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Fallen but not forgotten - The Wilma Vinsant story

Updated on October 6, 2013
Margraten War Cemetery - Netherlands
Margraten War Cemetery - Netherlands

Netherlands American War Cemetery at Margraten

American War Cemetery, Margraten – Netherlands

An old lady makes her way to the visitor’s building and asks the caretaker where she can find the grave of Wilma Vinsant. ‘Remarkable’, is what the caretaker thinks, as there has never been anyone asking specifically about that grave. Since she’s all by herself, he asks her if she’s family and all of a sudden the lady starts crying. Wilma (nickname Dolly) was her colleague in the Army Nurse Corps and she tells him the sad story of Dolly who ‘took my place and saved my life’.

Wilma's grave at Margraten
Wilma's grave at Margraten

April 14, 1945

Delores Rike is cross. Her boyfriend, an American lieutenant is throwing a party and of course she wants to go. To forget about the war, even for a few hours. But Delores is scheduled for a flight to Germany to pick up wounded soldiers. Her friend Wilma (Dolly) Vinsant offers to take her place: “You go to your party and have a good time, I’ll take your shift”. Wilma has no idea that this decision will be her death sentence. And Delores has no idea of the guilt feelings that will dominate the rest of her life.

It’s a miracle in itself that 27-year old Wilma Vinsant was granted her fatal flight in the first place. After she had completed her hazardous-flight quota, the maximum number allowed under United States Military regulations, her commander reluctantly acceded to her request "to make one more trip, the last before I go home". The flight itself wasn’t very dangerous so perhaps that’s the reason she was entitled to take the flight, ferrying wounded Americans to hospitals behind the front line.

Delores was horrified when she heard, that about 25 miles northwest of Eisenach, Germany the Douglas C-47A was shot down by hostile fire; all six crew members, including Wilma, were killed. Just three weeks before the German capitulation, they were buried in temporary graves in Eisenach.

A photograph of Wilma
A photograph of Wilma

Who was Wilma ?

Wilma Vinsant Shea was born on February 17, 1917 in San Benito, Texas and grew up an only child of Dr. William J. and former nurse Nell Vinsant. After graduating from San Benito High School and Brownsville Junior College she received her nurse certification from John Sealy Hospital in Galveston. In 1942 she enlisted in the United States Army Nurse Corps after a short career with a commercial flightcrew. Her family had no faith in her completion of the rigorous training, such as jumping with heavy pack and fully clothed, into water twenty feet deep and gaining shore unaided.

But the five-foot, 100-pound Wilma is determined and knows what it takes; there’s always a chance of an emergency landing in rough terrain. A flight nurse knows how to handle patients in panic, especially when the plane is under fire. And that isn’t unthinkable, as transport planes weren’t allowed to wear the Red Cross sign as they could be used for military purposes. Therefore German troops weren’t able to see if a plane was a bomber or a hospital plane.

The England Period

During the next two years she, being one of 500 flight nurses, was stationed in England. On flights she had sole charge of the injured who were being evacuated from battle zones like heavy combat regions near Munich and Frankfurt. Sometimes she flew with wounded evacuees from London to New York without a doctor or medical technician on board. With spring came her promotion to first lieutenant and persistent rumors of peace.

When Wilma died, she was a newlywed, having married Maj. Walter L. Shea, an air force navigator from the Bronx, New York on January 15, 1945. Just four days after his 27th birthday, he was made a widower; he never remarried. He built an impressive career; fought in Korea and made it to the Pentagon. The fact that he and his wife were both an only child and so there was no next of kin to take care of Wilma’s grave, might have played a role in his decision not to bring her body home to the US. In June 1945 1st Lt Wilma R. Vinsant was reburied at the only Dutch American War Cemetery in Margraten – Netherlands, where she rests in peace.

Her awards include the Air Medal, Red Cross Medal, a Special Citation from President Harry Truman and a posthumous Purple Heart.

A painting of Wilma as it hung in the Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital in Texas
A painting of Wilma as it hung in the Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital in Texas

Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital and Dolly Vinsant Awards

The eighty-one-bed Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital was opened in San Benito, Texas in 1949. A lifesize painting of Lt. Shea in flight-nurse uniform was the focal point in the Memorial Lobby of the hospital. The building site was donated by A.M. and Minta Hervey. Due to financial problems, the hospital had to shut down in 2007 but re-opened in July 2010 as the Dolly Vinsant Medical Center.

In 1986 the ‘Dolly Vinsant Award’ was established by the Confederate Air Force (renamed the Commemorative Air Force on December 7, 2001). Every year the CAF recognizes one exceptional flight nurse who engaged in live aero medical evacuation missions and contributed significantly to in-flight patient care, by awarding them the “Dolly Vinsant Flight Nurse Award.”

Delores Rike

Delores Rike, the former military nurse, began making rosaries for the Roman-Catholic Church in 1965, that she sent to missionary projects abroad. She often spoke on Roman-Catholic schools, where she told the students about her work as a military nurse and how she was convinced that her mother’s prayers saved her life. She always told them about that one time that Wilma Vinsant took her place in a plane to Germany, a plane that never returned.

All text copyright Arietha Bergsen

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    • jacobkuttyta profile image

      Siny J 

      8 years ago from Delhi, India

      Nice article. Thanks for the story

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