Lt. Col. Joann Bolitho was a flight nurse who served in Vietnam and spent the rest of her 20-year military career in hospitals in Europe, Alaska and around the country.
“I was born in a very small farming community in Ohio. After graduation from high school I went to work as a bookkeeper in a hospital and became interested in nursing,” the 77-year-old Port Charlotte, Fla resident explained. “I attended Bethesda Hospital School of Nursing in Gainesville, Ohio and got my R.N. degree 1956.
“My younger brother, Bob, who was home on leave from the Air Force said, ‘Joann, You should join the Air Force. The nurses in the Air Force don’t do a thing.’ That sounded pretty good to me, so I signed up.”
As a 2nd lieutenant in the Air Force Bolitho worked primarily as an operating room nurse during her early years in the service. She started in the operating room at Travis Air Force Base near Fairfield, Calif. From there her next two-year tour of duty was in Ramstein, Germany where she worked in a small 76-bed hospital for three years.
She went to Vietnam in 1966 as a flight nurse aboard planes loaded with wounded servicemen. Bolitho cared for them as they were flown back to the states in a C-141 jet transport. It’s one of these flights she remembers as the high water mark of her nursing career.
“It was during the Tet Offensive in 1968 and we flew into Saigon to pick up 88 ambulatory and litter patients. This is the most we ever took out of Vietnam at one time,” she said. “It was a four or five hour flight from Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines to Saigon.
“We had so many patients on that flight it was hard to get up and down the aisles. Five of us, two nurses and three med-techs, were responsible for taking care of all 88 patients aboard.
“In the middle of all this a patient with a gunshot wound in the butt started to bleed. We packed the wound with dressings to try and stop the blood, but it didn’t work. Finally, I took my fist and stuck it in the wound and kept it there for the rest of the flight. Lucky for him, the pressure from my fist was enough to cut off the loss of most of the blood,” Bolitho said.
“We got the soldier to the hospital in time they found the severed artery and clamped it off. The surgeon who worked on him later told me he survived and was sent back home,” She said.
The way things worked in Vietnam, Bolitho and her nursing staff would fly into Saigon a couple of weeks before a flight and spend time evaluating each patient for the next flight back to the USA.
“We’d stay at a compound in Saigon called ‘The Bird House’ guarded by troops from the Republic of South Korea. There were five bird colonels that stayed there, too,” She said. “The nurses lived on the third floor. Vietnam was kind of scary because everyone was running around in black pajamas and you didn’t know your friend from your enemy.”
The way it worked, Bolitho and her team would fly out of Saigon, Da Nang or Cameron Bay for the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii and finally Travis Air Force Base in Calif. From there the wounded soldiers would be taken by a second flight crew and nursing team to the closest military hospital to their home. Bolitho and her group would head back to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.
Serving as a nurse in the Air Force wasn’t all about wounds and suffering. There were times where she had a ball. She and a fellow nurse bought a micro-midget race car while serving at Ramstein.
“We got talked into buying the tiny race car by a patient. It was made by a German guy and I guess we paid a few hundred dollars for it,” she said. “We were the only two women on the micro-midget racing circuit in 1961 and eventually we won a few races. I’d run the 50 lap races and my girlfriend would do the 20 lappers.’
It wasn’t too long after Bolitho came back from Vietnam that she was sent to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. She worked as a medical surgical charge nurse, in the recovery room and as a flight nurse part of the time, too.
“The Air Force was treating Native Americans in Alaska. We’d fly into some little field in a C-130 transport and take them back to Elmendorf for treatment. There was a hospital in Anchorage for Native Americans.
“This one time we flew up to this Podunk place to pick up a female who had eaten canned salmon with botulism in it. She went into respiratory arrest and cardiac arrest at the same time,” Bolitho said. “We got her going but we had to breathe for her all the way back to Anchorage. Someone had to squeeze a bag to force air into her lungs for the hour-long flight.
“The weather was so bad we put her on the floor of the airplane and all three of us were down there on the floor with her squeezing the bag and keeping her going. It worked, she survived.”
Her next duty station was going to be sunny California. Someone higher up in the chain of command had a different idea. She was assigned to Minot Air Force Base in Minot, N.D.—a big Strategic Air Command base.
“I wasn’t real happy about that. I went there with a chip on my shoulder because I had never been in that part of the country,” she said. “It was an old VA hospital down town. We took care of veterans, active duty service personnel and their dependents and Native Americans.”
Bolitho started off as a charge nurse, she also worked in the clinic and eventually became assistant chief nurse of the hospital.
“Once I settled down and got the chip off my shoulder, I loved taking care of the patients. I liked North Dakota. The people I worked with—the doctors, nurses and technicians—everybody was wonderful. It was a great assignment.”
Her last duty station was Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne. By this time she had been promoted to lieutenant colonel. She helped the staff move into a new base hospital. When she retired at 45, Bolitho spent another five years living in the Cheyenne area because she liked it so much.
She came down to take care of her aging parents who owned a home in Port Charlotte. She’s been here for 27 years.
Looking back on her years in the Air Force as a nurse Bolitho said, “Choosing nursing as a career was good, but going into the Air Force as a nurse was even better. I couldn’t have chosen any two careers I would have liked any better. They were the best years of my life.”
Name: JoAnn H. Bolitho
D.O.B: 21 May 1933
Hometown: Port Washington, Ohio
Current: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 26 September 1958
Discharged: 30 September 1978
Rank: Lieutenant Colonel
Commendations: Air Force Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Commendation Medal
This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Oct. 4, 2010 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view Bolitho’s Collection on the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
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