Lieutenant Lowderback’s Short Snorter: A Flight Nurse’s Service and Souvenir in WWII
Lieutenant Ruth Banfield Lowderback was nervous on her first flight accompanying wounded and ill soldiers back to the mainland U.S. The plane barreled down the runway of Hawaii’s Hickam Airfield to embark on a twenty-hour flight to San Francisco. On February 17, 1945, twenty-seven-year-old Lowderback, newlywed and newly deployed, marked two milestones: her first service as an air evacuation nurse, and her membership in the short snorter club.
Among the military papers and personal letters Lowderback saved from World War II is a tightly rolled banner of currency known as a “short snorter.” Assembled from taped-together bills from nations encircling the Pacific, Lowderback’s short snorter is nearly six feet long. This World War II souvenir captures frivolity in the midst of the seriousness of war; life in the moment in a time of great uncertainty; and the freedom young women found in serving in the Army’s medical air evacuation squadrons.
Ruth Lowderback (1918–1995) joined the Army Nurse Corps in November 1943. She was an experienced nurse with training in public health, and she felt strongly the need to serve her country. By the fall of 1944, she had been accepted into an elite program to train flight nurses who would tend to wounded and sick soldiers during air transport from the battlefield to hospitals. Lowderback underwent eight weeks of intensive training at the Army Air Forces School of Air Evacuation at Bowman Field, Kentucky. This was a new program and a new role for military nurses. In the air, the flight nurse was in charge, working autonomously and using procedures and equipment not used by nurses in ordinary practice, making these women vanguards of a later movement to specialized nursing.1 Her training covered wide ranging topics: tropical diseases and aeromedical physiology; military protocol and the workings of airplanes; camouflage and defensive strategies. Physical fitness was critical, including mandatory swimming lessons. While in the service, Ruth had met handsome young soldier Charlie Lowderback, and the two married on October 21, 1944 after a brief courtship. Ruth completed her training – and then both were deployed, to different, distant posts.
Air Evacuation Nursing in WWII
Ruth Lowderback was assigned to the 830th Medical Air Evacuation Squadron (MAES). Stationed at Hickam Field in Honolulu, her squadron, like the other MAES units, would travel throughout the Pacific Theater, positioned at a base in the Dutch East Indies or bivouacking on islands large and small in order to quickly retrieve wounded soldiers. Conditions were often primitive. Flight nurses lived in tents, lacked water, contended with tropical heat and humidity, and faced boredom in between flights. In the Marianas, Lowderback shared her downtime schedule in one of her almost daily letters to Charlie: “Read, write, wash – do anything to keep from going crazy.”2 On Saipan, she waited for the daily downpour in order to wash her hair and her clothes.3 And then the long hours were broken by the call to fly. The 830th evacuated soldiers from Guam, Saipan, Leyte, the Marshall Islands, Okinawa, and the Philippines, among other islands and atolls. The wounded were loaded quickly – it was a point of pride to complete the operation in the shortest time possible. The planes transported the patients to military hospitals and, ultimately, Hamilton Field near San Francisco. And then, the flight nurse and accompanying medical technician returned to Hawaii to start the cycle again. From March 1943 through October 1945, the Pacific MAES evacuated over 111,000 patients; at the peak of combat in May and June 1945, medical air flights transported as many as 10,000 patients a month. In total, in all theaters of the war, medical air evacuation squadrons carried over one million patients, saving countless lives.4 Army Air Forces air surgeon David N. W. Grant cited air evacuation as one of the top medical innovations of WWII, along with penicillin, blood plasma, and front-line surgery.5
The work was dangerous. Planes doubled as cargo and troop carriers, bringing soldiers and supplies into battle zones. After unloading, the planes were quickly transformed into airborne medical units. But because of the dual-usage, planes lacked the marking of the Red Cross, making them potential targets. Plane crashes, bad weather, and tropical diseases heightened the danger for flight nurses. Seventeen flight nurses were killed in World War II, most frequently from crashes.6 Lack of adequate supplies, uncertainty as to when the war would end, and missing loved ones were also part of this difficult assignment. But Lowderback loved it: “… nothing is as wonderful as flying by air,” she wrote. “I love it …”7
Origins of the short snorter club are murky but one oft-repeated tale credits 1920s barnstorming pilots with creating the tradition, which then spread to commercial and military fliers. Initially, membership was offered only to pilots who had flown over an ocean, their acceptance into this elite club confirmed by signatures on a dollar bill. By WWII, a trans-oceanic flight or being a pilot was no longer a requirement, much to the dismay of old timers who grumbled over the relaxation of standards in war-time letters to the editors of Yank or Flying magazines. Signing paper currency became a craze, and record-setting short snorters could reach 100 feet or more in length. Reader’s Digest covered the fad, Eleanor Roosevelt participated, and even Coca-Cola ran an advertisement suggesting that when short snorters meet, drinking a Coke will “bring folks closer together.”
Lowderback’s initiation happened over the Pacific Ocean. She explained to Charlie in a later letter that her first-flight nerves quickly calmed. She found her patients to be “just nice sick kids happy to be coming home” and the flight crew had put her at ease.8 According to the informal rules, at least two short snorter members had to be present to welcome a new initiate. On Lowderback’s flight, several men, each with their own short snorter, signed a US dollar bill inscribed with Lowderback’s name and destination. She paid each a dollar as a fee. Now Lowderback could ask of others – do you have a short snorter? If they had theirs on hand, signatures were exchanged; if they claimed to have one but failed to produce it, that soldier paid one dollar to each short snorter holder in the vicinity. A variation mandated that the soldier buy everyone a drink – a “short snort.” The goal was to collect currency from the places you passed through and gather signatures from the people you encountered along the way.
For the next eight months Lowderback collected signatures. For her initiation, Lowderback had signed a US dollar over-stamped “Hawaii.” In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, fearing the Japanese might overrun the island and confiscate US currency, the US government issued bills stamped HAWAII in block letters, currency that would be immediately deemed invalid if an invasion occurred. To this first bill, Lowderback added additional currency, taping the bills one to another, creating a “portable memorial” of her military service and a “portable scrapbook” of her adventures.
A short snorter was light and easy to tuck into a pocket. Lowderback’s short snorter documented her travels as she crisscrossed the Pacific. Several of the bills record multiple signatures, suggesting members of flight crews signing together; in total seventy-five men signed fourteen bills to create Lowderback’s short snorter. Currency from Dutch Indonesia was taped to a Philippine peso. Two bills of military currency in Japanese yen frame a one yuan note from the Farmers Bank of China. There are pesos, pounds, and dollars; yen and yuan, guilders and Japanese-issued currency for the countries conquered, and then lost. Bills are brown, green, or blue; a Philippine peso is bright red. The bill from the Central Bank of China is purple, and there are bills that are so crumpled and worn that their origins are difficult to identify. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands is the only woman pictured; she is joined by various male heads of state, including, of course, George Washington. Japanese bills depict lovely pagodas, cranes, and flowering trees; a Philippine peso is over-stamped with the English word VICTORY.
And at long last the war ended. Lowderback remained in the Pacific until October 1945, helping to transport the last of the wounded soldiers home, before returning home herself. She left the Army and set nursing aside to raise a family. As her sons grew older, Lowderback returned to nursing and ran the blood bank at a Connecticut hospital.
Short Snorters provided a good luck charm, a conversation starter, a record of travel, and an invitation to forget the war for the timespan of a drink. Ruth Lowderback’s short snorter documents her mobile military service – 606 hours of flight time in eight months overseas, the pursuit of signatures a fun distraction from the dangers of nursing critically wounded soldiers in a moving airplane in an active war zone. The fleeting connections made with the soldiers who signed her short snorter offered a temporary salve for the heartache of missing her husband. For as much as Lowderback longed to begin married life, she exulted in flying and her short snorter testifies to a young woman’s service, courage, and love of life – both saving it and living it.
- Mary T. Sarnecky, A History of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999): 253. Return to text.
- Ruth Lowderback to Charlie Lowderback, March 26, 1945, Ruth Lowderback Papers, Randall J. Cushing Collection of World War I and World War II Letters, Special Collections & Archives, University of New England (Biddeford, Maine). Hereafter, Lowderback Papers. Return to text.
- Ruth Lowderback to Charlie Lowderback, August 11, 1945, Lowderback Papers. Return to text.
- Judith Barger, Beyond the Call of Duty: Army Flight Nursing in World War II (Kent State University Press, 2013): xi. Return to text.
- Barger, Beyond the Call of Duty, xi. Return to text.
- Sarnecky, A History of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, 262. Return to text.
- Ruth Lowderback to Charlie Lowderback, February 20, 1945, Lowderback Papers. Return to text.
- Ruth Lowderback to Charlie Lowderback, February 18, 1945, Lowderback Papers. Return to text.
Elizabeth DeWolfe, PhD, is Professor of History at the University of New England. She is the award-winning author of The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories, about the short life and tragic death of the textile worker Berengera Caswell, and of Shaking the Faith: Women, Family, and Mary Marshall Dyer's Anti-Shaker Campaign.