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By Laura Enderson
Over 1 million American have given their lives to defend their country. Although the United States Air Force flight nurses never fired a rifle, they comforted and protected those who did.
1st Lt. Evelyn “Chappy” Kowalchuk was given a tribute and presented a flag to recognize her service as a flight nurse during World War II, at the “Remembering Their Sacrifice” ceremony on Memorial Day, Monday at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford.
Kowalchuk, 92, was one of the 25 nurses to serve in the 818th Medical Air Evac Transport Squadron (MAETS) during WWII. The MAETS evacuated wounded soldiers from Omaha Beach on D+3. It was the flight nurses’ job to keep injured solders alive until they were able to get them back to Europe for further care.
Flight nurses tended, treated and comforted wounded solders — something that took valor, fidelity and sacrifice, said April Cheek-Messier, vice president for operations and education for the Nation D-Day Memorial Foundation, during the Memorial Day preamble.
A new narrative plaque commemorating the 500 U.S. Air Force flight nurses for their dedication was presented at the memorial ceremony. As a testament to the flight nurses dedication and training, only 46 of the 1.1 million air evacuated patients died.
“I’m honored to be here to receive this award. I wish the others could be here,” Kowalchuk said about her fellow flight nurses.
WWII flight nurses served on C46 and C47 cargo ships that carried troops, military supplies and evacuation kits that included many different medical supplies. But because the planes were multi-purpose, the flight nurses were not allowed the safety of the marking of the Geneva Red Cross indicating non-combat status, putting the flight nurses in direct danger.
During her service as a flight nurse, Kowalchuk witnessed terrible injures and deadly wounds, all while remaining in danger from enemy attacks. Often, when it was too dark to fly, the flight nurses had to remain in the battle zone overnight. Seventeen flight nurses lost their lives during the war.
“We’re here to honor special women who had firsthand experience with sacrifice. [Flight nurses] are part of a larger story from the war we don’t often hear — those who put their lives on the line to tend to the sick, wounded and dying,” Cheek-Messier said.
Cheek-Messier said that Kowalchuk once had to comfort a dying young solder. Kowalchuk held his head in her lap and sang him an old Ukrainian lullaby.
It wasn’t all gloom though, Cheek-Messier said, as Kowalchuk likes to remember the good, funny memories, like the time she helped a fellow flight nurse get ready for a wedding, and ended up accidentally burning part of her dress.
Kowalchuk is a New Jersey native. When she enlisted, she began her training in North Carolina and was then transferred to Europe, where she was sent to the war zone as a flight nurse. Flight nurses, because of the danger from enemy fire, were volunteer only, and Kowalchuk was happy to make the sacrifice, Cheek-Messier said.
Kowalchuk is now a Bedford County resident and was pleased with the proceedings, as well as surprised about the turnout at the Memorial Day ceremony.
“I’m proud of the D-Day Memorial,” Kowalchuk said. “I was here when they dug the first hole and I’m here now, at 92.”
Congressman Robert Hurt honored Kowalchuk with an American flag from the Capitol.
“These flight nurses were angels on the field,” Hurt said. “They saw the horrors of the war magnified and provided comfort and tenderness for the solders as they went to meet their Maker.”