One-hundred-three-year-old retired Air Force Lt. Col. Grace Chicken, who lives at South Port Square in Port Charlotte, Fla., was already a registered nurse when she signed up for the Army Air Corps during the early part of World War II.
Nurses like Grace didn’t take basic training like millions of other recruits. They were sent to a hospital where they were needed and went to work immediately.
“I went to an airbase in Topeka, Kansas in ’42. They still had corn stalks growing on the base when I arrived,” she recalled.
“Shortly after I got there an airplane crashed on the base and we had to take care of the pilot. He was brought to the emergency room and the doctor said, ‘Give him this and give him that.’ We told the doctor, ‘We didn’t have this and we didn’t have that.’
“We were such a new hospital we didn’t have the supplies we needed. I can’t remember whether the pilot lived or not.”
It just so happened a nursing buddy of Grace’s saw some Air Corps information that they were going to start a new program called ‘Airevac’ nursing. Nurses would be specifically trained to fly with wounded soldiers and take care of them while they were in the air being flown to a hospital for treatment. She and her friend signed up.
They flew in Douglas C-54 ’Skymasters, better known as DC-4s. The plane could carry 20 or so stretcher cases. When things got hectic they would crowd the plane and put additional patients in the aisles on the plane’s floor.
Grace was a” Aeroevac” nurse based at a hospital in the Azores. She would fly patients from her hospital to other hospitals in Newfound and on to their final destination, a hospital in the U.S.
“I once flew with a “Medal of Honor” soldier from the Azores to an airbase near his hometown, a little town in Maine,” she said a lifetime later. When we arrived they asked me to get off the plane and have my picture taken with the soldier for a local newspaper.
“I got out, but the pilot didn’t know it and flew off without me. They had to send a C-47 (transport plane) back to get me. I can imagine that newspaper picture was a big expense for the Air Corps.
“It was about this time I was relocated from the Azores to a hospital at Hickham Field in Honolulu. At the end of the war I was on the second American plane that flew into Tokyo.”
She flew into the Japanese capital with a couple of other nurses. When they landed they got an officer to take them on a Jeep tour of Tokyo.
“We ended up at the Frank Lloyd Wright Hotel in downtown Tokyo drinking saki with a bunch of high ranking officers. The Americans had taken over the hotel and were going to use it as their headquarters.
“We left the hotel that night in our Jeep and got hopelessly lost on the way back to our base. Tokyo is a big city and we had no idea where we were and it was two days after the Japanese signed the surrender. We stopped a policeman who was directing traffic and asked directions. We finally made it back to our base without incident.”
It was about this time Grace flew in a plane load of American POWs — some of the soldiers made the “Corregidor Death March” — from Honolulu to a hospital in San Francisco.
“When we got these POWs they had been in American hands a few days. They were dressed in American uniforms and they didn’t look too bad,” she said.
“Bless their heart, one of them said to me: “We knew you would come and get us. We never lost hope.’”
She was discharged from the Air Force in 1946 with a couple of other friends who were also nurses.
“I went back to school under the G.I. Bill. I looked at a list of universities I could attend and decided on the most expensive one because I wanted to get my money’s worth. I attended Northwestern University in Chicago.
“I just finished my university courses when the Korean War came along. I now had a Master’s in pathology. I also received one of those letters from ‘your friends and neighbors.’
“Since I didn’t have a job, getting called back into the Air Force was great. They offered to put me back in the service as a first lieutenant which was my rank when I got out of the Second World War. I told them I wanted to be a captain if I was going to Korea. They concurred.”
She was sent back to Japan and from there they went to Korea. They would fly with patients from the battlefield to a tent hospital at Pusan, South Korea or on to a hospital in Japan.
“On one of my flights to Korea I brought back a plane-full of ambulatory patients. On that flight we had a wounded North Korean soldier sitting next to an American soldier. The American wanted to know if the guy beside him was a South Korean or a North Korean. I lied and told him he was a South Korean.
“He had to believe me because the American was an enlisted man and I as an officer,” she said with a smile.”
The way the system worked. The nurses and their stretchers would fly from Japan to Korea in a C-47 (transport) with a load of equipment. The stuff in the plane would be offloaded and wounded soldiers would replace the equipment on the return flight.
“I was in one of those planes ready to takeoff when a truck came roaring up with a wounded soldier. He had been shot in his midsection and had a big hole in his chest. All I could do was put a bandage over the hole and wrap him with gauze.
“He was still alive when I got him back to the tent hospital in Pusan. I don’t know what happened to him.
“That was the problem with all the patients we cared for. We would work on them and never see them again. I would get them to a field hospital and that was the last I ever heard of them.
“One time we were flying a group of soldiers back to the hospital. This little wounded Indian soldier was sitting on the floor of our C-47. He couldn’t see because he had been shot in the face and his eyes were wrapped with gauze.
“Because he couldn’t see I sat down with him on the floor and held his hand while the plane was taking off. That’s all I could do because I didn’t speak his language.
“Another time we picked up a flight of wounded soldiers and they were hungry. All we had aboard the plane were the box lunches for the crew. I took these lunches and started handing out a sandwich here and a chicken wing there. I was out of everything but a hardboiled egg when I reached my last hungry patient. He was a little Korean soldier. I handed him the egg and I think he ate it shell and all.”
At the end of the Korean War, Grace came back to the states. She was stationed at a hospital on an Air Force base in Kansas. After that she served a tour in Alaska.
This was the “Cold War” era and they took care of the Americans on the base. They treated their wives and kids and kept the soldier healthy.
“I was in charge of the O.B. Ward at Elmendorf Air Base in Anchorage,” she said. “I helped deliver eight babies in eight hours one time up there. After these mothers delivered it was the happiest place in the world.
“When I went back to the states I was in charge of a hospital wing. I was also the senior nurse at a hospital in Labrador during part of my service.”
Grace served 20 years as an Air Force nurse. After she was finally discharged in ’62 she signed up for the Air Force Reserves and served another six years. She had a total of 26 years in the service and retired as a lieutenant colonel.
“You want to know how I got to Florida?” she asked.
“I was working back home in a hospital in Kansas and a friend of mine and I got a free dinner provided by General Development. This was the firm that developed North Port and Port Charlotte. The two nurses attended the affair were General Development was selling lots in Florida for $25 down and $25 a month. I bought a lot in Port Charlotte. I came down here in 1970 with my cousin and made plans to build a house.
“About the same time one of the doctors in the hospital back home in Kansas said he was retiring and was going to move to Florida. I asked him where he was going to live and he told me Punta Gorda.”
He didn’t retire. He moved to Punta Gorda, established a practice down here and Grace became his office nurse. His name was Dr. Bob Wingo. He was an orthopedic doctor and he continued practicing for eight or 10 more years and she worked right along side him locally.
In 1990 Grace moved to Southport Square in Port Charlotte. She was 86 at the time. That was 27 years ago and she’s still going strong.
Name: Grace E. Chicken
D.O.B: 6 July 1914
Hometown: Huchison, Kan.
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 1 July 1942
Rank: Lt. Colonel
Commendations: World War II Victory Medal, Aier Medal, Mawrioiou Unit Badge w/2 S Sser Bars, American Theatre Ribbon, Eame Theaer Ribbon.
Battles/Campaigns: World War II, Korean War, Cold War
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Dec. 25, 2017, and is republished here with permission.
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Grace Chicken is still going strong at 105! Click here to read about her in the local paper.