Chapter 36



Service Details

Shortly after the commencement of the Korean War, the Royal Australian Air Force advertised for suitably qualified Nursing Sisters to serve in that conflict. Nathalie Wittmann (nee Sister Oldham) answered the "call to the colours". Highly qualified in a number of specialities, she was required to undergo RAAF familiarisation and orientation courses at a number of RAAF stations in Australia, including an intense but speedy course in Medical Air Evacuation procedures. On graduation she was posted to the RAAF Hospital at Iwakuni, Japan and almost immediately was directly involved in the medical air evacuation of wounded Australian and British Commonwealth troops from Korea. She remained in this role for most of her service in the RAAF. During service she became formally engaged to an RAAF fighter pilot (77 Squadron RAAF) and on her return to Australia, married. The RAAF rules & regulations of the period required her to resign from the RAAF on marriage. Nathalie lives in Canberra and spends much time with her five children and grand children. She is actively involved in a number of community based projects and is directly and keenly involved in the welfare and activities of former Nursing Sisters.


Early in 1951 I read a newspaper advertisement recruiting Nursing Sisters for service in the RAAF. The ad highlighted the prospect of Medical Air Evacuation experience, which immediately attracted my attention. Having spent the previous nine years qualifying and working in the fields of General Nursing, Infectious Diseases, Obstetrics and Infant Welfare, I could not resist this exotic opportunity so promptly despatched my application . My close friend, Joan Clayton, also applied and after satisfactory medicals we were inducted in July and posted to 6 RAAF Hospital , at the RAAF Base, Laverton, Victoria. Joan and I, together with six other Nursing Sisters, attended a two weeks course in Medical Air Evacuation at RAAF Base, Point Cook in January 1952. Much to my surprise a few weeks after completion of the course I was posted to 391 (C) Wing at RAAF Base, Iwakuni, Japan, for duties with the Base Hospital which was Commanded by Squadron Leader D.A.S. Morgan and at which Senior Sister Tess Cleary was Matron.

I arrived at Iwakuni on 12th March 1952 (per Qantas and via Darwin, Labuan and Hong Kong) and set forth on my first Medical Air Evacuation Flight three days later. From that point in time trips averaged one a week as they were shared among six Sisters. Most of our working days were spent on normal hospital duties, but the excellent Base facilities and pleasant, fishing village atmosphere of Iwakuni provided a good foundation for a happy and enthusiastic approach to both on and off duty activities. Days were busy, experiences varied and interesting. The serious but rarely depressing work with patients was spiced with the novelty of building so many friendships, or acquaintances as the case may be. There seemed to be an endless cavalcade of "characters".

I became close friends with some of the Dakota crew members who were more like brothers than workmates. They worked very hard under frustrating conditions yet seemed to maintain a better sense of humour than most. An "evergreen lark" they enjoyed so much was to have a Sister transmit some of the routine Position and Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA's) reports as we approached Seoul. A woman's voice on the radio never failed to draw a humorous response from the Control Tower.

Yungdungpo (K16) was the focus of our Medical Air Evacuation Flights because British Commonwealth patients were assembled there for evacuation to Iwakuni and subsequent hospitalisation in Kure. Consequently, nearly all of our flights were from Iwakuni to K16 and return. Our aircraft did not display the RED CROSS insignia so that our inbound flights to K16, our Dakotas (C47s) carried cargo, troops and even munitions on occasions. In winter, the medical supplies, which included blankets, our miscellaneous cargo (blankets) was a blessing as it allowed us to curl up on top of the pallets and maybe have a sleep. It was bone chilling inside the fuselage compartment of a Dakota and at least trickle of warm air could detected near the ceiling. On arrival at K16 one of the welcome sights , on opening the cargo doors, was the big black face of an American, wreathed in light blue fur (issue Pakha ?). The face belonged to a soldier in charge of mobile hot air machines and his familiar southern drawl "want any hot air Ma'm" always brought a "yes please" smile to my face. Of course his second utterance was usually something like; "Got anything to sell Ma'm - Sure could use some lipstick". It would have been easy to become a trader.

The United States Air Force (USAF) employed C47 aircraft for Medical Air Evacuation flights from the shorter runways of forward airstrips and tactical airfields but didn't enthusiastically approve of our use of the aircraft for relatively long range over-water flights in the Medical Evacuation role. However, our Dakota's and crews performed admirably and very successfully fulfilled their roles without blemish. On a few occasions, when forced to divert from the predetermined destination (for a variety of reasons), it was necessary to unload the patients, refuel and then reload before proceeding. The inconvenience caused, probably could have been avoided had we possessed C54s like the Americans for long range medical evacuations roles. We did not have that luxury.

In July I was attached to the 801st Medical Air Evacuation Squadron, (MAES) United States Air Force, in order to work with their Flight Nurses and report on my experiences and observations. The 801st MAES was responsible for Medical Air Evacuation, from Korea, of wounded and sick personnel of the American Forces and those of other Allied forces except British Commonwealth personnel. The latter were evacuated by 30 Transport Unit (RAAF) for treatment at the British Commonwealth Hospital in Kure. Based at Tachikawa (Tokyo - Japan), the 801st flew C54s to a number of pick up points in Korea, including Kimpo, Yungdungpo, Wonjin, Taegu and Pusan, the latter base known as "Dogpatch" and transported patients back to Japan, either to Itami for treatment which was the major US Army Hospital in Japan or sometimes to Tachikawa.

I arrived at Tachikawa on 27 July 1952 by USAF transport flight from Iwakuni and was welcomed that night by a large number of the staff. I later learned that the rank of "Sister" had mislead them to expect a Nun, not just a "Nursing Sister". No doubt, curiosity prevailed. The Nurses of the 801st could not have been more helpful and hospitable and my time with them, both on and off duty, was happy and rewarding. Their modus operandi , in the Medical Air Evacuation role, differed little from ours but in other ways they enjoyed far superior "conditions of service" than us and it was difficult not to envy them. Their pay-for-rank equated with the men's pay and they received generous flying pay. Nor were they called upon to perform routine hospital duties as we were. Most of them owned and drove big American cars. By contrast our Junior Sisters earned less than Corporal Medical Orderlies. Maybe the RAAF thought we were Nuns ! During my first two weeks with the 801st I performed Medical Air Evacuation duties in C54s on four missions to Korea and found their methods to be just like ours but was most conscious of the abundance of facilities and equipment at their disposal. I had already experienced the helpfulness and generosity of American medical staff at Yungdungpo when we needed help with our (RAAF) Medical Air Evacuation services at that Base so it was no surprise to find that the same co-operative spirit prevailed in the 801st work ethic. On 10 August I was sent from Tachikawa to spend a few days with four 801st Flight Nurses who were performing rostered duties at their forward area detachment at K16. We worked in fairly primitive conditions typical of forward bases and were accommodated in huts. On arrival I was a little surprised to be issued with a "tin helmet" which I was required to wear at all times when not flying. Using C47 aircraft (Dakotas), the detachment provided "on call" Medical Air Evacuation services to forward strips and tactical airfields such as Wonju, Yang-ju, Kunsan and Chunchon and escorted patients back to Yungdungpo for treatment at the 121st Evacuation Hospital in Seoul and then transfer back to Japan when necessary and appropriate.

Whilst at Yongdongpo I was invited, with two USAF Nurses, to visit the USN Hospital Ship Repose. anchored in Inchon Harbour. We travelled to Inchon by jeep and out to the ship by motor launch. We spent an interesting couple of hours on board, escorted mainly by an American Padre. The hospital ship impressed us mainly because of its simple and complete representation of a large Base Hospital with professionally efficient wards and abundant facilities. Another hospital ship, the USN Haven, was also in harbour. Both ships were equipped with "helipads" for rapid reception of seriously wounded servicemen, particularly those who had severe head wounds. Such patients, from all allied countries, were evacuated from the front for urgent treatment. On the 13th August, I returned from my K16 detachment by C124 to Tachikawa. That was my first experience of flying in such a huge aircraft, which was capable of carrying nearly 150 litters when used in the Medical Air Evacuation role. Before returning to Iwakuni, two days later, about thirty members of the 801st MAES farewelled me with a luncheon in the Officers' Club at Tachikawa and presented me with a copy of a "Short History of the 801st Medical Air Evacuation Squadron" which had been autographed by all who had attended the luncheon. I was deeply impressed by this generous gesture and possession of that "history" still raises fond memories of happy days with the 801st.

In November 1952 a Medical Evacuation Ward was established the British Commonwealth Zone Medical Unit (BCZMU) situated on the outskirts of Seoul. The purpose of this ward was to assemble and prepare wounded and sick patients for medical evacuation to Iwakuni via K16. Sister Cathie Daniels and supporting Medical Orderlies set up and manned the Evacuation Ward before I joined them on 10th December, my birthday. The Sisters and Orderlies were provided by the RAAF Base Hospital Iwakuni and were to be rostered for two months with a one month overlap. It was a Spartan existence at the hospital at that time, but for me, and no doubt for others, the severe cold was my greatest hardship. The few pot-bellied stoves were impotent against the sub-zero temperatures and the flimsy wood construction of our ward, which was outside the main brick structure of the hospital. Outside toilets and the ablutions block were freezing and hot water frequently unavailable in the unisex shower which was reserved for females (with armed guard posted) for one hour each afternoon. It seemed that everyone got caught once, getting undressed before checking whether hot water was available - or not.

One day a patient returned from the shower with hypothermia which triggered intense activity of the staff to affect his recovery. We all felt so guilty for not having recognised his emotional fragility. Most, but not all patients in our Ward were ambulatory and fully dressed during the day but at night usually just removed their boots retire. It was so cold and none of the patients had pyjamas.

Our Ward had a bad reputation for response to Air Raid Alert Practice, mainly because of the mobile state of our patients who could wander or visit mates in the main section of the hospital, so we encouraged them to go to bed in "Marching Order", which literally was fully clothed except for boots. The one night that "Bed-check Charlie" caused a real air raid alert, during my duty in Seoul, I slept right through it.

Opportunities to socialise were rare due to the "blackout", the lack of transport, the necessity to be escorted everywhere, our long duty rosters and very early rising on Medical Evacuation days. However, I was invited, with other Sisters from the BCZMU (British Commonwealth Zone Medical Unit) to visit the Officers Club at the 121st Evacuation Hospital in Seoul on a couple of occasions. The young Medical Officers were good fun and very hospitable. It was surprising to find that a large number of them were combat soldiers of WW2 , who had undertaken their medical training after the end of the war under the Veteran Training Scheme and were obliged to serve again - as Doctors - when the Korean War broke out.

My fiance was a pilot in 77 Squadron, RAAF, based at Iwakuni converting new pilots onto Meteors and visited Kimpo (K14) frequently but found it nearly impossible to visit me because of the blackout, lack of transport and of course my very full duty roster. Fortunately, one his mates, Ross Alexander, was the Squadron Public Relations Officer who had the only jeep on the squadron and very kindly made it available to my fiance on one occasion.

One of my most memorable experience occurred whilst I was at the BCZMU in Seoul. A battalion of the Princess Pat's (Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry {PPCLI}) was returning to Canada after completing its tour of duty (12 months) in Korea and on the way to Inchon to embark the troops per ship to Canada. The Band and some troops visited the hospital. It was late afternoon, snowing lightly and almost dusk when on the drill square, in front of the hospital, they "Beat the Retreat" for some of their mates who were still in hospital - and possibly for all the other Commonwealth troops who remained behind. I am sure that there wasn't a dry eye amongst the Nursing Staff who were watching from the windows overlooking the square.

I completed my duty in Seoul on 14th February 1953 and returned happily to the relative warmth and luxury of life at Iwakuni. On 6h April I returned to Australia and posted to the RAAF Base, Laverton, Victoria.

Five children later, whilst my husband was serving in Vietnam, I returned to nursing as an Infant Health Sister in the ACT and was consulted by a young Korean couple with a baby. The husband was enrolled at the Australian National University (ANU). When he said that they came from Seoul, I remarked that I had served there as a Nurse during the Korean War. He rose from his seat, bowed deeply and said "Thank you Ma'm". About a fortnight later, they visited again and he presented me with a small exquisite, hand woven trinket basket, which I treasure.

Despite the passage of over 4 decades, the Koreans have not forgotten the service and sacrifice given by Australians.


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