AIR FORCE HISTORY: Capt. Lillian Kinkella Keil, AF hero


For National Nurse Appreciation week, I get the honor of telling you about one of our greatest military heroes – medical or otherwise, Capt. Lillian Kinkella Keil. One of the most decorated women in American military history, this nurse flew on 425 combat evacuation missions in World War II and Korea. The captain took part in 11 major campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, in Korea, where Air Force pilots and nurses flew almost 4,700 wounded Marines to safety in nine days.


Before her military career, in 1938 Keil became one of the first generation of stewardesses for United Airlines when many early flight attendants were nurses. It was a passenger who suggested, shortly after the beginning of World War II, that she become a flight nurse for the Army Air Forces. Although the role of the flight surgeon was developed in World War I, it was not until November of 1942, when the School of Air Evacuation opened at Bowman Field, KY., that the flight surgeon’s counterpart – the flight nurse – became a member of the medical flight team. Captain Keil was among the school’s first graduating class of flight nurses.


“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.


Because of the rigors of the job, flight nurse training demanded physically fit nurses. To pass the course, the nurses were required to successfully navigate 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, Captain Keil said, “so that no matter where we landed, we could take care of ourselves.”


Captain Keil and other flight nurses were soon on Douglas C-47s during the D-Day invasion, landing in the fields of France as close to Omaha beach as possible. Because the C-47s were also filled with military supplies, the aircraft did not carry Red Cross markings, which meant no protection from enemy fire. The planes Keil were on were often filled with supplies for Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. He knew where the supplies were coming from and how the nurses were taking care of his wounded soldiers. As a thank you, General Patton sent the flight nurses a case of liberated champagne.


After the war, Keil hung up her uniform and became a stewardess once again. That is, until the Korean peninsula erupted in war in June, 1950. Once again Keil volunteered to serve, this time in America’s newest military service branch, the United States Air Force. In the U.S.A.F. operations in the Far East, the only women permitted to serve in the Korean battle zone were medical air evacuation nurses of the U.S.A.F. Nurse Corps. During the next 16 months, Keil flew 175 air evacuations out of Korea, logging 1,400 hours of flight time. The 801st Medical Air Evacuation Transportation Squadron to which she was assigned, was one of the first units in the history of the U.S.A.F. to earn and receive the Distinguished Unit Award. She was one of only 30 Air Force flight nurses in the entire Far East.


Her extraordinary experiences inspired the 1953 movie Flight Nurse, starring Joan Leslie and Forrest Tucker, for which Keil was a technical advisor. 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 Captain 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,” Captain Kiel said. “This made them feel very important, and they loved that.”


In fact, Keil is estimated to have treated in excess of 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.