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AE innovation at Remagen during WWII

  • Published
  • By Dr. Joseph Frechette, Ph.D.
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office

Aeromedical evacuations are a key component in modern warfare, but as Allies fought their way into Germany during World War II, U.S. service members explored innovative solutions to transport patients to field hospitals while reducing the logistical footprint.

On March 7, 1945, the 9th Armored Division captured the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, giving the allies their first bridgehead across the Rhine and facilitating the final push into Germany before the final victory in Europe two months later.

This push across the Rhine was also the occasion for an interesting chapter in aeromedical history. With only a handful of crossings in allied possession, bridges, such as the one at Remagen, were dedicated to traffic moving forward into Germany. Thus, evacuating the sick and wounded across the Rhine had to be completed by air as the allies left their general hospitals far to the rear. The IX Troop Carrier and Engineering Commands surveyed and repaired airfields to facilitate resupply and evacuation as far forward as possible. Holding units and aeromedical evacuation liaison officers came forward and typically sent requests for evacuation aircraft on returning planes as the most reliable form of communication. As the front moved east, fields were subsequently occupied and abandoned. Six evacuation hospitals and four holding units even moved forward by air.

Within this general context, various methods were employed for patient movement on non-standard platforms. L-5 reconnaissance aircraft serviced as litter planes to help concentrate casualties for evacuation. Even more dramatically, on March 22, the 816th Medical Air Evacuation Squadron loaded 26 patients onto a pair of CG-4A gliders near Remagen which were snatched into the air by low flying C-47s. Maj. Albert D. Haug, a doctor and the squadron commander, attended the patients aboard one glider, and 1st Lt. Suella Bernard, a nurse, on the other. The jolt on take-off broke one of the litter suspension ropes causing three of Bernard’s patients to dangle on one corner, but she and an accompanying Soldier reattached it quickly. What would have been a four-hour odyssey by ambulance was a mere nine-minute flight to an air holding unit at Dunstekoven. Bernard described the landing as “fairly smooth” although one of the landing wheels collapsed and the glider came to rest against a fence.

Although the IX Troop Carrier Command had high hopes for continued operations of this type, suggesting that ten tow planes and gliders could have evacuated several hundred patients per day, the subsequent availability of forward airfields rendered them unnecessary. Nevertheless, the agility and innovation of aeromedical operations in the final push into Germany are undeniable.