WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE — During Women’s History Month in March and throughout the year, visitors to the National Museum of the United States Air Force can view exhibits that pay tribute to the accomplishments and achievements of women who served in the Air Force.
In the World War II Gallery, visitors can learn about U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) flight nurses and Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). A tribute to flight nurse Capt. Lillian Kinkela Keil can be found in the Korean War Gallery.
The global scope of World War II (WWII) forced the USAAF to revolutionize military medical care through the development of air evacuation and the use of flight nurses. On Feb. 18, 1943, the U.S. Army Nurse Corps’ first class of flight nurses formally graduated at Bowman Field, near Louisville, Ky. Eventually, about 500 Army nurses served as members of 31 medical air evacuation transport squadrons operating worldwide. It is a tribute to their skill that of the 1,176,048 patients air evacuated throughout the war, only 46 died en route. Seventeen flight nurses lost their lives during the war. Their story is told in the museum’s “Winged Angels: USAAF Flight Nurses in WWII” exhibit.
Facing the need for male combat pilots, the situation by mid-1942 favored the use of experienced women pilots to fly USAAF aircraft within the United States. Two women’s aviator units were formed to ease this need and more than 1,000 women participated in these programs as civilians attached to the USAAF. These were merged into a single group – the WASP program – in August 1943 and broke ground for U.S. Air Force female pilots who would follow in their footsteps. The WASP exhibit displays uniforms and features a mannequin standing near the cockpit of an AT-10.
On July 1, 2009 President Barack Obama authorized the Congressional Gold Medal to be presented to the WASP, “In recognition of their pioneering military service and exemplary record, which forged revolutionary reform in the Armed Forces of the United States of America.” Although the original medal is at the Smithsonian, a replica is on display here in the museum’s WASP exhibit.
Capt. Lillian Kinkela Keil was one of the most accomplished women in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, and one of the most decorated women in American military history. She served as a flight nurse during WWII and returned to active duty when the Korean War broke out. Her extraordinary experiences inspired the 1953 Hollywood movie “Flight Nurse,” and she remained active in veterans’ affairs until her death in 2005. Keil’s service dress uniform is displayed in the Aeromedical Evacuation exhibit in the Korean War Gallery.
Details about museum exhibits and online resources related to Women’s History Month are available at www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Collections/Research/WomensHistory.aspx.
Story courtesy of the National Museum of the United States Air Force.