Honoring the American Heroine: The Story of 2nd Lt. Elsie S. Ott

Imagine never being on an airplane before and only given 24 hours to prepare for the supplies and preparations that will be needed for the responsibility of handling multiple incoming military patients. This scenario greeted Army Air Force 2nd Lt. Elsie Ott in January 1943 as she and her crew conducted the first intercontinental aeromedical evacuation for injured patients during World War II. Ott later became the first female recipient of the United States Air Medal.

Second Lieutenant Elsie S. Ott was born on November 5, 1913 and grew up in St. James, Long Island, New York. Ott attended Lenox Hill Hospital School of Nursing after high school graduation in 1933. She later graduated in 1936 from nursing school and joined the Army Nurse Corps in September 1941.

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Ott became an experimental test pilot for the first intercontinental aeromedical evacuation on January 17, 1943. Ott, five seriously ill patients, and a staff sergeant with medical technician experience and severe arthritis, flew for about 10,000 miles from Karachi, India to Washington, D.C.

At the time, Ott had about eight months of military experience, no flight experience, no transport preparation experience and was given short notice to prepare for the air evacuation flight.

Prior to her take off, Ott did not receive consultation from a flight surgeon on the types of supplies, medical care instructions or the selection of patients. On the morning of January 17, 1943, Ott and her crew flew from Karachi, India to the United States. It is also important to note that the flight only took six and a half days, and would have taken three months if transported by ground and ship instead.

Ott was responsible for the medical care of five casualties during the flight. Two patients were paralyzed from the waist down, one had tuberculosis, one had glaucoma and another patient had manic-depressive psychosis. She collected a bedpan, urinal, aspirin tablets, and other medical supplies during her flight preparations. She also received blankets, pillowcases, sheets, two Army cots and two mattresses.

Ott’s responsibilities during the flight were not just limited to medical care. She had to also pay for the patients’ meals and herself out of her own pocket. During the course of the flight, 11 more patients were added as they continued their journey home.

After traveling through multiple countries, Ott and her flight crew arrived at Bolling Army Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. on January 23, 1943. Ott accumulated flying fatigue from the mission and became exhausted once she returned, as she was also taking care of her own needs while serving the other people on board. Patients were then transferred to Walter Reed Army Hospital once they arrived back in the U.S.

During the historic flight, Ott took careful notes and gave suggestions for future air evacuations. Those suggestions included providing more bandages, blankets, oxygen, dressing supplies, and coffee.

Ott also suggested to not wear a skirt as a nurse, as she noted that skirts had an impractical use during the flight.

In comparison to modern-day air evacuation pre-flight procedures, there were no special facilities on board, other than webbing to secure the litters that were carrying the patients. Also, there were no medical professionals to screen patients and consult with Ott prior to flight take-off.

Ott’s historic air evacuation flight return to the U.S. revolutionized the future of air evacuations for the military medical community. Ott became the first Army Air Medal female recipient. She was awarded the U.S. Air Medal by President Roosevelt in March of 1943 at Bowman Army Air Field near Louisville, Ky., just two months after her historic flight.

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As a result of Ott’s heroism, Army General Davis N. Grant promoted the status of nurses and helped to start the first official training organization of flight nurses at Bowman Army Air Field. This new program included a four-week course in flight nursing, in which Ott was assigned by the Army to attend.

Ott was also promoted to Captain as a flight nurse before being discharged from military duty in 1946. She then married Larry Mandot and settled in Wheaton, IL.

In 1965, she was selected to christen a new type of air ambulance, called the C-9 Nightingale. Ott passed away in 2006.

The Purple Heart Foundation is committed to helping assist ALL veterans and their families, including specific issues which affect women in the military. Nearly 90% of cash donations received from The Purple Heart Foundation fund programs that help women and men in uniform, the Scholarship Program, the National Service Officers Program and other programs that provide rehabilitation and recreation for our nation’s heroes. The mission of The Purple Heart Foundation is to help make the transition from the battlefield to the home front as smooth as possible for all men and women in uniform.

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