TNB Night Owl – Reba Whittle

US Army flight nurse. Image captured by the News Blender.

During the Normandy invasion and the Allied drive across Europe, Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) airfields were critical to the success of our fighting forces. ALGs served as forward operating bases for fighter squadrons and resupply aircraft. Cargo planes, such as the C-47, brought ammunition and other priority supplies from bases in England to ALGs near the front lines. After unloading the war-fighting material, certain C-47s equipped with litters were reloaded with badly wounded soldiers for the trip back to England for hospitalization. These were Medical Air Evacuation Transport aircraft, and each one carried a highly trained and skilled nurse to care for the injured on the return flight. These women officers were members of the US Army Nurse Corps, known as ‘flight nurses’. Because the medical air evacuation planes also carried supplies inbound into the battle, they could not legally display a red medical cross on the wings or fuselage. (By international agreement combatants are not allowed to fire on vehicles displaying the red cross.) In other words, medical air evacuation aircraft were fair game for enemy fighters and anti-aircraft guns.

Reba Zitella Whittle (August 19, 1919 – January 26, 1981, aged 61 years old) was one of the flight nurses in the European theater. After graduating from nursing school she joined the US Army Nurse Corps, 10 June 1941, commissioned as a second lieutenant. For two years, she worked stateside Army hospitals, assigned as a general duty ward nurse. In August 1943, Whittle was selected for flight nurse training, graduating in November. In January 1944, she and two dozen other flight nurses embarked for England. In theater, she logged over 500 hours of flight time over the course of 40 evacuation missions. (That’s an average of 12.5 hours in the air per mission.)

On her 40th mission, her aircraft departed England and headed for Advanced Landing Ground A-92 located outside St. Trond, Belgium. Their orders were to pick up wounded personnel at ALG A-92. A navigation error seems to have occurred, however, and they overshot A-92 by 70 km (43 mi). This mistake took them deep behind the German lines until they approached the heavily-defended German city of Aachen. Accurate anti-aircraft fire shot down the C-47. The survivors were quickly taken prisoner, treated for their injuries and questioned. Whittle had suffered a concussion and lacerations. Having a woman POW to deal with was a problem for the Germans, whose prisons were designed only for men. Eventually, they decided she could assist British POW doctors and medics, caring for the wounded. Later she was transferred to another POW hospital caring for burn victims and amputees.

After four months as a POW, the Germans turned Whittle over to the Swiss Red Cross. The logistics of taking care of one female POW was an inconvenience, so the Germans let her go, along with a number of POWs with bad physical injuries or psychological issues. The Swiss arranged for all of them to get back to the States by February.

Whittle married Lieutenant Colonel Stanley W. Tobiason on August 3, 1945. She was discharged January 13, 1946. They had two children, but Whittle suffered from headaches and other physical and psychiatric maladies for the rest if her life. She had to fight the army for medical benefits. Eventually she won, but didn’t get all that she was otherwise entitled to. She died of cancer in 1981. Over two years later, the Department of Defense finally granted her recognition as a POW. She was the only American servicewoman ever to be captured and held POW by the Germans.

“The Forgotten American POW – The Only US Servicewoman Captured by the Germans” (14:51)

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About Richard Doud 390 Articles
Learning is a life-long endeavor. Never stop learning. No one is right all the time. No one is wrong all the time. No exceptions to these rules.