The first Army Nurse I knew about was Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan from the TV show M*A*S*H which aired from 1972-1983. For those of us old enough to be around then, the series finale was an ‘Event’ – the likes of which is rare in televised entertainment today. Forget about streaming services, most households didn’t have a VCR and recording a show wasn’t yet a common thing. You watched it when it aired or you missed out.
I watched the series finale with both my parents and it involved lots of popcorn and kleenx – those who experienced the event know what I’m talking about. I can’t recall us doing anything like that together before or since. (We have done many things together over the years, sitting in front of the TV just isn’t one of them as we don’t share that interest.)
Anyway, Margaret Houlihan. That was my introduction to what an Army nurse was like. I’m still a little smitten with her, in that way I’m smitten with competence and the balancing act women do to be seen as equals while maintaining their ‘feminine’ habits and hobbies. She was allowed to be both lusty and capable and, as in the video above, she was fierce!
Loretta Swit, the actor who portrayed Margaret Houlihan, remarked in a 2004 interview about what made her character so enduring that “she made a very strong statement, not only for the profession, but for women in the military.” 1
Aunt Melissa (aka. Lt. H.M. Clark or Helen Melissa Clark) wasn’t a nurse in a mobile unit like the one portrayed in the show. She was an air evacuation nurse, carrying wounded from one place to another.
Before World War II, the U.S. military didn’t evacuate wounded soldiers using aircraft. But advances in flight made it possible to treat wounded away from the front lines with trained medical personnel and fully equipped hospitals – leading to an increased survival rate. The key was to get those wounded soldiers airlifted.
After a pilot program (forgive the pun) in 1942, the U.S. established formal training for medical air evacuation at Bowman Field in Kentucky in 1943. 2
Aunt Melissa was part of the eighth class to go through the program and graduated on January 21, 1944. From there, she was transferred to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey to await deployment.
Her detachment sailed from New York on March 13, 1944 on the SS Île de France. They arrived in Scotland on March 22.
The Île de France was a civilian ship – an extravagent Art Deco luxury liner – that had managed to leave France before the outbreak of war.
Lest we all think that my Aunt Melissa travelled in luxury during the war, I should note that the Île de France was retrofitted in 1941 as a troopship which “entailed removing her peacetime decor and painting the ship all gray, as well as installing berths for 9,706 soldiers, new kitchen facilities, a complete overhaul of her machinery, and the scrapping and replacement of her entire plumbing system.” 3 An account of the crossing noted that there wasn’t a convoy attached, so the ship zig-zagged across the Atlantic deploying occasional depth charges to avoid mines. It certainly doesn’t sound like a luxury cruise. 4
Several years after the war, just before she was to be scrapped – the Île de France became a movie star. Or, at least, that’s how I’m choosing to interpret her ending. She featured in the 1960 disaster file, ‘The Last Voyage’ where she was filmed as she sunk.