On This Day – Elsie S Ott Becomes First Woman to Receive US Air Medal

Photograph courtesy of the United States Government Printing Office.
Photograph courtesy of the United States Government Printing Office.

On this day in 1943, Elsie S Ott (1913-2006) became the first woman in United States history to receive the Air Medal. Second Lieutenant Elsie Ott was the first nurse to prepare for an evacuation of the injured. She had never been on an airplane before and was given just 24 hours notice, making her responsible for supplying and preparing the plane for her passengers.

Military leaders planned the first evacuation to be from Karachi, India to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. With Ott selected for the flight, it was arranged that the same plane that would drop off combat troops would then carry back the wounded, but the only medical equipment available to her was the equivalent of a first aid kit. She and a sergeant with a background as a medical technician were the only people on board to care for the patients. The first flight had five people who were injured or ill: two were paralysed from the waist down while the other three were ambulatory, one with tuberculosis, another with glaucoma, and the fifth person was suffering manic-depressive psychosis.
The trip was long and arduous for Ott as well as the patients, but this flight that spanned six-and-a-half days would have normally taken three months by sea or ground. Therefore, her work demonstrated the usefulness and superiority of air evacuation. Knowing that her report on the situation and her duties would be useful for future emergencies, Ott made note of certain things, such as the equipment she would need greater supplies of and the fact that wearing a skirt was impractical for an operation of this kind.
On 26 March 1943, Ott received the first Air Medal ever given to a woman in the United States Army. While some people continued to protest the use of women as nurses on these flights, by the autumn of 1943, General Davis N. Grant abolished those concerns and started the first ever training program for flight nurses at Bowman Army Air Field in Kentucky. Furthermore, the Cadet Nurse Corps program was passed by Congress unanimously and became effective on 1 July 1943.