Ex-flight nurse says the wounded are heroes

Monday, June 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

It was a privilege to aid the soldiers she helped evacuate from combat zones, a Covina woman says.

COVINA, CA - The flying hospitals took off on a moment's notice, landed near the battlefield and often took incoming fire on final approach.

They came back carrying precious cargo, soldiers and airmen and Marines wounded in action and requiring specialized care. The Air Force called them air evacuation missions, "evac flights."

And Lillian Kinkela Keil made 425 of them, 175 in Korea.

A registered nurse and an Air Force lieutenant and later captain, Keil tended to the hurt, changing bandages, administering drugs, offering a kind word.

There were so many. Never fewer than 24 on a flight, sometimes more than 80. Guys who had lost arms and legs, or suffered grievous head wounds, were sedated with powerful narcotics.

Keil's work made her a legend. She logged more than 15,000 hours in the air, nearly two years. Hollywood used her as the inspiration for the 1953 film "Flight Nurse." To those she cared for, she was "Miss Mercy Mileage."

Overall, Keil took part in 11 major campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and Chosin Reservoir in Korea, where Air Force pilots and nurses flew 4,690 wounded Marines to safety over nine days.

The 83-year-old resident of Covina scoffs at the notion that she's a hero. Those guys on the planes could have been her brothers. Both her siblings served in World War II and one was killed in action in the South Pacific. She hopes he had someone to comfort him in his last moments.

"They were scared, they were wounded, they were afraid they were going to die," Keil said of her patients in both wars. "They were so happy to be out of the war. I reminded them of their mothers and sisters and sweethearts.
"It was a privilege to serve them. I'm a nurse. I liked flying. I like being needed. It was my work, what I was put on this earth for," she said.

Keil's ultimate test came at Chosin Reservoir through November and December 1950. About 15,000 Americans faced more than 200,000 Chinese troops in a desperate battle that threatened to annihilate Marine and Army units.

She was part of an air crew that worked 72 straight hours, completing several evac flights into Hagaru. Flying into Hagaru meant landing on a short and muddy runway surrounded on three sides by the enemy, who held the high ground. Keil heard the nearby fighting while wounded filled the unarmed and unescorted plane, which took off 30 minutes later.

Writing in the history of the U.S. Combat Cargo Command, Capt. Annis Thompson wrote of the heroism of Air Force flight nurses and pilots, saying "they saved hundreds of . . . lives by the prompt and safe airlift of the wounded under unbelievably bad conditions."

In addition to her work in the military, Keil served as a flight attendant for United Airlines from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Joe Vargo can be reached by e-mail at jvargo@pe.com or by phone at (909) 587-3140