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D-Day for the 816th

  • Published
  • By Elmer F. Cox, Arthur Hehr and Sue Bernard Delp
From The Story of Air Evacuation 1942-1989, published by the World War II Flight Nurses Association, 1989

This article is the second in a series of three that looks at the experiences of aeromedical evacuation from Normandy in the words of the flight nurses and medics who flew the missions70 years ago.

In May 1944, the invasion "as expected and the 816th was placed on alert June 4·5th for the invasion of France. The unit also received its C-47's. The first clad station was set up near the flight line. There was even a rumor going around that the "Dirty Dozen" were going to load there. No one ever knew if they did or not but there was a lot of "brass" running about. Around June 6th it was evident that the invasion had begun. The squadron was prepared for possible bail outs, trained in what to tell the patients, shown the first aid kits they would carry, were given French Invasion money they would carry, taught the use of parachutes which they carried on the Normandy nights. Later, because of weight and low altitude flying, patients and air evac personnel did not carry parachutes.

By June 9th, there were "blood runs," with the flight nurses accompanying the blood. Often the Troop Carrier crews dropped blood by parachute to hospitals on the ground - some pilots swore they hit the Red Cross on the ground dead center! By D-Day plus seven or June 13th, teams of air evac personnel, using cases of TNT for seats, headed for Omaha Beach under fighter escort. They landed on makeshift runways made of pieces of metal which had been stripped together - and dust was everywhere. July 1st they moved to Prestwich, Scotland in preparation to start the Trans-Atlantic flights from Scotland to NY to evacuate the wounded from the invasion. Dr. John Fissell, surgeon, was killed returning to Prestwich from NY, where he had just been married. His plane with all on board vanished after crashing into a mountain. His loss was a tragedy for the squadron and the morale was at an all time low for it was a close-knit family.

By July 4, they were flying into Normandy...The Trans-Atlantic nights were made in C-54's manned by civilian ATC pilots and navigators. Transporting 18 patients, the nights were usually five hours to Iceland, where patients were fed, then eight hours to Newfoundland and another meal with change of patients' dressings and refueling of the aircraft. The last leg of the journey was six hours to LaGuardia, NY. These Trans-Atlantic crossings were far from safe. One flight which left Prestwich, Scotland, was lost over Iceland. The entire civilian crew and air evac personnel were lost. Lt. Catherine Price from the 817th MAES and T/3[Technician 3rd Grade] Frank Sorrels from the 816th MAES (who was on TDY) both perished. The next flight out from Prestwich with Lt. Mildred M. Shanner and T /3 Elmer Cox with 18 litter patients and a civilian crew flying in a C-54 landed safely at Iceland. Two hours out of Ice land, they noticed a prop was not functioning and the plane landed at Greenland for repairs. This involved going over the Icecaps which was very dangerous. In the meantime, another engine began to cough and sputter forcing them to land at Buie West I. This load of patients was the first wounded from Normandy to reach Greenland and the patients were treated royally.