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Despite injuries, heroic flight nurse maintains grace under pressure

  • Published
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office
Jonita Bonham began her military career as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. She served in the Philippines and Japan after World War II and then returned to the United States, resigning from active military duty.

When the Korean War broke out, she rejoined the military, this time as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. On September 26, 1950, she was serving as a flight nurse assigned to the 801st Air Medical Evacuation Squadron in Tachikawa, Japan. After completing 245 hours of medical evacuation flights and having helped evacuate 600 wounded, her aircraft crashed, killing the captain and several of the other troops that were with her. While severely injured in the accident, Bonham directed the evacuation of the remaining personnel aboard.

Finding herself trapped in the completely submerged aircraft, Bonham managed to fight her way to the surface, where she found herself swimming for her life in a sea churned by high winds. She hung onto a floating barracks bag until she was able to grab a life raft rope. She stayed in the water, grabbing other survivors and guiding them to the rope. It was not until 17 of them were safe that she allowed herself to be pulled into one of two available rafts. Although seriously wounded, Bonham forgot about her own injuries as she encouraged panicked survivors to stay in the raft until rescue. Although the survivors were close enough to the runway to watch other planes taking off, no one back at operations had any idea the plane had gone down. Rescue came hours later from a Japanese fishing boat that happened upon the life rafts.

Once rescued, Bonham spent nine months in the hospital recovering from a broken cheekbone, skull fracture, broken shoulder and broken left wrist. The Air Force transferred her to Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama for further recovery. While there, she became the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. She remained on active duty, promoted to captain, and then medically retired in 1952.

Editor's note: Information for this article was adapted from portions of "100 Years of Excellence: The History of the Air Force Medical Service."