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Korea Aeromedical Evacuation

A seriously wounded American soldier arrives at a 2nd Infantry Division airstrip in the rear area, flown from the front line in an L-5 observation plane, converted to carry one stretcher patient, Korea, 30 August 1950
A seriously wounded American soldier arrives at a 2nd Infantry Division airstrip in the rear area, flown from the front line in an L-5 observation plane, converted to carry one stretcher patient, Korea, 30 August 1950.

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Aeromedical Evacuation in the late 1940s

Flight nurse Captain Irene Wiley attends to patients aboard a C-54 Skymaster Aeromedical Evacuation flight from Okinawa to Formosa, during the Korean War
Flight nurse Captain Irene Wiley attends to patients aboard a C-54 Skymaster Aeromedical Evacuation flight from Okinawa to Formosa, during the Korean War.

At the end of World War II the U.S. military contracted back to a peacetime size and posture. The globe-spanning Aeromedical Evacuation (AE) system set up during World War II was no exception to the drastic cutbacks. By 1946 the AE system consisted of only twelve aircraft at the School of Aviation Medicine and one C-47 at each of the 12 regional US hospitals. In the 1947 reorganization of the War Department, the United States Air Force (USAF) was established, receiving orders in May 1949, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to establish "evacuation systems" for both the Army and Air Force.

The Military Air Transport Service (MATS) had researched aircraft development in the AE role before its formal organization. The WW II vintage C-47 and C-54 were the mainstays of early CONUS AE. MATS provided regularly scheduled AE missions. Intertheater AE from Europe began on 11 October 1949, with the C-121 Constellation (Connie). The C-121 provided a higher service ceiling, pressurized cabin, and smoother transatlantic crossings than the C-54. Eventually, the C-121 replaced the C-54 on the twice-weekly "Benefactor" AE missions from Rhein-Main, Germany, to Westover Air Force Base, MA. During this same period, C-54 aircraft serviced the Pacific theater. On 1 June 1950, the new MATS C-97A Stratofreighter was introduced into the AE role. With its larger carrying capacity and pressurized cabin, the weekly C-97A flight replaced the four trips per week flown by the C-54.

Aeromedical Evacuation During the Korean War

Whereas World War II established the value of AE, the Korean War elevated it to the position of the preferred method of evacuation for US casualties. Although bad weather, mountains, and enemy fire hampered AE in the Korean War, Air Force rescue flights still managed to evacuate most of the war’s casualties.

Air Force H-5 rescue helicopters of the 3d Air Rescue Squadron went into action as frontline medical craft in Korea. C-47 transports of the 315th Air Division, carrying AE crews, flew into the most forward airstrips under enemy fire, saving thousands of American lives. The Air Force’s 801st Medical Air Evacuation Squadron (one of the first units to receive a distinguished unit citation) evacuated more than 4,700 casualties from the Chosin Reservoir in December 1950. This aeromedical support enabled the embattled 1st Marine Division to execute a successful fighting withdrawal to the port of Hungnam on the northeast coast of Korea. The Army soon set up its own helicopter-evacuation service and, by late 1951, combined AE support to enable U.S. Navy ships in-theater to serve as floating hospitals rather than simply transports for the wounded. Most American casualties from Korea were airlifted to Japan, Hawaii, and the United States.

MATS transported 137,950 patients between stations overseas and from OCONUS to the CONUS during the Korean War. Additionally, MATS provided for the movement of 215,402 patients within the CONUS. In a restatement of the USAF mission in 1953, MATS was charged with:

... the provision of airlift for patients of the Department of Defense on overseas routes over which MATS operates, from ports of debarkation, and between air facilities serving hospitals within the zone of interior.

AE was now a major mission of MATS, no longer a corollary task limited to the forward delivery of cargo or passengers.

Aircraft used for Aeromedical Evacuation during the Korean War

The aircraft used for AE during the Korean War included:

  • C-46 Commando
  • C-47 Skytrain
  • C-54 Skymaster
  • C-97A Stratofreighter
  • C-121 Constellation
  • C-124 Globemaster II

The Douglas C-74 Globemaster was redesigned and joined the USAF as the Douglas C-124 Globemaster II in April 1950, in time to participate in medical evacuations in Korea. However, because of the weight of the aircraft, it was limited to only four Korean airstrips.

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