Fayette Woman – Essie Moseley - Part 2 of 3

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Feeling somewhat uneasy about their carefree lives in war time, the flight attendants listened to a legendary military man:

“‘Hap’ Arnold [Gen. Henry Arnold, called by some the father of the United States Air Force] was on board my flight one day,” Moseley recalls, “and asked if I wouldn’t like to help the war effort. ‘Why don’t you talk to your roommates about it?’ he said, and so 10 of us went in together and stayed together through India, Burma, and China.”

Essie, Mac and Polly, were sworn into the Army Air Corps on March 30, 1943. Training began immediately at Bowman Field in Louisville, Ky.

“It was really rugged training,” the veteran remembers. “We crawled on our tummies under live fire” through mud, barbed wire, and exploding booby traps. Photographers recorded the unglamorous event, because it was the first time women had been through the course and proven themselves the equal of men in many military activities.

Classroom training included chemical and jungle warfare, aero-physiology, tropical and arctic medicine. Among the rigors of their experiences was learning how to dive into and come up through water aflame with burning oil. They learned to shoot every type of weapon from small arms to Tommy guns, and to drive Jeeps, a completely new experience for some of the young women who had never driven anything before.

They learned how to bivouac so carefully that overflying aircraft could not spot their site. They had gas alerts, guard duty bearing heavy rifles, hikes through sniper-filled woods with only a compass for guidance. Decades later, Moseley said, “We wondered if we would encounter anything like this overseas. Such naiveté.”

For experience in air evacuation, the nurses flew actual patient transfers within the United States. For some nurses and many of the wounded soldiers, it was their very first flight ever. The colonel in charge used a bit of psychology by putting former flight attendants together with the novices.

“The stewardesses’ superior calm over the whole situation made the other nurses so angry they forgot all about being afraid,” Essie says.

“The same thing proved true in flying out the wounded. A soldier isn’t going to be afraid over his first flight if he sees a calm young woman walking about in the plane looking after him and his buddies; he would be ashamed to admit his fear. The nurses proved to be a terrific morale factor for the boys, and kept their spirits up.”

In six months, the 803rd Air Evacuation Squadron was on a troop ship en route to the China-Burma-India Theater. Waiting to board the luxury cruise ship, its two-person cabins converted to accommodate 10, Lt. Baer thought, “This just has to be some kind of movie I am watching.” Throughout her book that theme is repeated, as her life seemed so far removed from its beginnings that she could hardly believe it was reality.

Their voyage lasted 62 days, and took them through the unspeakable poverty of Bombay, the luxuries of a British cruise ship, the markets of Ceylon and Madras. They arrived at last at their permanent base in Chabua in India’s Assam Valley, where their mission was to fly casualties from battlefields to base hospitals and eventually to Calcutta and Karachi, from which they could be shipped back to the States.

“We always had a doctor, a nurse, and a corpsman on board,” Essie says. “We took care of the injured on the airplane. Sometimes we bandaged wounds, started I.V.s, used antibiotics.”

Each aircraft – the DC-3, fabled workhorse of the air, designated C-47 by the military – had litter attachments for 18 patients. That’s a lot of wounded to cope with at once, and sometimes under fire.

She and a corpsman were loading an English soldier injured in a Japanese attack at Myitkyina, Burma, when the Japanese fighter planes returned and strafed the airfield. Their own pilot pushed her to safety, but the corpsman, the doctor, another nurse and the radio operator were all wounded by shrapnel. The young Brit was killed instantly.

Lt. Baer was ordered to run for cover in the nearby tall grass and from this incident she draws the title of her autobiography. Thinking she was safe, she crouched next to one of the anti-aircraft guns that were the Zeroes’ target. “I heard a deep voice yell, ‘Lady, don’t stop here!’” she wrote later, and she continued running until she was out of harm’s way.

While waiting for American P-40s to scramble and rout the Japanese, she said she kept thinking about the trusting young Englishman whom she had just reassured when the strafing began. “Now he was dead, and I didn’t even know his name.”

Essie’s memoirs are not all grim, by any means. The determination of young women far from home to make their monsoon-soaked tents pretty by turning parachute silk into bedspreads; their sightseeing excursions to some of the most beautiful cities of the East; their romances with other military personnel – all these stories and more shine brightly in her book.

There is also the heart-stopping story of the emergency jump one nurse had to make from an airplane lost over the Himalayas, and the tale of an astonishing peacetime reunion of two wartime lovers.

To be continued…

login to post comments | Sallie Satterthwaite's blog