By Adeline McElfresh, ©1971
When beautiful young Pat Romain became a U.S. Air Force nurse, she was fleeing the memory of a disastrous love. But soon her personal hurt was forgotten amid the larger pain of the wounded soldiers she tended. Intense, breath-catching drama was part of Pat’s daily routine on the Med Evac plane shuttling between embattled jungle airfields and hospitals in the Philippines and Hawaii. Another kind of drama raged within her heart as two men—a brilliant doctor and a gallant pilot—competed for her affections. It took a searing confrontation with tragedy, and a desperate crisis aboard a crippled plane, for Pat to discover her full worth as a nurse, and her wisdom as a woman in love.
“Well, at least, fellows, we’re plane-wrecked with the prettiest nurse in the whole Air Force!”
Pat Romain is an Air Force lieutenant and nurse who has enlisted in an 18-month tour shuttling wounded soldiers back from southeast Asia to safer hospitals, and recovered soldiers back into battle, a stint she has chosen in part because of, yes, a broken heart, after her beau “rushed her almost to the altar before he had eloped with the daughter of the physician who headed the Physical Medicine Department. To escape seeing him every day, another woman’s happy husband, she enlisted in the Air Force.” But right away she is being rushed again, this time by Kev Moriarty, medical school dropout and pilot, who is described in glowing terms such as “blithe, brash, irreverent” and “rakish,” all properties any woman would hope for in a serious boyfriend. But two pages after meeting the shallow, wolfish cad, Pat “was falling precipitately in love with him,” for some inexplicable reason, because he is not a likable fellow, we discover, as Pat goes on a date in San Francisco with him and her new roommate and he spouts lines like, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone.” Actually, no, we won’t.
Not to worry, though, because even though “her heart lurched crazily” when she thinks of him, she proves herself to be as fickle as Kev is, instantly falling for a talented, alarmingly dedicated and possibly unhinged frontline surgeon, Dr. Paul Anders, the stuff of most of the flight nurses’ dreams but who inexplicably takes Pat in his arms and tells her he loves her at the end of a flight in which they both had been extremely busy tending to the wounded soldiers in their care. Now she’s planning her wedding to Paul barely six months into her Air Force service while Kev, whom she runs into now and then, gives her sad-dog eyes. She really doesn’t spend much more time with Paul than she did on their initial flight, because he’s on the front lines and she’s on planes all the time, setting down for literally only 20 minutes at a time in Vietnam before taking off again. They’re all set to tie the knot when the inevitable happens, and Pat is alone again—but she has her good friend Kev to help shore her up. What will happen next?
One of a few nurse novels I’ve read that are set amidst the Vietnam War (see Vietnam Nurse and Vietnam Nurse), Flight Nurse literally only briefly touches down on that conflict, and honestly the book has little to say about the war except fairly regular remarks about wounded soldiers who have vacant looks in their eyes or who “were resigned to never being men again,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. One interesting point about this book is that it never takes back Pat’s first two boyfriends, pretending after the fact that she never loved them. The other is that her roommate, Miriam, is a Black woman, a rarity in VNRNs, though this is really not discussed except when Miriam notes that their new roommate is awfully rude to Miriam: “To her, Patricia, I’m black before I am either a flight nurse or a human being, I’m not sure in which order. I feel sorry for her.” Pat replies she does too, though she’s angry as well—and that’s the end of the subject.
The book has little in the way of plot or medical interest (except for the time Dr. Anders recommends a rectal tube as a means of decompressing a soldier who is inexplicably eviscerating), and though its admiration for the Air Force is clear, as a civilian I found it occasionally difficult to navigate the military abbreviations and jargon, not to mention literally navigate where Pat was or where she was headed, as she might be visiting several countries in a single day, and I wasn’t immediately aware of where all the bases she lands at are located. So unless you are an especially devoted fan of Vietnam War literature or the Air Force, you’d be better off missing this flight.