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First Name: Lillian

Last Name: Keil

Birthplace: Arcata, CA, USA

Gender: Female

Branch: Air Force (1947 - present)

Maiden Name: Kinkella

Date of Birth: 17 November 1917

Date of Death: 30 June 2005

Rank: Captain

Years Served:
Lillian Kinkella Keil

•  World War II (1941 - 1945)
•  Korean War (1950 - 1953)


Lillian Kinkella Keil
Captain, U.S. Air Force

Lillian Kinkella was born on 17 November 1917 in Arcata, CA. She was raised in a convent after her father left her mother with three children under the age of 5. As she watched the nuns take care of the sick, she was drawn to nursing.

Kinkella's mother thought her daughter might like to be one of a brand new group of women, called "stewardesses," so she advised her to go to United Airline's Oakland base and take a look. Kinkella, a registered nurse, had never seen an airplane and never heard of a stewardess, but one look and she was hooked.

Kinkella became one of the first stewardesses hired by United and was happily tending to her passengers when the U.S. entered World War II. On a flight to Santa Barbara, a passenger sitting in the rear of the plane said, "What are you doing on this plane? You're a registered nurse, and we have a war going on. You belong in the Air Force as a flight nurse." When she got home from that flight, she wrote to the School of Evacuation at Bowman Fields, CA. Within two weeks, she was accepted into the U.S. Army Air Forces.

By the summer of 1943, she was in England pulling wounded and frostbitten crewmen out of B-17s returning from bombing raids over Europe. While there, she witnessed the first buzz bomb attack on London, and in June 1944 climbed aboard a C-47. D-Day had come and she was heading for Normandy to collect the wounded, whom she treated enroute to hospitals in safety zones. She also was part of a team that followed General George Patton's Army across France with cargos of crucial supplies, including gasoline, ammunition and weapons.

Lillian made 250 evacuation flights, 23 of them transatlantic, during WWII, moving from one man to another, stanching the flow of blood, bandaging wounds, giving medicine and comfort. Retired Air Force Colonel Barney Oldfield, a longtime friend of Kinkella's, told the New York Times in 1991: "She had to make it up as she went along. She was an airborne Florence Nightingale." Lillian's older brother, who served in the Navy, was killed during World War II.

After World War II ended, Keil returned to United Airlines as an Assistant Chief Stewardess. But her civilian career was interrupted again in 1950 when she returned to her duties as an Air Force flight nurse and flew to Korea. During the next 16 months, she flew 175 air evacuations out of Korea, logging 1,400 hours of flight time. She was assigned to the 801st Medical Air Evacuation Transportation Squadron (nicknamed the Angels of Mercy) during that time.

In 1991, Kinkella told the New York Times about the wounded evacuated from the Battle of Chosin Reservoir: "The Marines had spent many, many days in the snow. Their hands and feet were so frostbitten, they could hardly hold a gun or walk. "Sometimes I gave my outer clothing to the shivering GIs that came aboard. We were fired upon and often had to land in slush, which was dangerous because the planes could skid. One of the nurses was killed. Somehow, the Marines came through."

Following the Korean War, Kinkella was doing public relations work for the Air Force in 1954 when she met Walter Keil, a Navy intelligence officer stationed in Guadalcanal during World War II, and married him six weeks later. When she became pregnant with her first child in 1955, she was honorably discharged from the Air Force.

During her military service, Captain Lillian Kinkella flew on 425 combat evacuation missions in World War II and Korea. She took part in 11 major campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in Korea, where Air Force pilots and nurses flew almost 4,700 wounded Marines to safety in nine days. One rough calculation put the number of wounded soldiers, sailors and Marines Kinkella tended to - often while her plane was being rocked by antiaircraft fire - at more than 10,000. In the process, she became one of the most decorated women in U.S. military history.

Captain Lillian Kinkella Keil was awarded 19 medals and ribbons, including a European Theater Medal with 4 Battle Stars, a Korean Service Medal with 7 Battle Stars, 4 Air Medals and a Presidential Citation from the Republic of Korea.

Post-Military Life

The young Keil family moved to Covina in 1958, and Lillian continued to work as a nurse in emergency rooms and hospitals.

In 1954, Hollywood made a movie, "Flight Nurse," partly based on Keil's war experiences. It starred Joan Leslie and Forrest Tucker; Keil served as technical advisor.

Her life story was also told on the small screen in a 1961 episode of Ralph Edwards' "This Is Your Life." Her appearance generated a record amount of mail, much of it from wounded veterans who remembered the tiny black-haired nurse.

Death and Burial

Lillian Kinkella Keil died of cancer on 30 June 2005 at a convalescent home in Covina, CA, according to her daughter, Adrianne Whitmore. She is buried at Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, CA.

In addition to Whitmore, of Chino Hills, Keil was survived by another daughter, Lilliane Wittman of Big Bear, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her husband, Walter, died in 1980.

Honoree ID: 2696   Created by: MHOH




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