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Memories of a Tuskegee Airmen Nurse and Her Military Sisters

It’s time for another book review by Don Noble. This week, Don reviews “Memories of a Tuskegee Airmen Nurse and Her Military Sisters” written by Pia Marie Winters Jordan.

Pia Marie Winters Jordan is a journalist and teacher of journalism whose mother was one of the African American nurses who served at the Tuskegee Army Airfield during World War II. The pilots who were trained there, the Red Tails, who escorted American bombers over Europe during the war, demonstrating extraordinary courage and skill, have achieved the status of folk heroes. At the base itself, of course, where they were being trained, there was the full complement of ground support services, including a base hospital, where, we are told, staff, instructors and cadet pilots were treated for a wide variety of injuries and ailments. In 1944 there were 867 patients with various diseases—mumps, appendicitis and so on, and 219 injuries, some of them training accidents—a total of 1,086 cases. At its height there were 154 beds in service.

The base itself was open only from the summer of 1941 until June 30, 1945, when there were only four nurses. Altogether 28 had served and usually there were 14 at one time. The U.S. military was not integrated until July of 1948, by order of President Harry Truman, well after the end of the war.

During the war, all military units were strictly segregated, including the Army Nurse Corps. Jordan tells of the great difficulty in getting nurse training. Even though there was a serious shortage of nurses throughout the war, only a few nursing schools were open to black women. There were never many black RN’s, only 500-600. By contrast, there were probably about 59,000 white army nurses. A number of women persevered, however, and this is their story, illustrated with many photos.

One is reminded, for example, that nurses were commissioned officers, so enlisted men, including the pilot cadets, were forbidden to fraternize, even flirt, but of course some did. There were romances and even marriages. The town of Tuskegee itself was fiercely segregated and “not welcoming,” and a trip into Montgomery was fraught. In a story reported in black newspapers, a nurse was struck by a white bus driver, perhaps for attempting to board prematurely, and then beaten by police.

Tedium on the base was relieved occasionally by visits from black entertainers which included, amazingly, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, boxer Joe Lewis and baseball great Hank Greenburg, not a black man. The stories are great but the bulk of the book is factual history. There is, as expected, a nicely complete biographical summary of the life of Jordan’s mother, one of the last nurses to serve there. About two dozen other nurses in this very short book are covered in a series of mini-biographies, sometimes two per page. Perhaps this was all Jordan was able to learn about them, but they are noted, and each nurse described here deserves her place in the permanent history of those who, by serving in uniform, helped move the civil rights movement forward.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.