. Planes at that time couldn't carry enough fuel to go nonstop from Europe to the United States.

When the military opened up the Azores, a group of Portuguese Islands, it added a new leg to the flight plans. A usual trip might be from Paris to the Azores to either Newfoundland or Bermuda then on to New York or Miami. Rosalind had to go out on every fourth plane. A layover could be two hours or two days.

The planes had a three- man crew consisting of pilot, co-pilot and navigator. The medical team was a registered nurse and one enlisted man as an orderly.

"The planes had litters for the men with more severe injuries," Rosalind said. "There were 24 litters stacked three or four high. If ambulatory, the soldiers had seats. A plane could hold up to 42 ambulatory patients."

Rosalind loved it. But flight nurses assumed greater risks than their counterparts. The transport planes, which were used to evacuate patients, doubled as cargo planes. So they could not display the markings of the Geneva Red Cross to protect them from enemy fire.

"On one trip, I was flying between the Azores and Newfoundland on a plane loaded with litter patients," Rosalind said. "The pilot called me up to the cockpit and pointed out an object far below. It was a destroyer ship with all of its guns, like fingers spread out on a hand, pointed directly at us.

"The pilot tried to out-climb their range but could not. Our crew identified the ship as one belonging to England. We could only hope they would identify us in time.

"I went back into the plane to try to keep the boys busy," Rosalind continued. "I didn't want them to know about the ship, but they already knew. They had seen it. There was no panic but all of the patients on that side of the plane kept their eyes glued to the windows. It was totally silent until one of the boys spoke, 'Dear God, please let them realize who we are before it's too late.' We all knew a lot of people had died like that. They called it friendly fire.

"There was no red cross on our plane to identify us. We had no radio contact with the ship. Almost breathlessly, we watched those guns follow us as we moved.

"Finally, we saw the guns go down. Everybody cheered! It had been just a few minutes but seemed like hours. It's almost impossible to describe the feelings of relief and joy we felt at that moment."

Some flight nurses paid the ultimate price to carry out their patriotic duty. A few lost their lives as a result of enemy bombing attacks.

Rosalind recalled another occasion when their plane went through a terrible storm. After landing, she got off and a ground sergeant called her over to show her something.

There was a little hole in the side of the plane with black all around it. The sergeant said lightning had struck the plane just inches above the gas tank. He said he didn't know why it hadn't exploded.

"God had other plans for us," Rosalind responded.

Tomorrow: Rosalind marries and retires from the military. Flight nurses are remembered.

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