Palestine resident Virginia Harju faced much as a flight nurse in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II — traveling to remote places and caring for our nation’s wounded in mid-air.

But for Harju, the experience was not a bad one — is was an exciting time for her.

The New York native had already trained to be a nurse at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York and was working in the maternity ward at another hospital when she heard the call for flight nurses on the radio.

“I sent them a letter and they asked me to report for basic training in Alabama,” she said. “I reported to Maxwell Air Force Base in Selma, Ala. in March of 1943.”

After basic training, Harju then went through about five months of flight nurse training at Bowman Field in Louisville, Ky.

“We trained in the air by escorting soldiers to hospitals near their home,” she said.

Harju — along with 24 other flight nurses — was officially assigned to her first unit in January 1945.

“We were assigned to Hickham Field in Hawaii,” Harju added. “They flew us over in separate planes in case something happened.”

From there, her job as a flight nurse started — escorting wounded soldiers from areas like the Philippines, New Guinea, Guam, Manilla and Japan to U.S. military hospitals.

She logged almost 90 flights and was awarded an air medal for 800 hours of overwater flight bringing in wounded.

Harju recalled her most special flight — to pick up prisoners of war in Japan and take them back to stateside hospitals.

“It was the first flight to pass enemy lines after the treaty was signed,” she said. “(Those POWs) were the happiest people I had seen in a while — some of them had been in POW camps for three years.

“They ate everything we had on the plane,” she added. “They even used the emergency ax to break into rations on the plane.”

Harju, already married at the time to husband Ralph, was discharged from Fort Nix in New Jersey in October 1945.

“We were considered the glamour girls of the military,” she said about her time as a flight nurse. “It was kind of like being a hostess.

“Everyone was nice to us and it was exciting to be able to visit other places.”

After being discharged, Harju took on the duties of military wife and mother and made an effort to follow her husband as much as possible.

The family returned to the United States in 1947, moving to Palestine in 1966 where Ralph Harju served as chief pilot for the National Scientific Balloon Facility for more than 18 years.

Virginia Harju will be honored in the Veterans Day parade and ceremonies, which begin at 10 a.m. Saturday in downtown Palestine. This year’s Veteran Day events focus on women in the military.

“I think it was very nice for them to ask me,” she said. “It is a great opportunity for all women veterans in our community to be visible and to be recognized.”

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Mary Rainwater may be reached via e-mail at mrainwater@palestineherald.com

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