First Chief of the Nurse Corps

  • Published
  • By Judith Taylor
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office
Verena M. Zeller, the first chief of the Air Force Nurse Corps, was promoted to lieutenant colonel in April 1950. Zeller led the Nurse Corps during the Korean War, overseeing its growth and evolution into an organization focused on flight care.

May 6 through May 12 is National Nurses and Medical Technicians Week. The Air Force Medical Service is recognizing the amazing contributions these often-unheralded members make to Air Force Medicine, and their role in delivering patient care.

Zeller began serving as chief of the Nurse Corps in 1949, while still a captain. Her promotion to lieutenant colonel was unusual, as she skipped over the rank of major to match the rank requirement for her position. In June 1950, just two months after her promotion, the Korean War began, signaling a significant change in the scope and mission of the Nurse Corps.

At the onset of the Korean War, only 181 of 1,170 Air Force Nurse Corps nurses were designated as flight nurses. During the war, Air Force nurses in Korea served mainly as flight nurses. There were few fixed Air Force hospitals on the Korean Peninsula, requiring the Air Force to use aeromedical evacuation for most injured service members. At the peak of the Korean War, 2,991 Air Force nurses were on active duty.

Zeller commissioned as a general duty nurse in the Army Medical Department’s Nurse Corps at Fort Riley, Kansas, in June 1936. The Army transferred her to Sternberg General Hospital, Manila, in July 1939, where she remained until October of 1941. Zeller departed shortly before the Japanese invaded the island.

“I was the last one out of our group of eight nurses that got to go home,” she stated. “I was the only nurse left in the Philippines that was on orders. And they almost didn't send me on this ship because it was the President Coolidge, and the President Coolidge had a ship's nurse on their crew, so they didn't need a nurse to go along.” 

Zeller, however, was allowed on to accompany a seriously ill friend back to Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco, California. “Otherwise, I probably would have been a prisoner of the Japanese,” she stated.

In June of 1946, Zeller completed the U.S. Army Air Forces School of Aviation Medicine’s Flight Nurse Course at Randolph Field, in San Antonio, Texas. She later served with the Military Air Transport Service in domestic and foreign air evacuation. Promoted to captain, she started working in the Air Surgeon’s Office in January of 1949 and transferred from the Army to the Air Force six months later.

Zeller served throughout the Korean War and guided nursing in the Air Force Medical Service’s infancy. In August 1951, the Air Force Surgeon General, Maj. Gen. Harry G. Armstrong, promoted her to colonel and she officially assumed the duties of the chief of the Nurse Corps. She held the position until her retirement in 1956.

When asked about her Air Force career, she stated, “I look back on it many times as just a wonderful part of my life.”

Zeller passed away in 2007.