Lillian Kinkela Keil: Pioneer flight nurse

By Alison M. Riggs | 01/01/2014

Nuns caring for the sick influenced her career choice.

Alison Riggs Lillian Kinkela Keil featured image
Nursing history is profoundly linked to the military because of Florence Nightingale and her service during the Crimean War. Many of our traditions, from uniforms to bed-making and a host of other practices, come from that connection. Over the years, around the world and, recently, in Afghanistan and Iraq, nurses have served in so many ways in the U.S. armed services, caring for and supporting the troops. With courage and dedication, they work in dangerous and challenging situations and, often, are not sufficiently recognized by the civilian population for their work.
 
Alison Riggs author imageA nurse renowned in military circles for her actions in World War II and the Korean War was Lillian Kinkela Keil. To the military, she was a heroine, but many nurses in civilian life may not be familiar with her or realize how amazing her story is. One of the original flight nurses in the military and a true pioneer, she was an apparently ordinary girl who became the most decorated woman in U.S. military history.
 
Friendly skies
Lillian Kinkela was born in Arcata, California, in 1916. When she was quite young, her father abandoned his family, and Lillian and her mother moved to a convent, where her mother worked as a cleaning lady. Lillian’s two brothers stayed with relatives. Inspired by nuns at the convent as they cared for the sick, Kinkela chose nursing as a career and joined the nursing program at St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco, where she earned her diploma as an RN. In 1938, she was working in a pediatric unit when her mother suggested she consider becoming a stewardess—which, at that time, was a relatively new career option.
 
Back then, flight attendants had to be nurses who were between 5 feet 2 inches and 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighed no more than 120 pounds, didn’t wear glasses, and, of course, they had to be female. Kinkela fit the bill! She applied for a job at United Airlines—then United Air Lines—having never been on a plane. She stated later, “When I got on my first airplane—a Boeing 247B—I just loved it!”
 
Her first flight ended in an emergency landing caused by inclement weather, but she was undeterred. She flew for several years and enjoyed meeting and helping passengers, including many celebrities—Eleanor Roosevelt and Cary Grant among them. Grant took her on a date when they landed in San Francisco, and, since it was Good Friday, she took him to church before they toured the city!
 
What’s a flight nurse?
It was during a flight in 1943 that a passenger asked Kinkela what she was doing at United Air Lines when the military needed nurses so badly in the war effort. She told him she had never heard of a flight nurse. She signed up immediately, began training at the Army Air Forces School of Evacuation and, by year’s end, was on a troop ship to Europe. After crossing the Atlantic in a zigzag pattern to foil attack by Nazi submarines, the ship docked in England, where Kinkela was soon treating wounded airmen returning from bombing raids over Europe and experiencing German “buzz” bomb attacks on London, which she described as “very frightening.”
 
After the D-Day invasion of France in June 1944, Kinkela was sent as a flight nurse on runs to Normandy to pick up the wounded, whom she treated en route to hospitals located in safety zones. This was a very dangerous assignment. Because the planes were loaded with military supplies on the trip over to Normandy, they could not be marked with a red cross to ensure their safety, which made the return trip with injured patients much more vulnerable to attack.
 
As the only nurse on these flights and with no physician on board, she had to improvise and “make it up” as she went along—treating wounds, addressing pain, reassuring patients, and keeping them alive. Retired Air Force Col. Barney Oldfield, a former member of Gen. Eisenhower’s staff who knew Kinkela, said in 1991: “So few of the nurses now serving would even know of her existence, yet many of the procedures they are doing, she was doing in 1943. She was an airborne Florence Nightingale.” By the time World War II ended, she had flown 250 missions and made 25 transatlantic flights to evacuate troops.
 
425 missions
After the war, Kinkela went back to United Air Lines as assistant chief stewardess and was on the inaugural flight in 1947 when the carrier initiated service from Honolulu to San Francisco. But when the Korean War broke out in 1950, she again volunteered for the U.S. Air Force and was assigned to the 801st Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron. Once again, Kinkela found herself on the front lines.
 
She was nearby in September 1950 when U.S. and South Korean forces, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, made an amphibious landing at Inch’on, near the South Korean capital, and was very close to the North Koreans as the ensuing battle raged. Kinkela helped care for injured troops and prisoners of war when they were rescued. (Because medical facilities were rudimentary, most were flown out to air bases as quickly as possible.) At the battle of Chosin Reservoir, where U.S. troops were trapped and outnumbered, she and fellow members of the 801st evacuated 4,700 wounded and frostbitten Marines in four days!
 
After 175 missions, Kinkela was promoted to captain and rotated back to the United States where, in 1951, she represented the Nursing Corps in various capacities, promoting women in the military. Altogether, in the two wars, she participated in 425 air-evacuation missions. Previously, no nurse had accrued more than 100 missions. She treated an estimated 10,000 servicemen on flights during World War II and the Korean War, unmatched by any other woman, and she never lost one!
 
Alison Riggs Lillian Kinkela Keil article imageThe big screen
In 1953, “Flight Nurse,” a movie purporting to show Kinkela’s life, was made in Hollywood, starring Joan Leslie. In addition to being named technical adviser for the film, Kinkela went around the country helping to promote it, even though it was a somewhat fictionalized version of her life and a romance was added. As with all endeavors, Kinkela gave it her best, enthusiastically appearing in cities where the film opened and visiting military hospitals to talk with servicemen. At the time Republic Pictures was shooting the film, John Ford was directing another movie on a nearby set. As a result, both Joan Leslie and John Ford became Kinkela’s permanent friends and were named godparents for her older daughter, Lillianne.
 
In 1954, she appeared in a military fashion show in Los Angeles. The director of the show, which was given the unlikely name “Glamorama,” was Walter Keil, a former Navy man. Within the month, Kinkela and Keil were married at Treasure Island Naval Base in San Francisco and remained so until his death in 1980.
 
Always proud of his wife’s fame, Keil was less enamored with the media attention she received, according to daughter Adrianne. That attention extended to the popular television program, “This Is Your Life,” broadcast in 1961. Lillian Keil had expected to do a public service spot for the Army, but instead was surprised by Ralph Edwards, host of “This Is Your Life.” The show generated a record amount of mail, most of it from veterans who remembered the care she had given them. Afterward, John Ford gave her an autographed picture inscribed “To Kinky, who made us proud we are Americans.”
 
In 1956, just as she was about to become a major in the U.S. Air Force, Keil learned she was expecting. At that time, a woman in the armed services could be married but not pregnant, so she had to resign. Dedicating herself to her husband and baby daughter, Lillianne, Keil enjoyed being a wife and mother, and the family settled in Covina, California. Alison Riggs Lillian Kinkela Keil postcard image
In subsequent years, she sometimes worked in emergency rooms. In addition, she was a very active volunteer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Clipped Wings (an organization for retired flight attendants), the Chosin Few (survivors of the Korean campaign), her parish church, and several other aviation-oriented groups. Throughout her life, she was showered with honors. After her death in 2005, a plaque commemorating her life was mounted on the Veterans Memorial Wall, located in West Covina’s City Hall Courtyard, and the Covina Post Office was named in her honor. In 2004, Keil told the Pasadena Star-News: “It was all horrible, but it was all beautiful. I would do it again!” 
 
Alison M. Riggs, MSN, RN, ONC, adjunct faculty member at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California, USA, is a resident of that city.
 
Acknowledgment:
Documents and other information contributing to this article were provided by Adrianne Keil Whitmore, daughter of Lillian Kinkela Keil.
 
Resources:
Flight nurse ‘put others first.’ (2011, July). VFW Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.vfw.org/uploadedFiles/VFW.org/News_and_Events/
VFWWomenatWar-LOWRES.pdf
 
Galluci, R. (2009, April 10). Women in service: Army/Air Force Capt. Lillian Kinkela Keil. American Veteran Magazine. Retrieved from http://americanveteranmagazine.blogspot.com/search?q=keil
 
Garvey, B., & McCall, E.K. (n.d.) Extraordinary service. Hemispheres Magazine. Retrieved from http://flatrock.org.nz/topics/flying/extraordinary_service.htm
 
Hidalgo, E. (2005, July 15). Obituary: Lillian Keil, flight nurse, tended to 10,000 wounded soldiers. Los Angeles Tidings. Retrieved from http://www.thetidings.com
 
Keil, L.M. (1998, April). My wonderful life. Officer Review.
 
Keller, L.S. (1991, February 7). She blazed a path in wartime. Los Angeles Times.
 
Morris Young, V. (1998, Summer). Captain Lillian Kinkela Keil, famous humanitarian. Clipped Wings Quarterly.
 
Nelson, V.J. (2005, July 10). Lillian Kinkela Keil, 88, an airborne Nightingale. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/obituaries/#axzz2qfTvFRr7
 
Ogden, G. (2006). Post office dedicated for Keil. San Gabriel Valley Examiner, X, 44.
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