This is a story from WWII that, I feel safe in saying, most of you have never heard told. It is Reba Whittle’s story and is about as unique as they come. You see, she became the only female POW in the European Theater. I found out about her story on the Military.com website. Here it is.
Whittle wanted to be a nurse and she also wanted to be a nurse in the Army. Before WWII began for the U.S. she graduated from nursing school and then attended a special military nurses training program in San Antonio, TX. She was commissioned a 2nd Lt. in June of 1941, almost 6 months before Pearl Harbor.
For the next two years she served stateside in Army hospitals, but in 1943 she signed up for training as a flight nurse. This was a new program and she entered it in its infancy. These nurses were the sole medical practitioners on these flights transporting wounded soldiers from the front to the more sophisticated medical hospitals in the rear. The aircraft first used for these medical transport flights was the Douglas C-47 Skytrain. By the end of the war this medical specialty had become recognized by the Army as a “must have” element of their medical service.
Whittle was stationed in England in January of 1944. Over the course of the next nine months she would fly 44 medevac missions to transport the more severely wounded soldiers to the safety and more sophisticated medical care that had been set up in the English countryside at that time.
On September 27, 1944, she was the nurse on a flight headed to pick up wounded soldiers at St. Trond, Belgium. For some reason the flight went some 40 miles off course and found itself over Aachen, Germany. Because they had not picked up the wounded men, and because they were carrying supplies to the front, the plane had not been marked as a medical flight. The German defenses filled the sky with flak killing one of the pilots and wounding the other, as well as Lt. Whittle. Somehow, they were able to crash land the plane and as the wounded were stumbling out of the wreckage, they were captured by German troops.
They were treated for their wounds at that site, then transferred to a nearby hospital. The Germans soon had a problem on their hands that they had never encountered before. No one knew what to do with a female POW. Eventually they transferred Lt. Whittle to the Stalag IX-C POW camp. Whittle had become the only female POW in the European Theater of WWII.
The hospital at this POW Camp was run by British medical personnel who were being held. They promptly put Lt. Whittle to work. Apparently, this idea of a female POW bothered the Germans enough that they finally released her to the Allies in January of 1945.
Whittle was sent back to the U.S. She was awarded a Purple Heart and an Air Medal for her care of wounded soldiers. She was put on convalescent leave and taken off of flying status. But this is not the end of her story.
Whittle would serve as an Army nurse until she was married and applied for a discharge. This is where the story takes an unpleasant turn. The Army determined that the discharge was not due to her injuries or the disabilities she continued to suffer as the result of her shrapnel injuries, or those that she suffered in the crash of the C-47 after it was shot down. Whittle suffered debilitating headaches the rest of her life and later began to experience the effects of PTSD. She also suffered side effects of what we now call traumatic brain injury.
In 1950, Whittle began an appeal process to get military retirement. Four years later, her discharge was finally recognized as related to her injuries, even though, unbelievably, the Army maintained that the injuries were not combat related. As a result, she only received back pay to the time that she applied for the appeal.
Lt. Reba Whittle (Tobiason) died from a battle with cancer in 1981. In 1983, almost 40 years after WWII, the Army finally recognized the nurses who were captured by the Japanese in the Philippines as POWs. Whittle’s husband, retired Col. Stanley Tobiason continued to fight for her recognition as a POW.
Whittle was finally awarded the POW Medal in 1997.
There is a lot that could be said about the Army bureaucracy and the way that Lt. Reba Whittle was treated. But the clear fact that she was a bonafide combat hero is evident to all who come to know her story.
The Veterans Site is glad to share Whittle’s story here to insure that what she did is not forgotten. We honor her memory and the undaunted service she gave to the wounded, as well as her courage as a POW in WWII. We will not let her service be forgotten.Whizzco