Local Woman Pens Fictional Account of World War II Flight Nurses

Writer / Grace Schaefer
Photography Provided

On a wall in the administration building at Bowman Field, Louisville’s first commercial airport, hang the photos of notable men who have been involved, in some capacity, with the location; even Charles Lindbergh’s picture is there. At the end of the hallway hangs a photo from the 1940s that doesn’t match the others – a photo of three women in military fatigues.Bowman Field

It was this single photo that intrigued Dana Walker Lindley a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic began. “I had been [at Bowman Field] a couple of weeks or months before COVID struck, and I had noticed that there were these pictures of all these men,” Lindley says. “There’s a rich history of this airport. At the very end of the hallway there is one picture of three women looking up, and I remember seeing that at the time. I thought, ‘I wonder why these women are here,’ but I didn’t do anything about it until COVID. Then I’m sitting on my front porch and we’re stuck at home and had some time, and I just started researching it.”

What she found amazed her.

The photo dates from the 1940s, when World War II was raging. The United States had officially entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Army Nursing Corps recruited nurses with a goal of bringing the pre-Pearl Harbor number (1,000) to an astounding 60,000. “[They] started bringing in nurses from all over the country,” Lindley says.

A special program was started to train air evacuation, or flight, nurses to retrieve and treat wounded soldiers in C-46, C-47 and C-54 transport planes headed for hospitals. There was much to learn in the few weeks of training.

“When you put people in airplanes, things change in the body in terms of how you evaluate them, treat them – there are all sorts of repercussions about being in an airplane when you treat people,” Lindley says.

Besides learning new procedures, nurses also dealt with a changing environment. She says the planes were like “big tanks that flew, and they were very, very hot if they were on the ground in a tropical climate – no air conditioning, of course, no bathrooms, and no modern convenience on these planes at all. What you had on the planes were bodies strapped to the wall, lots of bodies, maybe 20, 25, maybe 30 injured men strapped to a wall. You and a handful of other people were responsible for treating them the entire trip until you could deliver them to a hospital where they would be safe.”

Bowman FieldBecause doctors stayed on ground ready for surgeries, these nurses took on the responsibility of leadership as well. “In most cases, the nurses were the medical person in charge,” Lindley says.

Along with the heavy responsibility, the aviation nurses also faced a challenging lack of supplies. “The nurses were on the planes caring for these patients,” Lindley says. “They never had a satisfactory medical bag. You just used whatever was in your bag, and your bag didn’t have much.”

Lindley found that, despite the monumental impact Bowman Field’s nurses had, today’s Louisville community knew little about the story. Having worked for Better Homes and Gardens, and having written before (including a number of published essays), she decided to write a novel based on what she had found, featuring fictitious air evacuation nurses.

The idea for “Ascension: Portrait of a Woman” was born, and preliminary research began.

“It was interesting to read the Courier Journal,” Lindley reflects. “I read it cover to cover for 1943 and got all sorts of useful information out of that. I was able to download the actual training manual that governed from the Army Air Corps that govern Bowman Field during that time period. I had to know what were the uniforms like, what were the classes that they took, what was the layout of the field, what buildings were there.”

She also read firsthand accounts of two nurses – rare documents, since, “like so many people in World War II, [many nurses] did not come back and tell their story,” Lindley says.

“I spent about a year researching everything I thought that I needed to know until I felt confident that I had good information in my head,” she says. “Of course I had notes too. Then I just started writing. [I spent] hundreds of hours rewriting to make it the best I can make it because that, to me, is what your obligation as a writer is. I hope it makes Louisville proud. I think it’s a very rich part of Louisville, Bowman Field in particular. Our community came together and really supported a very important mission that really made a difference, and they did it really well. I think we should be proud of that.”

“As far as the individual reader, I hope it inspires people to just always think about, ‘What can I contribute? [Where] can I show my courage? What can I stand up for?’” Lindley says. “It doesn’t have to be World War II. There are infinite ways for us to show our courage, so how can we do that?”

“[It] was an honor to write about these women, and I believe that these women who served then and those who serve now, were really amazing for their sacrifice and their courage,” she adds. “So I was really just honored to be able to tell their story.”

And she certainly has. The special photo at Bowman Field, with three nurses looking up at the skies they were soon to fly in, mayBowman Field be only one photo; yet because of it, the stories of air evacuation nurses are becoming known. Through painstaking research and diligent care, Dana Walker Lindley is reminding today’s generations of the one that came before: that of “ordinary women who signed up for an extraordinary job,” she says.

“Ascension: Portrait of a Woman” is available at Carmichael’s Bookstore and at amazon.com.

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