Think Piece: I just wanted to be there
Source: Jennifer Dowling, published 1 December, 2016
I wanted to join the RAAF as a Pilot after attending an Air Force open day at Richmond RAAF Base (NSW) back in 1966. My enquiries through recruitment however, led me down another route, as women were not accepted into flying roles at that time. So I chose a career in nursing instead. Even after graduating from nursing I couldn’t join the RAAF. By then I was married with an expectation of children. It wasn’t until many years later that married women were accepted into the RAAF. Yet it would be another 14 years before the opportunity arose for me to join the Air Force Reserves as a RAAF Nursing Officer. I was ecstatic when this finally occurred.
It meant I was able to do the Aero Medical Evacuation (AME) Course on various RAAF aircraft, including the Hercules and Caribou’s. At last I was flying, although in a different way than I had first imagined. Nevertheless, I loved it.
Learning about the history of this essential role, made me realise just how difficult it would have been in times of war and conflict, to have been working as part of the RAAF Nursing Service. Given my new insider’s view of the conditions under which they had been required to work, I was now in awe of the nurses who had been part of these units.
The earliest recorded aeromedical evacuation (medivac) believed to have occurred anywhere in the world was in 1870 in France, when 180 casualties were successfully evacuated from Paris by balloon. The first recorded case of a patient successfully being transported by motorised aircraft was in 1915, again in France. In 1918, the RAF moved patients on stretchers fixed inside the tail end of a Bi Plane DH9, and from this time forward aircraft continued to be used as ambulances. By 1938, it is estimated that over 2,000 patients had been transported out of conflict zones by air.
The RAAF’s aero evacuation service began operating in 1941 with the formation of No 1 Air Ambulance Unit. During World War II this unit evacuated over 9,000 patients from conflict zones in the Middle East. When the New Guinea campaign began, heavy casualty numbers required mass evacuations and in 1944 the No 1 MAETU was established in Papua New Guinea. The unit consisted of 15 RAAF Nursing Sisters and Medical Orderlies. Their training included survival skills on land and in water, tropical medicine, altitude chamber training, as well as caring for patients at altitude.
No I MAETU was stationed at Nadzab, Papua New Guinea, using mostly DC47 Dakotas (Daks). As many as 18 stretchers/litters would be stacked three high on each side of the aircraft, allowing room for seating of the walking wounded and cargo. The aircraft were painted in the usual drab olive camouflage with no Red Cross insignia. Flight conditions over the mountains in PNG could be very challenging. Flight Officers had a difficult and dangerous task of sometimes having to ascend quickly to 18,000 feet.
With outward flight legs to collect patients in forward combat areas usually filled with cargo, the Sister and Orderly were required to fit in around these loads as best as they could. After the cargo was unloaded, the patients were quickly boarded having been waiting for their evacuation on exposed coral airstrips in searing heat.
Approximately 8,000 patients were evacuated in the first year of No. 1 MAETU operations. In May 1945 alone, there were nearly 2,000 patients evacuated from the Wewak and Bougainville Campaigns.
A typical day in a medvac unit usually began early. This was to get beyond the PNG ranges by midday before the build-up of the afternoon thunderstorms, as by the early afternoon it became increasingly difficult to see the peaks and valleys of these impressive mountains.
The nurses clocked up an average 75 flying hours a month, transporting patients from forward battle areas to hospitals in PNG, and then to Australia where required. Occasionally they flew wounded American soldiers across the Pacific to San Francisco – a 40 hour flight.
On 18 September 1945, during evacuations after the war, 29 lives were lost when a Dakota crashed into a mountain in PNG. There were 2 MAETU Nurses on board. The wreckage of the plane was not found until 1967. The remains of all on board were recovered and interred at Port Moresby’s Bomana War Cemetery.
Despite flying over 1,000 hours with the RAAF, the Australian Medical Evacuation (AME) team were never formally recognised as Air Crew, only being awarded a flying ‘badge’. The American Nursing Service and Royal Navy Nursing Service had wings, and when I was a RFDS Flight Nurse, I had a half wing badge. Seventy years later they are still waiting.
At the end of the war these nurses prepared for what was to be one of their most heartbreaking tasks of World War II – the recovery and repatriation of thousands of Australian prisoners of war.
The RAAFNS was formed in 1940 and disbanded in December 1945. However, the service was reformed in 1948 with Australian nurses continuing to proudly serve in all areas of conflict and civilian emergencies since, using the same efficiency, skill, compassion and high standards they have applied for more than 75 years.
To my brave and departed colleagues, I salute you.
Lest we forget.