Wilma (Dolly) Vinsant Shea, flight nurse, was born on February 17, 1917, to a pioneer San Benito couple, Dr. William J. and Nell Vinsant. Her mother was a former nurse. She graduated from San Benito High School and Brownsville Junior College and received her nurse certification from John Sealy Hospital in Galveston. Her career as flight nurse began with a crew on Braniff Airways. She enlisted in the United States Army Nurse Corps on September 1, 1942, and qualified shortly thereafter for the Air Evacuation Nurse Corps. The five-foot, 100-pound candidate completed rigorous training, such as jumping, with heavy pack and fully clothed, into water twenty feet deep and gaining shore unaided. She graduated on February 18, 1943, with the first flight-nurse class of the United States Army Air Forces at Bowman Field, Kentucky. During the next two years she was stationed in England. On flights she had sole charge of the injured who were being evacuated from battle zones, including 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.
On January 15, 1945, Dolly Vinsant married Maj. Walter L. Shea, an air force navigator from the Bronx, New York. With spring came her promotion to first lieutenant and persistent rumors of peace. 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." She was killed on April 14, 1945, when her evacuation plane, ferrying wounded Americans to hospitals behind the front line, was shot down over Germany. According to the United States Army and Navy Register, she was one of three women in the Army Nurse Corps known to have been killed by direct enemy action and the only one from Texas. She was buried in the United States Military Cemetery at Margraten, Netherlands. Her awards include the Air Medal, Red Cross Medal, a Special Citation from President Harry Truman, and a posthumous Purple Heart. The eighty-one-bed Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital was opened in San Benito in 1949. A lifesize painting of Lt. Shea in flight-nurse uniform is the focal point in the Memorial Lobby of the hospital. The building site was donated by A. M. and Minta Hervey. In 1986 the Dolly Vinsant Hospital Board established the annual Dolly Vinsant Flight Nurse of the Year award. Candidates are screened by a panel of judges representing the hospital board. Criteria emphasize the ability to care for injured patients while in flight in a possibly hostile environment.
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Rio Grande Roundup: Story of Texas' Tropical Borderland (Mission, Texas: Border Kingdom, 1980). San Benito News, November 10, 1979. Valley Morning Star, January 27, 1946, May 19, 1979, November 12, 1980, October 14, 1989.
Health and Medicine
Physicians and Surgeons
Military Physicians and Surgeons and Military Nurses
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Shea, Wilma Vinsant [Dolly],”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 25, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
December 1, 1995
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: