Tobiason, Reba Zitella Whittle (1919–1981)


By: David Barkalow

Type: Biography

Published: May 18, 2022

Updated: May 18, 2022


Reba Tobiason, U. S. Army Air Forces flight nurse who was held as a prisoner of war by German forces during World War II, was born Reba Zitella Whittle in Rocksprings, Texas, on August 19, 1919. She was the daughter of Edward Forrester Whittle, a farmer and native Australian, and Charlotte “Lottie” (Taylor) Whittle. She attended Rocksprings High School, studied home economics for one year (1938) at North Texas State Teachers College at Denton (now University of North Texas), then began studies at the Medical and Surgical Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in San Antonio. Upon graduation from nursing school, Whittle applied and was accepted as a reserve nurse, entering the U.S. Army on June 17, 1941.

During the next two years, Reba Whittle, with the rank of second lieutenant, had assignments in New Mexico and California. In January 1943 she volunteered for the Army Air Forces School of Air Evacuation for wounded soldiers. On September 23, 1943, Whittle reported to Bowman Field in Kentucky at the School of Air Evacuation for six weeks of intensive training. The intent of the training at Bowman Field was to make nurses proficient at loading and unloading patients and to administer all types of care, as doctors were not often on the flights. Training included calisthenics, hikes, camping, guard duty, obstacle courses, and crawling under barbed wire with live machine-gun fire overhead. Upon completion of Air Evacuation training in January 1944, Reba Whittle earned her Flight Nurse Wings and immediately was sent to England aboard the RMS Queen Mary as part of the 813th Medical Aeromedical Evacuation Transportation Squadron.

The program utilized the twin engine Douglas C-47, sometimes called the Skytrain, which served a dual role as troop transport to the war zone and medical airlift of wounded away from the action. The flights operated without fighter escort. Since the plane served two roles, it was not painted with a Geneva Red Cross or hospital markings, which posed a risk when flying in a war zone.

For the first half of 1944 Whittle participated in flights to Scotland and Ireland. After D-Day (June 6, 1944) and until late September, flights to newly-liberated areas of France and Belgium were included, returning wounded soldiers to England. Through September she participated in forty missions with 500 hours of flying time.

Reba Whittle’s life changed on September 27, 1944, with a mission to fly to an airstrip in France and return with twenty-four patients. She was looking forward to the next day as she planned to meet her fiancé, Stanley Tobiason, and travel to London to purchase a wedding ring. Her flight left with a crew of four and one surgical technician. In her diary, in which she recorded her experiences from September 27, 1944, through November 1944, Whittle recalled sleeping in the back of the plane when explosions and gunfire rocked the aircraft. The plane had flown off course and directly over the heavily-defended German city of Aachen, located near the borders of Belgium and the Netherlands. Shrapnel from anti-aircraft fire tore through the plane. The surgical technician, Sgt. Jonathan Hill, was wounded in the leg, and a bullet grazed Lieutenant Whittle’s head. The left engine caught fire, and it was apparent they would crash. The badly damaged and burning plane crashed in a turnip field outside of Aachen. Whittle sustained numerous lacerations, including a severe cut to the forehead above her left eye and a concussion during the crash landing. One crewmember died. The remaining five, thankful to be alive, extricated themselves from the burning plane but were unaware of their surroundings until armed German soldiers arrived on the scene. Lieutenant Whittle recalled the Germans’ shock to see a woman, and one soldier provided a bandage to put around her bleeding head.

The soldiers marched the Americans at a slow place for several miles because of Sergeant Hill’s leg injury. They stopped at several locations before arriving at a village where German officers interrogated each American. Whittle only provided the interrogators her name, rank, and serial number. At night the group traveled by bus, train, then trolley to their destination of Stalag IX-C, a prison camp and hospital located 100 miles northeast of Frankfurt, Germany. Each captive was placed alone in a small cell, just large enough to accommodate a small bed, table, and stool.

In her diary she recalled a German doctor examining her injuries and exclaiming, “Too bad having a woman as you are the first one and no one knows exactly what to do.” German officers expressed regret to Whittle for holding a nurse POW, because they had no facilities for women.

Unbeknownst to Whittle, her plane could not be found, and, after several days, each crew member was declared dead. A memorial service was held for Lieutenant Whittle in Paris, and her roommate Helen Rarick spoke and delivered the eulogy. The same evening of the memorial service, news arrived that she was alive and being held as a POW. Whittle was taken to the nearby hospital, then to Meiningen, where she served as a nurse for Allied POW burn and amputee patients. During her time as a POW, Whittle was able to contact her parents via a cable on October 19 that she was in good health. She later wrote them and mentioned wearing men’s trousers which made her feel “out of place.” In her diary, she spoke of working as a nurse in the mornings, but the rest of the day was monotonous as she had little to do except read or try to start a hobby. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which was monitoring the POW Camps, became aware of a female prisoner of war. The Red Cross was active in prisoner exchanges, generally of soldiers with severe physical or mental issues, and traded them for German prisoners held by the Allied Powers. The Red Cross was working on ways to repatriate Whittle.

On January 25, 1945, after four months as a POW, Whittle, with a group of 109 soldiers under the care of the German Red Cross, left the prison camp. The group traveled by train to freedom in Switzerland. She received a telegram from President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressing “thanks of a grateful Nation” for her “services in combat” and “steadfastness while a prisoner of war.” She was able to spend one evening with her fiancé, Lt. Col. Stanley Tobiason, before he returned to England.

Lt. Reba Whittle, the flight nurse, returned by plane to the United States. The aftermath of the plane crash and incarceration resulted in physical issues, such as dizzy spells, headaches, and general weakness. On February 5, 1945, she was admitted to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., and a week later was transferred closer to her home at Brooke General Hospital (now Brooke Army Medical Center) in San Antonio, Texas. She was also interviewed in a security orientation to learn any possible information from her imprisonment. The information was classified secret by the government, and Whittle signed an agreement not to speak about her experiences as it could endanger the lives of other military personnel. Whittle received the Purple Heart, the Air Medal, and was promoted to first lieutenant. She returned to duty and on May 18, 1945, was assigned to the Army Air Forces Redistribution Station #2 at Miami Beach, Florida, where a military physical concluded that, due to her recurrent headaches, she was suspended from flying duty. She was subsequently assigned as a ward nurse to the AAF Regional and Air Debarkation Hospital at Hamilton Field in California on June 15, 1945. On August 3, 1945, at Hamilton Field she married Lt. Col. Stanley Woodrow Tobiason and shortly after applied to leave active duty and was released in January 1946. Military registers indicate that she officially retired on April 1, 1952.

From 1950 through 1960 she began a series of appeals requesting military medical compensation from the Veterans Administration due to her continuing physical and psychiatric issues attributable to her military service. In multiple appeals and requests for correction to her military records, she only received partial compensation. After 1960 she ceased legal action and never mentioned her service while raising two sons. The family lived in Fair Oaks, Sacramento County, California.

Reba Zitella Whittle Tobiason died on January 26, 1981, in Sacramento County and was buried with full military honors at the San Francisco National Cemetery located in the Presidio of San Francisco, California.

Two years after her death, Col. Stanley Tobiason read an article in the Air Force Times regarding the Veterans Administration and Department of Defense honoring female POWs. The article stated that the government was unaware of any other women who had been taken as POW. Though women nurses in the Pacific Theater had received some recognition as internees during World War II, Reba Whittle Tobiason and her history as a prisoner of war in the European Theater remained largely forgotten. Colonel Tobiason provided information on his wife’s service and time as a German POW along with a request to change her status and identify her as an officially recognized prisoner of war. An official acknowledgment was made of 1st Lt. Reba Z. Whittle Tobiason as a prisoner of war on September 2, 1983. She remains the only U.S. servicewoman held as a POW by the Germans during World War II. On October 17, 1997, her granddaughter, Sierra Tobiason, accepted the Prisoner of War Medal on her grandmother’s behalf.

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Anita Buck, “POW in Germany,” Army Magazine, March 2000. Ethel Cerasale, Evelyn Page, Margaret Kemp, and Ted Kemp, The Story of Air Evacuation 1942–1989 (Dallas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1989). Bernard A. Cook, ed., Women and War: A Historical Encyclopedia from Antiquity to the Present (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2006). Lieutenant Colonel Mary E. V. Frank, AN, The Forgotten POW: Second Lieutenant Reba Z. Whittle, AN (Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: U. S. Army War College, 1990). "Reba Zitella Whittle Tobiason," Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/1256686/reba-zitella-tobiason), accessed May 10, 2022. San Antonio Light, February 13, 1945.

Categories:
  • Health and Medicine
  • Nurses and Nurse Administrators
  • Military
  • World War II
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • Central Texas
  • San Antonio

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

David Barkalow, “Tobiason, Reba Zitella Whittle,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/tobiason-reba-zitella-whittle.

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May 18, 2022
May 18, 2022

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