Second Lieutenant Elsie Ott
During my research into the incredible role of women during World War Two, I came across the story of Second Lieutenant Elsie Ott and I would love to share her remarkable achievements with you. It’s a story of the strength, courage and resilience shown by one woman whose actions would go on to positively impact millions of lives!
Elsie was born in America in 1913 and, when she was old enough, trained to be a nurse and joined the Army Nursing Corps of America where she was based at a military hospital in Karachi, India (now Pakistan). Because of the geographic location it was very difficult to repatriate badly injured soldiers from Karachi to the USA; the roads and train tracks were very unreliable so, at the time, the best way of returning patients to the USA for specialist treatment was by boat, and that could take up to 3 months.
In January 1943, The Army Air Surgeon General for that area (General Grant) wanted to prove that patients could be returned to the USA by long-distance aircraft evacuation, something never done before, but many of his fellow Generals disagreed with him. So General Grant decided to arrange a secret evacuation during which a number of American patients would be flown home (half way round the world!) and once they had arrived safely he could prove to the Generals that long-distance aircraft evacuation was possible and he would have the evidence to support his claim. This was an incredibly secret and extremely dangerous mission that, if successful, could revolutionize the evacuation of injured personnel and save countless lives. The stakes were high!
Elsie Ott was chosen to be the nurse who would accompany the patients on this flight that could take an entire week and, in doing so, would show such strength of character that she would become one of the pioneers of air medevac. If this secret mission was successful then it could pave the way for the safe evacuation of hundreds of thousands of troops. The odds, however, were stacked against her.
She had never flown before; she was given just 24 hours’ notice and told to gather the supplies she might need – medical equipment, blankets, food, drink, etc. There would be no doctor on board, just Elsie and a Medic named Sam, but Sam suffered with arthritis and wouldn’t be able to help with lifting or any of the heavy work. She wasn’t given any directions as to what to expect; just told to be ready to leave the next day.
That’s how Elsie found herself about to embark on a secret mission. She was going to be responsible for the medical care of 5 casualties during the flight, so she loaded her patients onto the DC-3 plane (named Able Mabel); two patients were paralysed from the waist down, one had TB, one had a cracked scalp and poor vision and another had battle fatigue/manic-depressive psychosis.
There were no comfortable passenger seats in the plane, no toilet facilities for women, just a couple of mattresses, a couple of camp-bed type arrangements and some basic chairs. As far as challenges go, this one was huge but Elsie set about rising to the challenge.
Once they were airborne Elsie and Sam fell into the routine of 2-hourly patient checks, day and night, keeping medical records and arranging the patients’ food and drinks as best as she could.
Because the Germans controlled Europe and Northern Africa, their journey had to take a course across the middle of Africa and they had to make many stops for re-fuelling but because of the secrecy of the mission, no onward arrangements were made for them so on each stop Elsie had to negotiate for fresh food and medical supplies.
Conditions in the plane were far from perfect. Elsie made her patients as comfortable as she could, but sleep deprivation from the 24-hour medical care of her patients, napping for just 2 hours at a time and flying through huge storms had made life very difficult for Elsie and Sam, her medic. They had even picked up extra people along the way.
Landing the plane for re-fuelling was scary and dangerous because on many occasions they were trying to land on bomb-cratered airstrips and, one time, they were pinned down and fired at by snipers!
While still flying over Africa and just when Elsie thought it couldn’t get any worse, the pilot shouted to them to hold on and take cover! There was a German Messerschmitt fighter plane up ahead who had spotted them, and Able Mable wasn’t displaying any Red Cross insignia nor signs to show they were a hospital plane and that they were defenceless.
The Messerschmitt dived towards them, firing as he headed straight for them and shot two bullet holes in the ceiling of the plane. Luckily, nobody was hit, but the Messerschmitt was going round again for another blast.
The American pilot, Chuck, had heard of an unwritten code between pilots where they could make the enemy aware of the fact they were carrying medical evacuees and, as a last resort, he decided to try it. He started dipping the plane’s wings, rolling the plane quickly from side to side in a continuous manoeuvre, all the time expecting the Messerschmitt to open fire. But he didn’t fire!!
The Messerschmitt flew around the DC-3, eventually flying parallel with the plane so he could see in, and then he quickly dipped his wings 4 times and banked away, never to be seen again.
How amazing is that! Why didn’t he shoot? They were sitting ducks. Compassion? Chivalry?
It was a lucky escape for everyone on board, but can you imagine what it was like inside the plane while it was constantly dipping from side to side! Elsie had braced herself as best as she could but was frantically trying to stop her patients from rolling off their stretchers and the patients who could walk were crawling over to help those who had been flung against the walls. Medical equipment and supplies were scattered everywhere – but at least they were alive and all thanks to the chivalrous German pilot. I guess we’ll never know his name..
They continued on their journey and at one stop in Egypt, while Elsie and her patients were briefly in a British military hospital having wounds treated, she was informed that locals had stolen all her medical supplies from the plane! What next?! It seemed that everything was against her completing her mission but, luckily, the British medics came to the rescue and offered to replace everything that had been stolen.
Their route then took them from Africa across the Atlantic to South America where they had to change planes. After another 4 re-fuelling stops and a mountain of bureaucracy, they eventually landed at their destination and it had taken 6 days.
It is said that Elsie told an interviewer that she was so tired when the flight arrived in Washington, she was unable to answer simple questions and requested permission to fill out paperwork the next day. She couldn’t even remember her name and had to sneak a peek at her dog tags!
As a result of the success of her mission, those who thought long-range medical air evacuations were an unnecessary distraction had a much needed change of heart.
From her experiences and recommendations, the first school for training flight nurses was opened in Kentucky and eventually 30 Medical Air Evacuation Squadrons served in WWII. In total, over 1,172,000 patients were transported by air during the conflict.
For her incredible achievement Elsie received the Army Air Medal for determination and courage during her historic mission, the first woman to receive this medal.
This mission could have failed on a number of occasions had it not been for Elsie’s stoicism, fortitude and her ability to keep calm in all situations. This, plus the demands made upon this unsuspecting hero won my full admiration and respect.
Elsie went on to live a full and active life until her passing on 15th December 2006 at the age of 95 and, as per her request, her ashes were taken to the air and scattered over the Pacific Ocean.
Today, the National Museum of the US Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, has a permanent exhibit honouring Elsie and all the other pioneer Flight Nurses who followed.
Elsie, we salute you.
Ambassador/ Head of Research
Reference: Lt Elsie Ott’s Top Secret Mission by Jeffrey Copeland