Women's history: Honoring WWII AF flight nurse

  • Published
  • By Prerana Korpe
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
During World War II, an American flight nurse was captured, becoming the only female U.S. military member held prisoner of war in the European Theater. Her name was Lt. Reba Z. Whittle.

In 1943, Whittle joined the Army Air Forces School of Air Evacuation, where she trained as a flight nurse. It would be just over a year later when Whittle would find herself wounded as the result of a crash, before being taken prisoner by German soldiers. 

During flight nurse training, Whittle learned to attend to patients in the absence of a physician. She trained to treat pain, bleeding and shock. Whittle graduated in November 1943 and began flying on missions in January 1944. Until the time of her capture in September 1944, Whittle logged over 500 hours of flight time and flew on 40 missions.

The fateful day was September 27, 1944. Whittle was on a mission to gather casualties in St. Trond, Belgium. Without time to react, Whittle’s C-47 was attacked and crashed to the ground. Of the flight crew, one pilot was killed and the other was badly injured. Whittle’s surgical technician was also wounded and Whittle suffered a concussion. As they crawled out of the wreckage, the crew was captured by enemy soldiers.

The crew was treated for their immediate injuries in a neighboring village then taken to a nearby hospital. It is reported that a German doctor told Whittle, “[It is] too bad having a woman as you are the first one and no one knows exactly what to do.”

After being taken to an interrogation center north of Frankfurt, Whittle was separated from her crew and transferred to a prison camp hospital which provided immediate aid to wounded prisoners.

In the prison camp, Whittle remained isolated in her cell when she was not treating fellow prisoners, until her release was negotiated in January 1945.

Whittle was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries sustained during the crash and later promoted to first lieutenant. On September 2, 1983 Whittle was given the status of official prisoner of war.