A good story can come from any place, even a 2021 “Heroes of World War II Commemorative Calendar.” The month of November featured Capt. Lillian Kinkella Keil, a WAC flight nurse. I decided to combine Lillian’s story with two other women who served in WWII, a native Nevadan and a citizen of Nevada for Women’s History Month. Born in Arcata, California, life dealt Lillian a hand of low cards when her father abandoned his family. Lillian was placed in a convent where she observed the nuns caring for the sick. After high school graduation, she entered St. Mary’s Hospital Nursing Program in San Francisco, graduated three years later, passed her state boards and became a Registered Nurse.
Courtesy Hazel Stamper proudly smiles wearing her blue Women Airforce Service Pilot for her 1944 WASP graduation picture.
In 1939 Lillian became one of the first stewardesses for United Airlines. When America entered the war in 1941, a passenger suggested she become a flight nurse in the Army Air Force. She was a member of the first flight nurse class to graduate from Air Evacuation School at Bowman Field, Kentucky. Flight Nurse training demanded physically fit women. The nurses had to successfully navigate an obstacle course, slide on their stomachs under barbed wire and swim under burning gasoline. If their plane crashed, the nurses had to be ready to calmly save their wounded GIs. After the war she returned to United Airlines as a stewardess. When the Korean Conflict erupted on June 25, 1950, Lillian enlisted in the USAF. She was one of 30 USAF flight nurses stationed in the Far East. She flew 250 missions in WWII and 175 missions during the Korean Conflict. In 1954 she met Walter Keil, a former WWII naval intelligence officer. The couple married after a six-week “fast track” romance. Lillian was honorably discharged when she became pregnant in 1955. Walter and Lillian had two daughters. She was a technical adviser for the 1953 film, Flight Nurse, with Joan Leslie and Forrest Tucker. In 1961 Lillian was honored in an episode of “This Is Your Life,” with host, Ralph Edwards. Her episode had one of the largest mail responses. “Her Boys” sent 10,000 letters. At 88 Lillian was asked, “What are your last wishes?” She responded, “I want to be with my boys!” She was laid to rest in the Riverside National Cemetery with Marines who were KIA at the December 1950 battle at Chosin Reservoir, North Korea. Closer to home in 1919, a Lovelock native weighed only four pounds at birth and wasn’t expected to live. Phyllis L. Anker proved her doctor wrong. She was a 1937 honor graduate from Pershing County High School and a 1941 honor graduate from the University of Nevada. In 1943, Phyllis enlisted in the WACs and was assigned to Joint Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall’s staff at the Pentagon. She and 11 WACs traveled with Marshall to Montreal for the Sept. 9-16, 1944 President Roosevelt/Prime Minister Winston Churchill conference. Their wives, Eleanor Roosevelt and Clementine Churchill, hosted a tea for the American WACs and the Canadian WACs, CWAC, (pronounced quacks), no joke! How many women can say they had tea and conversed with Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Churchill? Phyllis and I taught business subjects at Carson High until she retired in 1983. For 19 years I lived two houses down the street from Phyllis. I’d visit with her spending hours listening to her stories. Ask me what was her favorite plane and why. As a teacher at Carson High School, one of my students shared when her mom, Hazel, was in the ninth-grade. In New Jersey she attended an assembly and listened intently to Amelia Earhart. Hazel wanted to fly! After high school she worked at Piper Aircraft Co., because they had discounted flying lessons, $1.12 for an hour lesson. She was accepted and trained at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas to become a WASP, Women Airforce Service Pilot. WASPs were paid exactly half of a USAAF pilot without any military benefits. Two WASPs died in training and 36 died in the line of duty. The WASPs would collect money to pay for a fellow WASPs to accompany the deceased’s remains to her hometown for burial. WASPs were ferry pilots. They would fly a new plane from the factory to a USAAF base. Some of WASPs flew replacement B-17s and B-24s across the Atlantic Ocean to the Eighth Air Force in England. Walt Disney Studios designed shoulder patches for a number of units in our armed forces. The WASPs received permission from Disney Studios to adopt the character, Fifinella, “Fifi,” for their patch. As an added note, the WASPs designed their uniform. It was not army brown, but blue. When the USAF was formed on Sept. 18, 1947, they adopted the same WASP blue for their uniforms. The USAF Academy opened in 1955. Women were accepted to all the academies on July 7, 1976 and began graduating in 1980. In the early 1980s after training, some female officers received their wings, becoming USAF pilots. Somebody wrote a newspaper article about the first female air force pilots. As soon as former WASPs read the article, they said, “au contraire.” “The WASPs were the first women to fly air force planes. We flew every plane 40 years ago!” It’s important to know the shoulders you stand upon today. March on Women, it’s your month.