MAJ Nancy Leftenant-Colon
Thanks to Lexi Leftenant Gregory who sent me this story. She’s an amazing musician out of Boise, ID and you should check her out at soundcloud.com/xelavox
My two major sources were an article on the Air Force News website and an article written by Fred Bruning for the Los Angeles Times
Retired Army MAJ Nancy C. Leftenant-Colon was first black nurse in the Army Reserve and Active-Duty Army Nurse Corps.
Nancy Leftenant was born in 1921 to James Leftenant, a maintenance man, and his wife, Eunice, a housekeeper, in Goose Creek, SC, which is a small farming community outside of Charleston, SC. Nancy was the 7th of 12 children.
MAJ Leftenant-Colon said of her parents “I wish I could have shared them with the rest of the world because they were wonderful.”
The family was poor so poor that as a third-grader, Nancy could not bring to school the 85 cents a company was charging to trace family histories for students. She never did figure out the origins of the Leftenant name but knows that her father was the son of a slave and her mother was the daughter of a freed slave. But neither parent dwelled on the past. Their goal was to assure better lives for their children.
To that goal, the family moved to Long Island in search of better educational opportunities for their children when Nancy was 3.
Early in life the Leftenant children learned responsibility. Like her brothers and sisters, Nancy knew what was expected.
Her sister Mary, who was a nurse that retired from the Air Force in 1975 as a Lieutenant Colonel, said “In our family, the oldest children always took care of the younger. Even when she was going to high school, Nancy would give us money and tell us how to do all the little things that are important. She was always very steadfast. She was our icon.”
Among the Leftenant offspring were nurses, teachers, small business owners, a watchmaker, a police officer, a mechanic, a technician. Two Leftenant children earned master’s degrees; one, a bachelors. Achievement was the family ethic.
Mary Leftenant said her sister has maintained a belief in people that may seem naive at a time but if life treated her unfairly, Nancy only gained strength, it made her a better person.
Nancy always knew she wanted to be a nurse. She worked as a housekeeper for a year in the early 1940s to be able to afford to attend Lincoln School for Nurses in the Bronx, which was one of the few schools where Black women could get their nursing education. There, she saw a photo that caught her eye and started her down the path to join the military.
“I saw a picture of an Army nurse with her cape,” she said. “She looked so good, straight and tall. I wanted to do my part.”
After that she tried to sign up for the Armed Forces but was informed that the military was not accepting Black nurses.
The main obstacle standing in Nancy’s way was not only that black nurses were not permitted to sign up for the Armed Forces, but they also needed the endorsement of the American Red Cross, which was not being given to Black women.
In 1944, Nancy went to visit her brother Sam at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama to gain his perspective on the problem. While there, she spoke to several members of the nursing staff and toured the airfield hospital. Afterwards, her brother asked her if a career in military nursing was really what she wanted. Nancy was absolutely certain. Her brother Sam’s advice was to “Always remember the things mom and dad taught us.” It was his way of telling Nancy she could do anything she put her mind to; her parents had already given her the tools to succeed.
By January of 1945, Nancy was growing impatient to enter the war effort. Once she received her nursing certification from the state of New York, she marched into an Army recruiter’s office, slapped her diploma down on his desk, and told the recruiter she wanted to be an Army nurse. Nancy refused to take no for an answer, and the Army relented, allowing her to sign up as a reservist due to a shortage of white nurses. Despite the discrimination, Leftenant-Colon was thrilled to have the opportunity to prove herself. She traveled to Cape McCoy, Wisconsin to complete six weeks of basic training. By mid-March 1945, her hard work had paid off. Nancy became one of the first black nurses accepted into the Army Reserve Corps.
Unfortunately, just a month later her brother, Second Lieutenant Samuel Gordon Leftenant, became one of the Tuskegee Airmen Fallen 66. 2LT Leftenant, who was a pilot in 99th Squadron of the United States Army Air Forces, and a Tuskegee Airmen, was killed in action in his P-51 Mustang over Austria on April 12, 1945. Leftenant-Colon has repeatedly said that she would take her brother’s place if she could.
Leftenant-Colon continued to persevere, however. In 1948 that perseverance paid off. She applied for regular status in the Active Duty Army and, in keeping with President Truman’s order that the military be desegregated, defense officials approved her application. Leftenant-Colon became the first black nurse in the Regular Army Nurse Corps, but that was not her last move. In 1949 she transferred to the Air Force, which, in 1947, was designated a separate branch of the armed services.
It took until 1952 for her Flight Nurse application to be accepted. She would go on to become an Elite Flight Nurse for the Air Force.
After her initial training, along with the young recruits from several black nursing schools, Leftenant-Colon was assigned to an Army hospital at Fort Devens in MA. This was high-stress job since the hospital treated large numbers of soldiers wounded in World War II.
Leftenant-Colon said she and her friends were always in a heightened state of readiness. Their training had been intense, she said, because their teachers knew black women would have to demonstrate superior skills. And the nurses realized their work might affect how their successors would be judged.
Sandra Davis, a nurse historian at La Salle University in Philadelphia and president of the Museum of Nursing History said, “White nurses could just go and be nurses. They didn’t have to be examples. But black nurses did. They had to be more than just good.” They had to be the best.
At Fort Devens, black nurses made such an impression on doctors and patients, that many, including Leftenant-Colon, were promoted from second to first lieutenants in 11 months. White nurses snubbed the black newcomers, Leftenant-Colon said, and seemed to resent their success. “It was like throwing somebody in a briar patch,” she recalled.
From the beginning black nurses realized they would have to be models of discipline and restraint. Barbara Gross, of Cranston, R.I., who was a classmate of Leftenant-Colon’s at the Lincoln School, recalled that no one showed more courage or cool than Leftenant-Colon.
“When we got to Fort Devens, we were called in and told that we had to act differently,” Gross said. “I thought that was a put-down. I guess they thought all black people start trouble. My reaction was to get out of the military as soon as I could, but Nan stayed in. She wouldn’t complain. She just went right ahead.”
Leftenant-Colon recalled many of her colleagues’ exhaustion in battling the rigors of fitting into the military during civil rights movement.
Leftenant-Colon recalled the hardships of a traveling Air Force nurse. She would have to drive hundreds of miles out of the way in the South to stay with friends because Blacks were denied food at most restaurants and rooms at most motels.
Still, she describes her military experiences favorably, noting the quality of one’s work, and not the color of one’s skin should be paramount. In her career, she considered herself a nurse first, above any racial classification.
MAJ Nancy Leftenant-Colon, or “Lefty” as military buddies knew her, served as a Flight Nurse in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. During these wars she set up hospital wards in Japan and in numerous active war zones. She was credited with saving many lives during those wars. “Our mission included staying with the patients regardless of who or what went down,” Leftenant-Colon said.
She traveled to “wherever they needed me,” she said. She trained or was stationed in Germany, Tokyo, Alaska, Ohio, Alabama, Maryland, New York and New Jersey. In 1954, she helped evacuate French Legionnaires from Vietnam after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. In her career, she met Bob Hope and Marilyn Monroe. She once cared for an Arab prince who was guarded by men with jeweled sabers. In 1956, Nancy retired from Flight Nursing. Major Nancy Leftenant-Colon retired from the military in 1965.
Nancy went back to New York and became a school nurse, where she worked until 1984. She is an initial member of the East Coast Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. having joined at its creation in 1973.
The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of African-American and Caribbean-born military pilots, fighter and bomber, who fought in World War II. They formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces. The name also applies to the navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks and other support personnel.
They came from every section of the country, with large numbers coming from New York City, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit. Each one possessed a strong personal desire to serve the United States of America at the best of his or her ability. Those who possessed the physical and mental qualifications were accepted as aviation cadets to be trained initially as single-engine pilots and later to be either twin-engine pilots, navigators or bombardiers. Most were college graduates or undergraduates. Others demonstrated their academic qualifications through comprehensive entrance examinations. No standards were lowered for the pilots or any of the others who trained in operations, meteorology, intelligence, engineering, medicine or any of the other officer fields. Enlisted members were trained to be aircraft and engine mechanics, armament specialists, radio repairmen, parachute riggers, control tower operators, policemen, administrative clerks and all of the other skills necessary to fully function as an Army Air Corp flying squadron or ground support unit.
Within the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. she served in the capacity of National Treasurer, First Vice-President and as the first and only female president of the organization from 1989 to 1991.
She has received numerous awards including:
An honorary degree from Tuskegee University
In 1998 Nancy Leftenant-Colon was awarded an honorary doctorate from The College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale, NY. She received a Doctor of Humane Letters.
In 2007 a documentary movie was made about the Tuskegee Airmen, including MAJ Leftenant-Colon. The movie was called, “Flying for Freedom”.
In March 2018 a large lot of her military papers were auctioned off in New York City.
(MILITARY.) Papers of Nancy Leftenant-Colon, the first African-American in the Regular Army Nurse Corps. Hundreds of items (0.8 linear feet) in one box and one sleeve; condition general strong. Vp, 1945-2013
Reached out to the online auction site, but did not hear back from them about how much the lot sold for.
In December 2018 Amityville, New York Memorial High School renamed their Library and Media Center after MAJ Dr. Nancy Leftenant-Colon.
SSG Claire Brisebois Starnes
Claire Brisebois Starnes was born and raised in Maine she was the only child of her single mother. Grew up speaking French and learned English in high school. Her upbringing in academies helped prepare her for the military. Worked in the mills and shoe shops taught music on the side to help make the ends meet. She decided that she didn’t want to have a life of working in the mills so she joined the Army.
Claire enlisted in the US Army in 1963 at the age of 17 with her mother’s permission. She was selected to be a squad leader and had a two-week extension on to her basic training. She was in the Woman’s Army Corps (WAC), which was all female, the instructors, trainees, etc.
She went to AIT and learned teletyping, working on Secret and Top-Secret documents receiving and transmitting.
In 1968 she volunteered for deployment to Vietnam, and a year later she is in the war.
In her interview for the west point oral history center, she talks about the landing in Vietnam when the plane just dives down and lands and then how the heat just hits you when you get off the plane. I have very similar memories landing in Iraq.
I want you to pause here for a second and digest this fact for a minute. They deployed in class A’s. These women were in heels. Once they landed, they are sent to a detachment to draw their uniforms. And this is in 1969, right? Women started deploying to Vietnam in 1965. Those women were there in their class A’s for who knows how long before someone finally realized they couldn’t be walking around all the time in heels.
She mentions that she often skipped breakfast because they had to pass by bodies on their way to get chow and the snack bar was always crowded.
Claire spent most of her time working in an office translating documents from English to French. Which she found boring. She stays in that job for only three months.
She volunteered to help teach Vietnamese soldiers computers. She ends up in this group with a lieutenant and a sergeant major they send TDY to Hawaii to learn the equipment. After they returned, they trained the Vietnamese for another three months.
After this mission, she decided to change her MOS and became a photographer and worked in the public affairs section at Military Assistance Command Vietnam Office of Information (MACV Observer).
Claire ends up photographing many different stories, from orphanages, to fire fights, women’s Vietnamese armed forces, and POWs. She stated that her mindset about the war changed after speaking with one POW- he was a doctor for North Vietnam and was forced into serving. She saw that he was just a guy who was caught up in the war. She also toured through a facility where Vietnamese interrogators were interviewing a family and as she left, she heard all the shots as they killed the family.
She didn’t have any issues with any of the male soldiers while she was there. She is really a take no crap kind of woman, who was very blunt with the men on her team. I’ll have your back and you have mine, we are not dating. She is still friends with those guys, the ones that are living to this day.
At one point, Claire ends up being sent home for a funeral when her mother dies. She had to fly home from Vietnam in a rush, and has to deal with being called a baby killer in the airport. Also, while home on emergency leave, she discovered the entire team of the mission she was on before she left for the funeral was shot down and killed.
She left Vietnam in July of 1971 and she felt like the transition was surreal and struggled with that transition. She credits her ability to transition with the fact that she went back to work right away and stayed active. She continued to serve until 1973 when she left the service as a Staff Sergeant.
After she left the military she worked as a DA civilian in public affairs realm.
After she had her son, she decided to take a break and go to college. After obtaining her degree, she got a job working for the air defense artillery magazine 1987, and then later she worked as the editor for the ordnance magazine until she retired in 1994. Both her and her husband Ed were inducted into the ordinance hall of fame, (the only couple to be inducted).
Listening to her talk about how hard it was when she tried to get help is heart breaking. She went to vet centers and attended a group session; the men didn’t want to acknowledge that she went through anything. They dismissed her, waved it off as if she couldn’t even compare her experience to theirs.
So she learned not to say anything. It was easier than fighting.
November 1997, she went with a friend to the dedication of the women’s Vietnam memorial, she reconnected with friends from Vietnam.
After that ceremony she decided to find all the enlisted women who served in Vietnam and help them tell their stories. Her and her friends formed the VWV Vietnam women’s veterans incorporated in February 1999. Finding everyone was a priority for them, they felt left out and they didn’t want other women out there alone. They saw that nurses were recognized, but the non-nurse military women were not. Back then it was illegal. Women were not allowed to be in a combat zone after ww2. Where did that leave these women? They truly had nowhere to turn after they came back. So, it became important to them to find each other and to have their experiences acknowledged. This organization is also a way that these women could share resources and ways to access benefits with each other.
Many programs are set up to help combat veterans, active duty soldiers, and people without children, but if you don’t fit that mold, where do you go? That is why the final salute has been such an important organization for many women. The final salute helps women who fall through the cracks of others programs.