RCAF Para Rescue Nursing Sisters, the "Parabelles"

RCAF Para Rescue Nursing Sisters

ca 1951.  Airforce Magazine article, Spring 2009.

(DND Archives Photo PL130186)

Flying Officer Marian Neilly,  May 1955 in Trenton, Ontario.

RCAF Para Rescue Course No. 5 in 1951 was organized for medical personnel and included two medical doctors, nine medical assistants and for the first time, five very capable nursing sisters.  The first part of the course was conducted at RCAF Station Edmonton, Alberta, which was then located on the grounds of what later became known as the Industrial Airport.  The barracks were located on the North-West Air Command side of the airfield and this is where all the ground training classes were also held.  Most of each morning was taken up with physical training, swimming, gymnastics, tumbling exercises and simulated parachute landings.  The ground school consisted of classes in Morse code, map reading, parachute packing and bush lore.

A new badge to be worn by all qualified RCAF Para Rescue personnel was approved on 9 June 1951 by Air Force Headquarters.  The design featured a white parachute between golden upswept wings and was topped by a Queen's crown.  The letters "RCAF" were inscribed in gold above the parachute.  All Medical Officers, Nursing Sisters, and Airmen who had completed the Para Rescue Course could wear this badge.  It marked the first time that female officers of any Canadian service could wear a Canadian Badge emblematic of aerial operations.  However, the last Para Rescue Nursing Sister left the RCAF on 17 December 1956.  (James Earnest Buckland)

(DND Archives Photo PL-76256)

Flying Officer Marian Neilly, an RCAF para rescue nursing sister who participated in Operation Pike's Peak at Lowry Airforce Base, Denver Colorado, on 24 March 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 PC-676)

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.

(MacEachern Family Archives Photo)

Nursing Sister Grace MacEachern.

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.

(MacEachern Family Archives Photo)

Nursing Sister Grace MacEachern and crew at an air show in Abbotsford, British Columbia.

(DND Archives Photo PL-52552)

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-87049)

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 Photo)

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

(DND Photo, PL-52500, via CWO (Retired) Dave Davis)


The first four students on the RCAF’s third peacetime para-rescue course to jump as a team are pictured here at Namao airport, near Edmonton, prior to making their initial jumps, recently. Left to right are: Corporal F.N. (Sandy) Deschenes, of Ottawa; Cpl. Herb Campbell of Chatham, NB.; nursing sister Pilot Officer Marion Neily, of Middleton, N.S.; and Sergeant George Westwood, of Windsor and Ottawa.  At the halfway point in their training, all students wanted to be the first to jump but Cpl. Deschenes, (left) won the honour when his name was drawn from a hat. Another first was recorded the same day when P/O Neily, second from right, became the first RCAF Nurse in Canada to take to the silk. Two doctors, four other nurses and six other Medical Assistants completed their jumps the same day.

(DND Photo)

First course including medical personnel. Graduated 1950 (Left to Right) Marion MacDonald, Marion Thompson, Marion Neily and Anne Peeden (Torkey Peeden’s sister)

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: http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/women-and-war/nursing-sisters.

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