December 12th, 1941
NATS is established.
A short-lived branch of the U. S. Navy, the Naval Air Transport Service was established in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Seven years later, in 1948, after a career that spanned both war and peacetime, NATS was merged with a similar branch of the Air Force to form the Military Air Transport Service (MATS). Not long before the founding of MATS, the October 1948 issue of Proceedings published an article by Lieutenant Commander Beverley L. Britton, U. S. Naval Reserve, about the many humanitarian missions undertaken by NATS. The many anecdotes shared by Britton demonstrated clearly the truth of his article’s title (“The Navy has a Heart”) by revealing the compassion and readiness of the Navy to provide aid in the most dire of emergencies.
Last September, in ancient Egypt’s teeming Delta provinces, an outbreak of deadly cholera presented an ominous challenge to that nation’s already overburdened Institute of Public Health. Public meeting places were closed at once. Precautionary travel and immigration restrictions were placed in force. Vaccinations began in surrounding areas. It was the hope of Egypt’s doctors that prompt action could isolate quickly this disease which kills in a matter of hours.
In spite of their efforts, the epidemic spread. Other countries—Great Britain, Switzerland, France—offered assistance both in supplying medicines and setting up vaccinating stations. But new cases continued to appear further inland—in Kaliubia and Sharkieh Provinces, in the towns of Ismailia and Gizeh, eventually in the thickly populated suburbs of Cairo itself.
Cairo’s alarmed health authorities saw that quick action was needed to avert disaster. They found help close at hand, in the form of the U. S. Naval Medical Research Unit No.3. Since the end of World War II, this small group of eleven Navy doctors and twenty enlisted hospital corpsmen had been conducting medical research in Egypt at the request of the Egyptian Government. Now NAMRU-3 transmitted to Washington another request of that Government—an urgent request for enough vaccine to treat 6,000,000 potential victims of the new plague.
The Navy’s stock of serum on hand in the U. S. was far from adequate to meet such an overwhelming need. But while it called on the Army for assistance in the project, the Navy made ready instantly to deliver such as it could safely spare. In little more than 24 hours, enough vaccine for 200,000 injections was on its way to Egypt aboard a Navy plane. With it went blood plasma, sulfa drugs, and other medicine to treat cases already contracted.
Thirty hours after leaving New York, the special Naval Air Transport plane sat down at Cairo’s Farouk Airport with its precious cargo. Its crew of eight, plus one observer and a representative of the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, had flown halfway across the world on a few hours’ notice, along a route unfamiliar to the pilots, to bring help to people of all classes in a stricken nation. By flying “straight through” and making only refueling stops, they had arrived fifteen hours ahead of schedule.
With the help of the vaccine thus dramatically delivered by NATS, plus additional serum subsequently flown in by the Air Transport Command, Egypt’s needs were met and the cholera soon brought under control. This meant three to five thousand vaccinations a day for NAMRU-3 alone, but the epidemic was stopped in Cairo proper before it had had a real chance to start.
Few humanitarian missions flown by the Naval Air Transport Service since World War II’s end have been as spectacular as this hurry-up flight to Cairo, and no other has involved the lives and health of so many people. But in the three years since the shooting stopped, there have been many—old and young, male and female, uniformed and civilian—who have learned that the Navy is not always stern, aloof, militarily intent on the business of war. They have found that the Navy really has a heart, where suffering is concerned.
A Marine private first class, Herbert E. Watts of Oneonta, Alabama, found this abundantly true last November when NATS flew to him in Tsingtao, China, a special portable “iron lung,” a technician to operate the accompanying equipment, and a staff doctor from Moffett Field, California.
Suffering from dread poliomyelitis, Private Watts developed complications before departing Tsingtao which made it necessary to transport him as far as Honolulu in the clumsy 1,100-pound standard “lung.” But before he reached California, his doctor had been able to move him into a portable Millikin respirator, which roughly resembles a cross between a lifejacket and the breastplate of a medieval suit of armor. He was transferred for treatment to the Naval Hospital at Corona, California.
Private Watts was not the first passenger to be transported on a NATS plane in an “iron lung.” Just a year earlier, Seaman First Class Merrill Lee Clark of Seattle, Washington, had been flown in that fashion from Samar in the Philippines to Oakland, California. Young Clark, NATS’ first iron-lung case, had spent two weeks in an improvised “lung” on Samar while the Navy was flying a regular one to him, and survived in a sufficiently cheerful state of mind to joke with his nurses most of the way home.
Although such “mercy flights” are more common in the case of servicemen, civilians have benefited by them as well. In May of 1946, Anders Heian, chief steward of a British motorship, was taken off his ship at Manila and hospitalized. When doctors diagnosed his case as cancer of the spine and lungs, Heian’s one desire was to return to his home in Greinspad, Norway. NATS took him a long step on his way by flying him to California, and subsequently to New York on a special “Hospital Express.” Welfare agencies took him over there.
Closer to home was the case of a young Canadian journalist, Bernard Dube. On an assignment in California last fall for the Montreal Gazette, Dube suffered an automobile accident which severed his spinal column, caused multiple fracture, and left him paralyzed from the waist down. The Red Cross came to his aid in Stockton, but soon found that commercial planes had no room for stretcher patients. The Navy, called on for assistance, flew him to Boston via NATS under a nurse’s care. From Boston the Red Cross again took over.
The tenderest care of all on such “mercy flights” is lavished, of course, on the very young. Perhaps the youngest to get a helping hand from NATS was two-months-old Cherylene Robison, flown with her mother from Perth, Australia, to Oakland, for hospitalization and a reunion with the father she had never seen.
Young Cherylene suffered from nonclosing fontanelles, a rare malady which requires immediate treatment if the usually fatal hydrocephalus is to be prevented. She had been born in Australia after her motor machinist’s mate father, Robert James Robison, had been separated from the Navy and returned to the States. She and her mother were awaiting sailing priority to join him there.
When a Navy doctor in Australia told Mrs. Robison early in 1946 that Cherylene’s only hope lay in the treatment she might get in the States, both Army and Navy joined hands to get her there in a hurry. The Air Transport Command flew her as far as Honolulu, and NATS took over there for the remainder of the journey.
Just a year ago, young Peter Blewett, nine-year-old son of Navy civil service worker at the Dutch Harbor, Alaska, base, was playing innocently with a hand grenade when it exploded. The bits of steel embedded themselves in his eyes and body, and Navy doctors said that only expert hospital treatment could save his sight. The District Commandant at Kodiak dispatched his staff plane to transport the youngster, and through foul weather he made the trip to Seattle. Young Peter was hospitalized at Bremerton, and his sight is unimpaired.
The Naval Air Transport Service did not go looking for such tasks. Its job was to run an airline—one which in 1947 flew a total of 495,893,175 passenger and patient miles without a single fatality. This record was surpassed by no operator, military or commercial, and equaled by few civilian lines.
In order for NATS to undertake a “mercy flight,” it first had to be specifically authorized by the Secretary of the Navy. Requests usually came from the Red Cross or similar welfare agencies, or from within the armed forces themselves. If the Secretary approved such assistance “for humanitarian reasons,” NATS did everything in its power to help out. It is assumed that the same policy will prevail under the newly created Military Air Transport Service.
NATS’ files are full of less dramatic missions of mercy which nevertheless have meant a great deal to those involved. Dependents of servicemen were transported to the man’s overseas station by means of the “Diaper Express.” Even more comforting to wives and families in such out-of-the-way stations as the Pacific islands was the practice of returning to the States servicemen and their dependents who might be seriously injured overseas.
An example of such treatment is the case of a chief torpedoman’s mate who was stationed on Guam. The chief’s wife and children were involved with him in a jeep accident which broke his wife’s leg and caused her other assorted injuries. NATS flew her to the States for hospitalization, and the family came with her—including her husband, who was reassigned close at hand.
Parents of hospitalized service personnel were frequently flown to their sons’ bedsides. One mother was transported by NATS from the mainland to Hawaii, where her son was near death from a pelvic abscess. Both parents of a radioman who was desperately ill in Miami, and whose brother had recently been killed in the fighting on Guam, were flown to him by NATS from their home in Oregon. Another radioman, paralyzed from the waist down and given only three weeks to live, was flown from California to spend that time with his ailing mother in the East.
NATS always tried hard to make itself available to the largest number of personnel possible, always based on the greatest urgency or the greatest need. Its priority system was a strict one, but it included an automatic Class Four priority for all Navy and Marine Corps personnel granted emergency leave.
NATS was quick to recognize genuine emergencies. Late in 1947, a Navy doctor from San Diego arrived at Moffett Field, Western terminus of the service, with a request for transportation east for himself, his wife, and their baby of four months. The child’s condition was critical, he explained, because of a chronic state of anoxia which made breathing difficult. An operation was needed to remove a vascular constricting ring around the trachea and esophagus of the “blue baby.” Quick approval was forthcoming for the nonstop Moffett-to-Washington “Hot Shot” flight, and the baby was rushed on to Boston for hospitalization.
Assistance to victims of catastrophe was almost routine with NATS, although it of course required authorization. In the case of the Texas City disaster last year, for instance, the Navy flew emergency food and medical supplies into the stricken city. As a further contribution, NATS transported a number of movie personalities to benefit shows for the Texas City victims which brought in a total of $30,000 in relief funds.
During peacetime, NATS averaged 765 hospital evacuation cases a month—a sizeable decline from the 9,392 cases it carried in May, 1945.
Sometimes N ATS gets a talented “assist” in the business of “mercy flights” from other units of the Naval service. There is the case, for instance, of a four-months-old child whose life was saved last November by the prompt action of a flyer from the Anacostia Naval Air Station. The child had recently been moved from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore to the Naval Hospital at Portsmouth, Virginia. A special tube from Johns Hopkins was needed in a hurry to save the child.
Ten minutes after NAS Anacostia received a call from the Navy Department, one of its F6F’s was en route to Baltimore, landing there eight minutes later to be met by a Hopkins nurse with the precious tube. Five minutes after landing, the pilot was again in the air on his way to Norfolk, where he landed within 37 minutes. An ambulance was on hand to rush the equipment to a waiting boat which would cross the Elizabeth River to the hospital. As a result of this split-second timing, the “mercy parcel” was delivered to its destination within sixty minutes after Anacostia received the call!