Brookdale Salutes Our Vets: World War II Nurse Who Survived Plane Crash

In 1944, nursing degree fresh in hand, 21-year-old Ruth Heckinger volunteered for the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. Two months later, she was in India and flying the “Burma Hump,” helping evacuate wounded American soldiers from China during what would be the last year of World War II. While her story sounds like a Hollywood movie, it was very real. Now 94, Heckinger resides at Freedom Village at Bradenton.

Ruth grew up in New York City, where she attended Columbia University and the St. Luke’s Nursing School Hospital. After obtaining a B.S. in nursing and becoming a registered nurse, she joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, one of four nurses out of her graduating class of 35 to volunteer for the military. After a month of training and another month working with amputees in the United States, she shipped out to India.

“I really had no idea what I was going to be doing,” she said. “I just went where they said to go.”

After arriving in Calcutta, Ruth traveled to her new home at the Army’s 142nd General Hospital. She quickly found out she wouldn’t be spending much time on the ground. Over the course of a year, she flew several hundred thousand miles, including eight round trips over the “Burma Hump.” The military flew over this jagged section of the Himalayas to take supplies to U.S. soldiers in China and bring back the injured.

“On one of my first trips, we were flying over northern Burma when one engine failed and the other started to conk out,” she said. “The pilot said I would have to jump out, but I said ‘No, I’m sticking with the plane.’ Then he ordered the crew to push me out, which they did.” 

Thankfully Ruth parachuted to safety, landing uninjured in a tree. The pilot, however, died in the crash.

This experience is just one of many vivid recollections Heckinger loves to share about a time that now surprises even her. “When I look back, I realize that we were so young and what we were doing was incredible. But at the time, we were just putting one foot in front of the other, doing what we needed to do, because the whole world was in an uproar.”

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