Canadian Nursing Sisters in the Cold War

Canadian Nursing Sisters in the Cold War

At the end of the Second World War a total of 80 nurses, 30 RCAMC, 30 RCAF and 20 RCN sisters joined the permanent force and served at military establishments across the country; many more staffed the Department of Veterans Affairs’ hospitals to care for hundreds of returning Veterans.  Nursing Sisters continued to serve with the Armed Forces after the end of the Second World War.  During the United Nations Operations in Korea, 60 RCAMC Nursing Sisters served in Japan and Korea.  RCAF Sisters qualified as Flight Nurses, flew air evacuation with casualties to Canada.  Others served on the Air Ambulance in Canada.  Another specialty was the formation of a para-rescue service with five RCAF Nurses volunteering, four of whom received the Para-rescue Badge.  With Canada’s commitment to NATO, Canadian nurses served in Europe with the RCAMC in Soest, Germany, while RCAF Sisters served at fighter bases in France and Germany.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4951175)

Occupational Therapy work - Signalman M. Williams working on a rug, with Seaman J. Curtis working on a run, Nursing Lt. Merkley looking on, 16 Jul 1957.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4234438)

Nursing Sister with a First Nations patient at Fort Churchill, Manitoba.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4234435)

Nursing Sisters at Fort Churchill, Manitoba, escorting patients to de Havilland CC-123 Otter (Serial No. 3697), c1962.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4234436)

Nursing Sisters evacuating a patient by air at Fort Churchill, Manitoba.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4234439)

Nursing Sisters evacuating a patient by air at Fort Churchill, Manitoba.

(RCAF Photo)

(RCAF Photo)

Simulated air Evacuation with Nursing sister Connie Brown. F.O with Cpl. P. Davies, Flight Engineer, on a Grumman CSR-110 Albatross serving with 422 Transport and Rescue Squadron at CFB Comox, British Columbia, ca 1960s.

(RCAF Photo)

In November 1950, Flying Officer Joan Fitzgerald (Drummond) became the first RCAF flight nurse to participate in the Korean War.  She is shown here with United States Air Force nurses watching medical attendants caring for a wounded soldier.  An important aspect of the Korean War was the return of Canadian and American wounded, who were supported by nurses from the USAF, USN and RCAF.  The RCAF flight nurses program in the Pacific was continuous from November 1950 to March 1955 and involved some 40 nurses who served in pairs during that time.  These nurses never served in Korea nor did they fly with the RCAF’s No. 426 Squadron during their Pacific tours with the United States Air Force.

Joan Fitzgerald was educated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart and graduated from the Halifax Infirmary in 1941.  In 1942, she joined the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC) as a Lieutenant Nursing Sister and served in Newfoundland, England, Italy, and Belgium.  After the Second World War, as a Nursing Sister in the RCAF, she trained and served with the USAF as a Flight Nurse during the Korean Conflict.  In 1968, Joan was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and became the Matron-in-Chief, Canadian Forces Medical Service.  In this role she strongly influenced changes in the Military Medical System that modernized both the education of nursing staff and the care of patients.  In 1972, she was promoted to Colonel and served as Director of Nursing of the Canadian Forces until her retirement in 1976.  After her retirement, she resided in Halifax.  She died on 7 Sep 2013 at the age of 93, in the QEII Health Sciences Center after a brief illness.  She was born in Halifax, the daughter of the late James and Nina (Chisholm) Fitzgerald.

(DND Archives Photo)

Flying Officer Jean Drummond, an RCAF flight nurse on the Korean airlift, watches Korean War casualties being unloaded from buses prior to departure for the United States.

(US National Museum of Health and Medicine, BUMED 09-8162-5 Photo)

Training in altitude chamber ), U.S. Navy BUMED Library and Archives Description: "Students soar to 30,000 feet in altitude chamber flight. 6 student Flight Nurses are shown in the altitude chamber at the Gunter school as they are taught the fine art of preflighting their oxygen mask before taking off on a simulated altitude indoctrination flight.  T/Sergeant Inderrieden, Aeromedical Technician is shown in center as he conducts the indoctrination demonstration.  Student nurses are from left to right: 2nd Lieutenant Kelley, USAF nurse, 1st Lieutenant Stark USAF Nurse; 1st Lieutenant Shaw, USAF nurse; 1st Lieutenant Furness, USAF nurse; 1st Lieutenant White USAF nurse; and Flying Officer Fitzgerald, RCAF nurse.  In this altitude chamber flight, students soar to the height of 30,000 feet."

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4951266)

RCN Nursing Sisters in the Operating Room at HMCS Naden, Victoria, British Columbia, 1958.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4951264)

RCN Nursing Sister with a patient, HMCS Naden, Victoria, British Columbia, 3 March 1958.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4951263)

RCN Nursing Sister with a patient, HMCS Naden, Victoria, British Columbia, 3 March 1958.

Pararescue Nursing Sisters, ca 1951.  Airforce Magazine article, Spring 2009.

Flying Officer Marian Neilly,  May 1955 in Trenton, Ontario.  (DND Archives Photo PL130186)

Flying Officer Marian Neilly, an RCAF para rescue nursing sister who participated in Operation Pike's Peak at Lowry Airforce Base, Denver Colorado, on March 24, 1955.  The Joint USAF/RCAF exercise aided the two services’ rescue units in adopting a system whereby both can participate in rescue missions in either country.  (DND Archives Photo PL-76256)

Flying Officer Marian Neilly (left) and Flight Officer Marion MacDonald, both nursing sisters, wear their para rescue jumping gear during Operation Pike Peak in Colorado in March 1955.  (DND Archives Photo PC-676)

Nursing Sister Grace MacEachern.  (MacEachern Family Archives Photo)

Gracie (Gagnon) MacEachern Grace “Gracie” MacEachern (née Gagnon) was a pioneer for women at a revolutionary time for women’s roles and rights. She was a “parabelle”, a romantic term coined for para-rescue nurses from the 1950s in the Canadian Forces. That not only made her an asset in redefining gender roles, but also in what would become modern day search and rescue (SAR) in Canada. In the words of her son, Bruce MacEachern, an Air Force Major, “she really blazed a trail for women and for the Air Force itself”. Following the death of her first husband, Cranston Woodward, she enrolled in the Canadian Forces in 1951, where she received a commission as a pilot officer just prior to joining the para-rescue course at the age of 32. The para-rescue course offered in the 1950s was attended by nurses and doctors, who at the time were the only medical personnel to jump out of airplanes on rescue missions and they did so on a voluntary basis. The course was the foundation of, and at that time the only equivalent to, today’s vigorous and demanding SAR technician training course While the ground-breaking achievements of all the para-belles are worthy of commemoration, Mrs. McEachern was especially noteworthy for the fact that she was the first woman to do an operational jump in para-rescue. This first jump was in Mount Coquitlam, British Columbia, just one month after she took the para-rescue course, to rescue a geologist.

Grace MacEachern and crew at an air show in Abbotsford, British Columbia.  (MacEachern Family Archives Photo)

Pilot Officer Isabelle Thomson, a nursing sister from North Bay, Ontario, and a student of the third peacetime para rescue course in Jasper, Alberta, uses a signal mirror.  (DND Archives Photo PL-52552)

Para Rescue Team 29811, Leading Aircraftman C.L. Hegadorne, Flying Officer (Nursing Sister) E.R. Kelly and Corporal R.E. Crawford, study a map before take-off.  (DND Archives Photo PL-87049)

(DND Photo)

Nursing Sister "Parabelle" publicity shot, Sikorsky H-5 Dragonfly (Serial No. 9602), No. 103 Rescue Unit, Greenwood, Nova Scotia, ca 1950s.

Nursing Officers continue to serve in the present day Canadian Armed Forces Medical Service, many having deployed on tours of duty overseas in the Gulf War, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Somalia and Afghanistan.  Internet:

Maj. Hillary Jaegar, Sgt. Danny Noyes and Cpl. Phill Fewer treat a mortar casualty prior to transport to Camp Visoko Hospital, Bosnia-Herzegovina, ca late 1990s. (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4113922)

Although not military, post-war Nurses were employed by the Saskatchewan Air Ambulance service.

Cessna 195, Nurse, Saskatchewan Air Ambulance service.  (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3604110)

Josephine Walz, Public Health Nurse, Southend, Saskatchewan, March 1955.  (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4323848)

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