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Capt. Lillian Kinkella Keil: A legacy of military medical service

  • Published
  • By Howard E. Halvorsen
  • 59th Medical Wing Historian
The 59th Medical Wing celebrates Nurse and Technician Appreciation Week May 6-12, and this week's Airmen heritage contribution honors one of the greatest military heroes - medical or otherwise - Capt. Lillian Kinkella Keil.

One of the most decorated women in American military history, Keil was part of 425 combat evacuation missions in World War II and Korea. She took part in 11 major campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in Korea, during which, Air Force pilots and nurses flew almost 4,700 wounded U.S. Marines to safety in nine days.

In 1938, before entering the military, Keil became one of the first generation of stewardesses for United Airlines. At the time, many stewardesses were nurses. Shortly after the start of World War II, a passenger suggested she become a flight nurse for the Army-Air Forces.

Although the role of flight surgeon was developed in World War I, it was not until November 1942 that the flight surgeon's counterpart, the flight nurse, became a member of the medical flight team. Keil was among the school's first graduating class of flight nurses from the School of Air Evacuation in Bowman Field, Ky.

"During World War II, although women performed many roles in the U.S. military, only nurses were allowed in combat zones," said Jeff Duford, Air Force Museum research historian.

The rigors of the job demanded flight nurses to be physically fit. The intense training course included navigating an obstacle course, sliding on their stomachs beneath a live wire, and swimming under ignited gasoline.

"This was important training in the event the nurses crashed somewhere so that no matter where we landed, we could take care of ourselves," Keil said.

As the D-Day invasion unfolded before the nation, Keil and other flight nurses boarded Douglas C-47s. Although medical teams were aboard the aircraft, the C-47s also carried military supplies, which meant the aircraft did not carry Red Cross markings. This left them vulnerable to enemy fire. Keil often flew on planes filled with supplies for Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army. Patton knew where the supplies were coming from, and how the nurses were taking care of his wounded soldiers.

After the war, Keil hung up her uniform and became a stewardess once again. But, when war erupted on the Korean peninsula in June 1950, Keil volunteered to serve again. She picked up where she left off, only this time as a member of America's newest military service branch, the U.S. Air Force.

For Air Force operations in the Far East, the only women permitted to serve in the Korean battle zone were medical air evacuation nurses of the USAF Nurse Corps. During the next 16 months, Keil flew 175 air evacuations out of Korea, logging 1,400 flight hours.

The 801st Medical Air Evacuation Transportation Squadron, to which she was assigned, was one of the first units in the history of the service to earn and receive the Distinguished Unit Award.

She was also one of only 30 Air Force flight nurses in the entire Far East. Her extraordinary experiences inspired the movie Flight Nurse, released in 1953. Keil also served as technical advisor on set.

For her military service in two wars she was awarded 19 medals, including a European Theater medal with four battle stars, a Korean service medal with seven battle stars, four air medals and a Presidential Citation from the Republic of Korea.

"She never questioned what she needed to do when there was a war. It was her calling, and she called the soldiers her 'boys,'" her daughter said.

According to Keil, every patient was unique and memorable.

"I had to make each patient feel [as though] he was the only one on the plane I was caring for, yet I was taking care of 23 others," Keil said. "This made them feel very important, and they loved that."

It is estimated Keil treated more than 10,000 wounded service members in just this way. This may be why, after her 1961 appearance on the popular television program "This Is Your Life" which normally hosted celebrities and movie stars, her episode generated one of the 10 highest mail responses in the program's long history.

Keil led a hero's life and remained active in veterans' affairs until her death in 2005, at age 88.

Flight Nurse's Creed

As a Flight Nurse...

   I will use my knowledge, skill and energy in the best interest of the persons entrusted to my care.

   I will maintain and preserve the dignity of the patients using all the means available to me.

   I will be mindful of the trust placed in me and do nothing to diminish that trust.

   I will accept my responsibilities as an aeromedical team member and acknowledge the contributions of each member toward successful mission accomplishment.

   I will hold faith with those Flight Nurses who have preceded me, and endeavor to bring honor and respect to the Air Force Nurse Corps.

   This I will do. I will not falter in peace or in war.