Women's History Month: Saving lives as World War II flight nurse

  • Published
  • By Kevin M. Hymel
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office

As a flight nurse during World War II, 1st Lt. Madeline “Del” D’Eletto, saw some of her first action transporting Soldiers wounded in D-Day landings back to Great Britain via aeromedical evacuation.

From D-Day until the end of the war, D’Eletto spent her days caring for wounded soldiers aboard a Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft, flying from the battlefields of Europe to the hospitals of Great Britain.

“It was raw, hard work,” she recalled.

D’Eletto, from New Castle, Pennsylvania, was already a nurse when she joined the Army on April 18, 1942. After serving at the Army Hospital at Key Field in Meridian, Mississippi, she attended the Air Evacuation School at Bowman Field, Kentucky. Upon graduation, she was assigned to the 437th Troop Carrier Group’s 814th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron in 1943, flying out of Royal Air Force Station Ramsbury, Great Britain.

On June 6, 1944, Allied forces assaulted the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. It took three days to build landing fields at Omaha Beach. Soon after, D’Eletto climbed aboard a C-47 for her first medical evacuation mission. After flying over the English Channel, her aircraft crossed the Normandy beach.

“I could see Soldiers on the beach, the gold of the sand, the brown of their uniforms, and red blood,” she said. As the plane landed, she saw Soldiers making their way through mud on the flooded plains. Once the plane stopped, she took on her first load of wounded Soldiers.

And so it began. Every morning D’Eletto flew to France, picked up a batch of wounded Soldiers, and flew them back to England. “It was work, work, work,” she said, but the planes would quickly get Soldiers to care.

On the ground in France, she watched medics strap patients onto their stretchers, and sometimes lending a hand. The doctors would tell her each patient’s injury and possible treatments. “It was not easy to stand there as the stretchers were readied,” she recalled. While she waited for the next batch, she often observed doctors working on wounded soldiers brought directly from the front lines.

Sometimes D’Eletto talked to her patients but got no response. “That’s when you realized they were in terrible pain,” she said.

She kept busy moving from patient to patient, adjusting tourniquets and keeping men from bleeding. More than once, the men’s stitched abdomens swelled as the aircraft rapidly ascended, forcing her to cut the sutures to prevent further damage. Once the plane touched down in England, ambulances rushed the patients to the hospital.

“You would get to a point where your mind wouldn’t work properly, then someone would say, ‘Do this!’ and you’d snap back and get to work.”

When the Germans launched the Battle of the Bulge on December 16, 1944, D’Eletto and her crew retrieved casualties as the snow fell. At one stop, she saw Soldiers’ frozen bodies. “That was a bad sight for me.”

As the Allies neared victory in 1945, the war began winding down. With fewer evacuation flights, D’Eletto volunteered at a British military hospital.

Not long after, she woke up to hear people cheering, “It’s over! It’s over!” It was May 9, 1945 and Germany had surrendered. Celebrations exploded across Europe and the United States. “There were songs and dances,” said D’Eletto. “There was noise on both sides of the Channel.”

Four months after the surrender, D’Eletto boarded a ship to go home.

Looking back on World War II, D’Eletto admits that it changed her life. “You got to know people in a down-to-Earth way, where good qualities were brought out,” she said. “You got to know others deeply.”

When asked what advice she would give someone joining today’s Air Force Medical Service, she stressed getting all the good training they could. “It really helped me.”