National Geographic : 1945 Sep
Flying Our Wounded Veterans Home ated in any one airplane, counting the ambu latory, was 74. Meanwhile, mass air evacuation had become a military necessity in the New Guinea and Solomon Islands counteroffensives beginning August, 1942. First large-scale organized evacuation opera tion as part of a military campaign began almost simultaneously in these areas in Sep tember, 1942. Flight Surgeons in these theaters were di rected to improvise air-evacuation service from available medical personnel of tactical units. This was done, drawing mainly on the Troop Carrier and Air Transport units, which like wise furnished the airplanes. During the first 72 days of this service, more than 13,000 pa tients were flown across the Owen Stanley Range. The trip by air took less than an hour; by foot or on pack animals it would have taken more than a week. Patients Loaded on Planes under Fire Soon after the beginning of the Navy-Ma rine Corps offensive on Guadalcanal in August, 1942, need for evacuation of casualties to rear area hospitals became urgent. Forward-area medical stations were taxed by the growing casualties from both island and naval opera tions. Evacuation by sea was unsatisfactory because arrival and departure of ships were uncertain. By September Marine DC-3's and by Oc tober AAF Troop Carrier C-47's were landing by night at Henderson Field, unloading am munition and gasoline, loading wounded sol diers, and taking off on the return trip of 1,000 miles or more to their base in New Caledonia. Frequently the loading of patients was con ducted under artillery and aerial bombardment and in total darkness. The first experiment with air evacuation on Guadalcanal was on September 6, 1942. A Marine pilot was shot down behind Jap lines and wandered for days through the jungle. He managed to stagger back to American lines on Guadalcanal. He was carried to a field hospital. The Japs bombed the hospital. The condi tion of the pilot became critical. He was flown to a base several hundred miles to the rear. He recovered. "Best medicine we can give a wounded or sick man is to tell him 'Tonight you can sleep without being bombed,' " reported one officer. In October, 1942, the South Pacific Com bat Air Transport (SCAT) was formed, with the 13th Air Force performing air-evacuation service in conjunction with Navy and Marine Corps aircraft under the joint supervision of AAF, Navy, and Marine Corps medical per sonnel. In those early days it was not always pos sible to have medical personnel accompany the wounded on the planes. Army nurses began flying on SCAT runs in February, 1943, the same month the first class of flight nurses was graduated from the AAF School of Air Evacuation. Nurses who first served with SCAT returned from the South Pacific to complete flight nurse training. "The patients were given last-minute medi cal treatment before being put on the plane," said Marine Lt. Col. Harry F. Baker, Jr., a SCAT pilot in 1942. "In flight, the co-pilot or I went back and asked the boys if they wanted a drink of water or if there was anything we could do for them." In the Central Pacific a Marine Corps squadron was based on American Samoa in September, 1943. This was the beginning of the Central Pacific Combat Air Transport Service (CENCATS), composed of Army, Navy, and Marine Corps personnel and later renamed Transport Air Group (TAG). The primary purpose of TAG was to fly supplies and ammunition from Samoa to other islands in the Central Pacific-Wallis, Funa futi (page 371), Nukufetau, and Nanumea. The planes, R4D's, could be quickly converted to evacuate battle casualties. "It Was Informal, but It Worked!" Marine Lt. Col. Edmund L. Zonne, former Commanding Officer of TAG, flew the first transport plane to land at Tarawa, on D Day plus 6. After this flight, wounded were evac uated from Tarawa on the transport planes. "Many times when we landed, someone would rush up and ask if we could take wounded back with us," said Colonel Zonne. "We said we could, and the crew and anyone who happened to be near by helped load the patients. It was informal, but it worked!" Conquest of the Gilbert,* Marshall, and Marianas Islands, approximately equidistant from Australia and Hawaii, presented obsta cles to evacuation of wounded. Surface vessels required many days or weeks to transport personnel and supplies to and from the battle areas. Also, aircraft were handicapped by distances as well as by the lack of landing strips on the invaded islands, particularly during early stages of combat operations. * See "Gilbert Islands in the Wake of Battle," by W. Robert Moore, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAG AZINE, February, 1945.