Lillian Kinkella Keil, 88; ‘an Airborne Florence Nightingale’

Times Staff Writer

Capt. Lillian Kinkella Keil, a nurse who flew on 425 combat evacuation missions in World War II and Korea and was one of the most decorated women in U.S. military history, has died. She was 88.

Keil died of cancer June 30 at a convalescent home in Covina, said her daughter, Adrianne Whitmore.

“She never questioned what she needed to do when there was a war. It was her calling, and she called the soldiers her ‘boys,’ ” her daughter said.

The retired Air Force captain took part in 11 major campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in Korea, where Air Force pilots and nurses flew almost 4,700 wounded Marines to safety in nine days.


Keil was awarded 19 medals and ribbons.

Before her military career, she became one of the first generation of stewardesses for United Airlines when many early flight attendants were nurses. After a passenger suggested she become a flight nurse during World War II, she joined what was then the Army Air Forces.

By the summer of 1943, she was in England treating wounded crewmen pulled from B-17s returning from bombing raids over Europe. She witnessed the first German buzz bomb attacks on London and, after the D-Day invasion of occupied France in June 1944, she headed to Normandy to collect the wounded, whom she treated en route to hospitals in safety zones.

“She had to make it up as she went along. She was an airborne Florence Nightingale,” retired Air Force Col. Barney Oldfield, a longtime friend, told The Times in 1991.

She also was part of a team that followed Gen. George Patton’s army across France with cargos of crucial supplies, including gasoline, ammunition and weapons.

After World War II, Keil returned to her job as a stewardess but signed up for military flight duty again when war broke out in Korea. She was assigned to a squadron nicknamed the Angels of Mercy and recalled flying the wounded out of Chosin.

“The Marines had spent many, many days in the snow. Their hands and feet were so frostbitten, they could hardly hold a gun or walk,” Keil told The Times in 1991. “Sometimes I gave my outer clothing to the shivering GIs that came aboard.

“We were fired upon and often had to land in slush, which was dangerous because the planes could skid. One of the nurses was killed,” she said. “Somehow, the Marines came through.”


One rough calculation put the number of wounded soldiers, sailors and Marines Keil tended to -- often while her plane was being rocked by antiaircraft fire -- at more than 10,000.

Speaking about her war missions, Keil told the Pasadena Star News in 2004, “It was all horrible, but it was all beautiful. I would do it again.”

Her older brother, who served in the Navy, was killed during World War II.

Keil was born in Arcata, Calif., and raised in a convent after her father left her mother with three children under the age of 5. As she watched the nuns take care of the sick, she was drawn to nursing.


“She always said her life just kind of fell in place,” her daughter said.

While doing public relations for the Air Force in 1954, she met Walter Keil, who had been a Navy intelligence officer stationed in Guadalcanal during World War II, and married him six weeks later.

When she became pregnant with her first child in 1955, she was honorably discharged from the Air Force. The young family moved to Covina in 1958, and she continued to work as a nurse in emergency rooms and hospitals.

In 1954, Hollywood made a movie, “Flight Nurse,” partly based on Keil’s war experiences. It starred Joan Leslie and Forrest Tucker, and Keil served as technical advisor.


Her life story also was told on the small screen in a 1961 episode of Ralph Edwards’ “This Is Your Life.” Her appearance generated a record amount of mail, much of it from wounded veterans who remembered the tiny black-haired nurse.

In addition to Whitmore, of Chino Hills, Keil is survived by another daughter, Lilliane Wittman of Big Bear, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1980.