SUSIE KING TAYLOR
First Black Nurse in the US Army
Born into slavery in Georgia on August 6, 1848, Susie King Taylor (born Susan Baker) lived on a plantation for the first seven years of her life. In 1855, Susie was allowed to go live with her free grandmother, Dolly, in Savannah. Despite Georgia’s harsh laws prohibiting formal education for African Americans, Susie attended two secret schools taught by black women and was tutored by two white youths.
In April 1862, Susie was able to escape slavery with her uncle and other African Americans who fled to a federal gunboat near Confederate-held Fort Pulaski. She went to live on Union-occupied St. Simons Island off the southern Georgia coast along with hundreds of other formerly enslaved refugees. There, at only 14 years old, Susie became the first black teacher to openly educate African Americans in Georgia.
That same year Susie married Edward King, a black officer in the 33rd United States Colored Infantry Regiment, and began serving officially as a “laundress” but in reality was a nurse caretaker, educator, and friend to those in the regiment. Off hours she taught the soldiers reading and writing and, according to her memoirs, “…learned to handle a musket very well…and could shoot straight and often hit the target.” Susie served as a nurse at a hospital for African American soldiers in Beaumont, South Carolina, where she met and worked with Clara Barton. Clarissa Harlowe Barton was a pioneering American nurse who founded the American Red Cross. She was a hospital nurse in the American Civil War, a teacher, and a patent clerk.
For four years and three months, she served the Union military without pay. Susie and Edward remained with the 33rd Regiment until they were mustered out at the end of the war.
In 1866, Susie and Edward moved to Savannah, where Susie opened a school for African American children. Edward died a few months before their first child was born. Susie scraped by as an educator for several years, repeatedly losing students – and much needed income – to newly opened public schools.
Eventually Susie was forced to take a job as a domestic servant with a wealthy family to make ends meet. In the early 1870s she moved with this family to Boston, where she would live out the rest of her days. There she would meet and marry Russell Taylor, also a native of Georgia. She returned home to Liberty County to marry Taylor on April 20, 1879. She remained in Boston for the rest of her life, returning to the South only occasionally.
Taylor still kept in contact with her fellow veterans’ group, the Grand Army of the Republic and serve with the Women’s Relief Corps, even becoming a president of her corps in 1893.
After a trip to Louisiana in the 1890s to care for a dying son, she wrote a book about her experiences, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers, which were privately published in 1902.
When Susie published these memoirs in 1902, she became the first and only Black woman to publish an account of her experiences in the Civil War.
While Reminiscences acknowledged the racism that persisted decades after the end of the Civil War, it ended on a positive note: “What a wonderful revolution! In 1861 the Southern papers were full of advertisements for ‘slaves,’ but now, despite all the hindrances and ‘race problems,’ my people are striving to attain the full standard of all other races born free in the sight of God, and in a number of instances have succeeded. Justice we ask–to be citizens of these United States, where so many of our people have shed their blood with their white comrades, that the stars and stripes should never be polluted.”
Her book is still in print today and you can buy in in paperback, hardback, or audiobook on Amazon.
She passed away 10 years after publishing her memoirs on October 6, 1912, and is buried next to her second husband at Mount Hope Cemetery in Roslindale, MA.
Although Susie never had an “Official” rank in the military, I felt it was important to include her story in our podcast because Black nurses, like Taylor, and their contributions to the Civil War, and all wars after, have not been given space in the American story and cultural memory. Even when historians began writing about women and children, the achievements of most Black women have surfaced slowly and are still not given the attention or time that men and white women’s stories are given.
GERTRUDE TOMPKINS SILVER
Gertrude Tompkins Silver was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in October 1912 to Vreeland and Laura Tompkins. Gertrude was the youngest of three girls, and they grew up in Summit New Jersey. Gertrude’s sister, Elizabeth wrote a book about their childhood titled, “From There to Here.”
Elizabeth spoke to her children and grandchildren about how her sister was shy and struggled with a severe stutter. Gertrude attended the Ambler School of Horticulture, which is now part of the University of Pennsylvania.
Her love of flying began when she met and fell in love with a pilot that would take her flying. It was rare for women to fly at that time, but it didn’t stop Gertrude. This pilot that stole her heart was killed in WWII while flying for the Royal Air Force. His death inspired her to help with the WAR effort.
Gertrude’s flying skills and abilities made her a perfect candidate for the Women’s Air Force Service pilot program.
Gertrude “Tommy” Tompkins graduated with WASP Class 43-W-7, November 13, 1943. After graduation she was stationed at Love Field in Dallas, TX and assigned to the 5th Ferry Group, 601st Ferry Squadron.
Flying gave Gertrude confidence and helped her to overcome her stutter. The shy girl from jersey her family knew her as was not the same women her fellow WASPs knew.
Gertrude qualified to fly some tough air crafts. She flew the P-51 Mustang, the P-38 Lightning and the P-54 Thunderbolt, all fighter craft. These types of air craft required a very skilled pilot.
Most of the women in WASP were young. While her peers were in their 20’s, Gertrude was in her 30’s and didn’t go out dancing or adventuring into town with the other women. She was a little more serious and focused her time on being a WASP.
WASP women were strongly encouraged not to marry. Gertrude secretly married Henry Silver in September 1944. Maybe this is why she wasn’t spending her time out on the town? The day after they were married Gertrude flew back to California.
By 26 October 1944, she had flown a total of 753.40 hours.
Gertrude was selected as one of 40 pilots who would take the P-51Ds from Mines Field, CA, to Newark Airport in New Jersey. Once the planes arrived in Jersey they would then be shipped overseas to American pilots.
The group would fly across the country, stopping at determined points on their way to Newark. Unfortunately, as the planes were taking off there was a problem with the canopies of three of the planes which caused them to be delayed behind the rest of the group. The issue forced them to cut their flight short, and land in Palm Springs, California.
Once Gertrude’s repair is completed, she is able to take off again. It’s later in the day than anticipated and there is heavy fog in the bay. When Gertrude takes off near 4p.m. on the 26th of October, 1944, she flies into the fog and is never seen again.
When Tompkins never showed, the two other pilots thought she had encountered further canopy problems and turned back to Mines Field. It was five days before anyone realized Tompkins was missing.
Military planes back then did not have black boxes. Gertrude’s flight was monitored by radar, nor was there a flight plan for her.
No one knows still to this day knows what happened to Gertrude.
The aircraft she was flying was a difficult craft to manage. It is extremely easy for a pilot to become disoriented and the potential distraction of a malfunction could have easily caused her to crash.
Many theories believe that Gertrude went down in Santa Monica Bay. High winds and choppy water further out in the bay would mean that the plane could have easily disappeared without a trace. However, no wreckage was ever reported along the shore.
It wasn’t until days later that anyone realized there was an issue. Searches did not begin until 30 October. After a month a searching in the bay ad the nearby mountains, nothing was found.
There was a theory that she took off to start a new life somewhere, however her new husband she married a month before never saw her again. The last time he saw her she flew back to CA the day after their wedding. Gertrudes family knew that she wanted to help her husband raise his niece and live together as a family.
Gertrude’s disappearance did change the way in which the flights for the WASPs were handled. Flight plans for each pilot were now required, instead of the overall group plan they were using.
There have been many searches for Gertrude in the years since. Major search parties have been coordinated in 1997, 2004, 2009, and 2010.
During the 2009 searched they located another lost aircraft that had been missing since October 15, 1955.
In 2010 a major search was conducted with a large number of volunteers who donated time and high-tech equipment. In the span of a week, divers searched a close to 55 different sites in hopes of finding some sort of wreckage but not much was found.
There is a concern that her plane could be buried under debris and if it would be possible to find.
The Discovery Channel, aired an episode Gertrude’s disappearance on an episode of “Expedition Unknown.”
Many searched have been conducted following almost every lead of plane wreckages that may have been Gertrude’s. Searches in the San Jacinto Mountains dives in the Santa Monica Bay have turned up lost aircraft, civilian and military, but none of them Gertrude.
We talked before about how the WASPs were not valued for their contributions to the war effort. The military did not pay for funerals of those who died in the line of duty. These women did not receive benefits or honors for their sacrifices and their service.
It wasn’t until July 1st 2009, when President Obama signed the bill to award the WASP women the congressional gold medal. Which is mind blowing to think about.
The WASPs spent 27 weeks in training. They received the same primary, basic and advanced flight training as the men. Many of these women had more experience than their Air Force peers, but due to the times wouldn’t be seen, considered or treated as equals. Imagine how advanced the Air Force could have been. There were over 25,000 women who applied to the WASP program. There was clearly a desire by these women to do more. What a loss for our country.