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US Army Nurse Corps

September 1, 1942

After Dolly became unemployed she decided to sign up as a volunteer in the army. On 1 Sept.1942 she enlisted in the United States Army Nurse Corps. Shortly after, she qualified for the Air Evacuation Nurse Corps.

Read the story: Overview >

By boat to Europe

July 16 - 27, 1943

Dolly received her diploma on Feb 18. 1943. She was assigned to 806th Medical Air Evacuation Squadron (806 MAES). On July 16, 1943 the unit sailed on the SS Thomas H. Barry and arrived in Liverpool on 27 July. From here, the unit was transferred to Newbury.

Read the story: Combat route (1) >

First evacuation flights

Omaha Beach, June 1944

On June 11, 1944, five days after D-Day, 806 MAES made the first evacuation flight to the beaches of Omaha Beach. In the following months Dolly and her fellow nurses evacuated tens of thousands of patients.

Read the story: Combat route (2) >

To the mainland

Orly, Paris, dec. 5, 1944

On 5 Dec. 806 MAES was transferred to mainland Europe, to the airport at Paris Orly Field. 806 MAES followed the advance of the allied troops and soon was transferred to airports in Villacoublay and Melun and later even to airports in Germany.

Read the story: Combat route (3) >

Married to Walter Shea

January 15, 1945

On January 15, 1945 Dolly married Major Walter L. Shea. Walter was a navigator in the air units where Dolly regularly worked. The marriage lasted only three months until Dolly's death. Shea never remarried.

Read the story: Personal file >

A mysterious accident

Eisenach, April 14, 1945

On April 14, 1945 Dolly had had her 30 'sorties', but she took one last evacuation flight in place of her colleague Dolores Dilger. This was fatal. The C-47 with Dolly (Wilma) and five crew members never arrived at its destination, but crashed on the way.

See Wilma's Combat route map >

Buried in Margraten

Margraten, June 24th 1945

After the accident all the crew were temporarily buried in Eisenach cemetery. In late June they were transferred to Margraten. After the war, Dolly's husband Walter L. Shea chose Margraten as her final resting place.

See Wilma's Combat route map >

July 1943 (?)

Registration ARC

September 1943

to the UK

July 16, 1944

Landing on Utah Beach

March 15, 1945

Siegfriedlinie

May 1, 1945

Died on pleasure flight

June 19, 1945

Buried in Margraten, Block RR, Row 12 Grave 290

November 23, 1943

Departure for Europa

January 20, 1944

Arriving in England

June 1944

Landing Omaha Beach

US enters the war

December 11, 1941

Nazi Germany declares war on the US

Turnaround WWII

Februari 2, 1943

Battle of Stalingrad: Red Army defeats Germans

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Wilma 'Dolly' Vinsant

Flight Nurse

Born: February 20, 1917
Location: San Benito, Cameron County, Texas
Family:
  • Father: William Jonathan Vinsant (1874-1956)
  • Mother: Nellie Mae Benson (1885-1970)
Married: January 15, 1945 to Walter L. Shea
Education & profession: After obtaining her high school diploma at the San Benito High School and further education at the Brownsville Junior College, she went to John Sealy Hospital in Galveston to train as a nurse. Her father was a doctor and her mother was a nurse, which probably influenced her choice of profession.
Military Career:
  • Served from: September 1, 1942 (US Army Nurse Corps)
  • In Europe: July 16, 1943 (Arrival Liverpool July 27)
  • Start of her participation in the war: Around June 11, 1944
Burial History:
  • April 14, 1945: Fatal crash during a flight
  • June 24, 1945 : temporarily buried in Eisenach, transferred in late June to Margraten
  • Final resting place: section B, row 17, grave 4

Wilma 'Dolly' Vinsant – Flight Nurse

Wilma "Dolly Vinsant - Flight Nurse Wilma" Dolly Vinsant was raised in Texas. She studied to be a nurse and in the early days of civil aviation worked as a flight attendant for Braniff Airways. When WWII broke out, she applied to the army as a volunteer and was assigned as a flight nurse: and trained to carry out evacuation flights.

Between June 1944 and April 1945 she flew 30 missions as a
Flight Nurses and evacuated hundreds of wounded soldiers to hospitals
and evacuated hundreds of wounded soldiers to hospitals in liberated territories. These flights were always hazardous as they also carrried the risk of being shot down. On April 14, 1945 something went wrong. Dolly was due to go home, but the last flight proved to be fatal: the C-47 that Dolly was flying in, crashed. To this day the cause of the crash is still not clear.

Growing up in San Benito, Texas

Wilma Rolinda Vinsant was born on February 20, 1917 in San Benito, Cameron County, located in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, United States. She was the only child of William Jonathan Vinsant (1874-1956) and Nellie Mae Benson (1885-1970). Wilma was small of stature: only 1.52 m tall and weighed 45 kilos. This led to the neighbours nicknaming her "Dolly" as she was so small.

After obtaining her high school diploma at the San Benito High School and further education at the Brownsville Junior College she attended the John Sealy Hospital in Galveston and trained to be a nurse. Her father was a doctor and her mother a nurse, which probably decided her choice of profession.

Hostess at Braniff

Dolly grew up in the 20s and 30s of the twentieth century. In the 1930s the United States was in the midst of the 'great depression'. Aviation was booming and Dolly was very interested in what one of the female pioneers,Amelia Earhart - , was achieving. Earhart was the first woman to fly over both the Atlantic (in 1928) and the Pacific (1935) oceans. Her books, including "The fun of it," were bestsellers.

When Dolly finished her nurses training, she decided
to combine her professional training as a nurse with her interest in flying,
and joined Braniff Airways. At that time, most of the 'hostesses' - now we call them flight attendants -were qualified nurses; this was one of the entry requirements. Other admission requirements were: a minimum of two years of college education, mastery of the Spanish language, aged between 21 and 26 years and a height of between 150 and 170 centimeters. In 1937, 800 women applied for a job as a 'hostess' at Braniff Airways. Only 10 came through the application process. Dolly was one of those lucky ones.

In service

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States entered WW II and the government requisitioned almost all private aircraft. Braniff Airways also had to release almost all its aircraft and were left with only 147 seats that they could offer to private passengers.

Many aircrews, both flight crew and cabin crew were then unemployed and so decided to join the Army Voluntary Service. This included Dolly Vinsant and on September 1, 1942 she joined the United States Army Nurse Corps.

Shortly after she qualified for the Air Evacuation Nurse Corps. She followed an eight-week training at Bowman Field, Kentucky. Given her small stature many thought the training would be too onerous for her. The Flight Nurses' training included jumping with a full pack, swimming in 6 meter-deep water and managing to get back to land unassisted.

They had to be able to deal with an emergency landing
while carrying the wounded on board. This could be anywhere:
in the jungle, in the desert, in the mountains or on ice. They had to learn how to deal with patients who might panic and to respond to possible enemy shelling.

Dolly passed the rigorous training and graduated on February 18, 1943. Two days later she celebrated her 26th birthday. Her class was the first to graduate. Dolly was now officially aFlight Nurse. Shortly thereafter, she was assigned to 806 Medical Air Evacuation Squadron (806 MAES).

To Europe

In Europe On July 5, 1943 the 806 MAES left by train for Camp Shanks in New York in order to prepare for departure to Europe. On July 16, 1943 they boarded the SS Thomas H. Barry and the ship arrived in Liverpool on 27 July. From here, the unit was transferred to the area of ​​Newbury, west of London.

Before the invasion of mainland Europe, the MAES units were assigned to various military units in the area. Dolly, with her colleagues, including Jean Bartholomew, was assigned to the 100 Bombardment Group - nicknamed the "Bloody 100th" - who were stationed at Thorpe Abbotts airfield in the Norfolk village of Diss. Jean Bartholomew was the first Flight Nurse who made a transatlantic flight evacuation where patients were flown from England to America to receive emergency treatment.

After the invasion of Normandy

On June 11, 1944, five days after D-Day, France, Lieutenant Grace
Dunham of the 806 MAES made the first evacuation with wounded from the beaches of Omaha Beach. She and her crew brought back to England 18 patients on stretchers. During the remainder of June, and in July and August 1944 806 MAES evacuated as many as 20,142 patients. From the headquarters they received a special certificate for this achievement.

On 5 December, 806 Medical Air Evacuation Squadron was transferred to mainland Europe - to Orly Airport in Paris. From December 7 the United States operated transatlantic evacuation flights from Orly. 806 MAES followed the advance of allied troops and were later transferred to airports in Villacoublay and Melun. Later still, they were transferred to airfields in Germany.

The Flight Nurses of 806 MAES, including Dolly, made frequent flights to and from the front line. One Flight Nurse was always on board in order to attend to the wounded.

In 1945, 806 MAES reached a new record in April, when as many as 17,287 patients were evacuated. In recognition, they received a commendation from Major General Paul Williams, commander of IX Troop Carrier Command, which was the unit under which the 806 MAES operated.

Between June 1944 and April 1945 Dolly made a total of 30 flights. The majority were to hospitals behind the advancing frontline, but occasionally she flew with the wounded from London to New York. In November 1944 she was able to visit her parents.

The Geneva Convention

The evacuation flights were considered to be 'one-way flights' taking
the wounded from the frontline to a hospital. On the return trip, the aircraft were empty of passengers and were loaded with war material for the front: fuel, weapons, ammunition, supplies and so on. As this was considered to contribute to the war effort, they plane could not rely on the protection of the Red Cross.

According to the Geneva Convention (specifically the third Geneva Convention of 1929) the Red Cross air transport of the wounded was protected, only if the aircraft did not participate in any fighting. In that case, the aircraft had to be painted white with a large red cross.

Since the planes were used to transport the wounded and to drop paratroopers, and supplies to the front, they could not claim the protection of the Red Cross. The result was that an evacuation flight was a legitimate war target and the occupants were at risk of being shot down by enemy aircraft and anti-aircraft guns.

The last flight on April 14

On 14 April, 1st Lt. Dolly Vinsant, 806 Medical Air Evacuation Squadron, left on a flight to the airfield R-2/Langensalza, northeast of Eisenach in Thuringen. Her colleague Dolores Dilger should have been the Flight Nurse on this flight, but she had a heavy cold and had been told by the doctor not to fly. Even though Dolly Vinsant had already flown 30 sorties and was due to return to the US to train other Flight Nurses Dolly willingly took Dolores' place. It would be her last flight - a fatal flight.

The other crew members were:

- 1st Lieutenant Richard C. Mervyn, piloot
- 2nd Lieutenant Vincente Lopez, co-piloot
- Flight Officer Franklin P. Totten, navigator
- Staff Sergeant Edward S. Michalak, radiotelegrafist
- Technical Sergeant Jack Sims, crew chief

The C-47 departed in the morning from the temporary airfield A-55 / Melun, south of Paris to Langensalza, but never arrived. At around 12.00 the aircraft crashed near Struth / Eschwege, about 45 kilometers west of Langensalza.

The circumstances under which the plane crashed are still not fully understood. The German records for April 14, 1945 do not show a Abschuss-Meldung (a reported shooting) of a C-47 transport aircraft. A technical problem is also ruled out. On the route to Langensalza there were several airports where an emergency landing could have been made. In addition, an emergency the crew could have parachuted out of the the plane.

The most likely cause of the accident is bad weather. On April 13, one day before, another medevac C-47 had flown through a sudden band of low cloud, and then, in the hilly area of ​​Thuringen, crashed into a mountain. But 70 years later we still don't know for sure the cause of the crash in which Dolly died. Dolly's death is thus as mysterious as her role model Amelia Earhart.

Buried in Margraten

Dolly Vinsant was buried at 7:50 pm on April 16, 1945 in the
temporary American cemetery in Eisenach. On 24 June 1945 she was reburied at the American cemetery in Margraten in QQ section, row 263, Grave 11.

After the war, the question arose of where Dolly would find her final resting place: in Europe or in America? That choice lay with her husband, Major Walter L. Shea whom Dolly had married on January 15, 1945 (the marriage lasted only three months). Walter came from the Bronx in New York and was a navigator in one of the air units where Dolly regularly worked. It was not unusual at the time for relationships and then marriages to occur between colleagues, during their stay in Europe. Several of Dolly's colleagues married crew members of the aircraft where they worked.

Walter Shea decided that Dolly should be buried in Margraten. After the redesign of the cemetery she found her final resting place in Section B, Row 17, Grave 4. Shea never remarried.

Three other crew members of that fatal flight are buried at Margraten: Richard C. Mervyn (G 10-23), Franklin P. Totten (D 8-9) and Jack Sims (A-5-6). Vincente Lopez and Edward S. Michalak were reburied in the United States. During her service and after, Dolly received several medals: the airmedal, the Red Cross Medal, a (posthumous), Purple Heart, and a special mention by President Harry Truman.

Memories of Dolly

In 2000 Dolores Rike visited the grave of Dolly.
In the guest book she wrote afterwards: “Dolly Vinsant took my place and saved my life."

Winna Jean Foley Tierney remembers Dolly very well too. In a brief history of the 806 MAES she writes about their training period in England: "All the while, of course, we were continuing to learn things - how to set up tents in the snow (Major Jordan's idea!), How to get coke to burn, lessons in English history, classes in emergency ditching procedures over at Coremose, how to get a good night's sleep on biscuits and bolsters, and how to catch the train to London before our 48 hour pass actually expired and how to get back at the last minute - Dolly Vinsant made a science of this!"

The Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital

In memory of Dolly, a hospital was named after her. It opened in San Benito Dolly in 1949 with 81 beds. In the Memorial lobby of the hotel hung a large painting of Dolly Shea-Vinsant in uniform. Since 1986, the hospital had given an annual award to a promising medical student: Dolly Vinsant Flight Nurse of the Year Award.

Unfortunately, the hospital was closed a few years ago, due to bankruptcy. A local newspaper reported that the painting of 'Dolly' has disappeared from the Memorial Lobby. It is not known where the painting is now. In the meantime it has became a shelter for under-age asylum seekers. In the bulding there is a modest memorial for Dolly.

Images

C-47 transport wounded

Source: WWII Flight Nurses Association / www.legendsofflightnurses.org

Amelia Earhart

Public domain

painting of Dolly

Source: Collection John Gouverne / www.ancestry.com

Cover Amelia Earhart's popular book ‘The fun of it’

Source: Public domain

Advertising Braniff Airways

Source: www.braniffpages.com

Braniff Airways logo

Source: www.braniffpages.com

Aircraft Braniff Airways

Source: www.braniffpages.com

Aircrafts Braniff Airways

Source: www.edcoatescollection.com

Evacuation of wounded

Source:
www.nationalmuseum.af.mil / National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Evacuation of wounded

Source: US Army Signals Corps / www.legendsofflightnurses.org / WWII Flight Nurses Association

Evacuation of wounded

Source:
www.nationalmuseum.af.mil / National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Movie poster Amelia (2009)

Source: Public domain

Evacuation of wounded

Source:
www.nationalmuseum.af.mil / National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Flight nurses with gas masks

Source:
www.nationalmuseum.af.mil / National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Flight nurses practicing

Source:
www.nationalmuseum.af.mil / National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Hostess van Braniff Airways

Source: www.braniffpages.com

Dolores Dilger

Source: Mr. Gary Hart

Memorial marker Dolly in Mont Meta Cemetery, San Benito

Source: www.sanbenitohistory.com

Group portrait. Dolly is in the middle row, 3rd from left. Delores Dilger is on the front row at the center

Source: www.legendsofflightnurses.org / WWII Flight Nurses Associationn

Group portrait Flight Nurses van 807 MAES

Source: www.legendsofflightnurses.org / WWII Flight Nurses Association

Jean Bartholomew (l) and Wilma Vinsant (r)

Source: US Army Signals Corps / www.legendsofflightnurses.org / WWII Flight Nurses Association

Wilma ‘Dolly’ Vinsant early age

Source: Collection Arie-Jan van Hees

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Source: -

Passport Dorothy Jane Burdge

Source: www.ancestry.com / Sporck Family Tree

Logo of the Flight Nurses

Source:
www.nationalmuseum.af.mil / National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Wilma ‘Dolly’ Vinsant

Source: www.legendsofflightnurses.org / WWII Flight Nurses Association

Wilma ‘Dolly’ Vinsant in her Flight Nurse tenue

Source: www.ancestry.com

painting of Dolly the Memorial Lobby of Dolly Vincant Memorial Hospital

Source: www.ancestry.com / Collection John Gouverne

painting of Dolly the Memorial Lobby of Dolly Vincant Memorial Hospital

Source: www.ancestry.com / Collection John Gouverne

John Sealy Hospital

Source: The Portal To Texas History

An American GI manufactures cross for (temporary) cemetery somewhere in Germany.

Source: US Army Signals Corps

C-47 aircrafts 436 Troop Carrier Group / 82 Troop Carrier Squadron

Source: Public domain / US Army Air Force / collection Arie-Jan van Hees

Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital

Source: Collection John Gouverne