In the Line of Duty
Nurse Marion Overend and Her Tragic One and Only Flight
by Steven A. Ruffin
On the Sunday afternoon of 16 June 1918, a fatal airplane crash occurred at the U.S. Third Aviation Instruction Center (3rd A.I.C.), located near Issoudun, France. Accidents on this busy, multi-field wartime training complex were anything but unusual. In fact, they were so common that one of the "fields" there was not a flying field at all—it was a cemetery filled with crash victims
This particular accident, however, was unique. The individual killed was not an aviation cadet or instructor. In fact, the fatality that afternoon was not anyone even associated with the flight instruction program. Instead, it was a nurse assigned to the 3rd A.I.C. hospital, which was located there on the grounds. Marion L. Overend thus gained the sad distinction of becoming the only U.S. Army nurse in WWI to die in an aircraft accident.
Only a few passing references to this tragic incident appear in official documents. Air Service authorities, who were understandably chagrined and embarrassed over the accidental death of a noncombatant female, had little inclination to publicize it. Finally, nearly a century later, the "rest of the story" can be told—the full account of a joyride gone wrong.
U.S. Army Reserve Nurse Marion L. Overend (sometimes misspelled "Overand") was a Canadian citizen, serving as a surgical assistant at the 3rd A.I.C. Camp Hospital No. 14. She was born in Peterborough, Ontario, on 24 October 1893 to William J. and Mary Agnes Overend. Despite all appearances to the contrary, the Overend family was anything but typical of the Canadian middle class. They had moved to Ontario from England after the 1866 failure of Overend, Gurney & Company.[i] The collapse of this large London wholesale discount bank, the world's second largest, sent markets into a panic on 11 May 1866 that spread throughout the entire world and is still remembered as the first “Black Friday.” The bank's leaders, whose questionable policies caused the collapse, only narrowly avoided conviction and imprisonment.[ii] It was for this reason that some members of the Overend family decided to leave their legal problems behind and start new lives in the New World.
After becoming adults, Marion and her older sister, May Elizabeth Overend, migrated southward across the border to study nursing. Both trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, with May graduating in 1912 and Marion in 1916.[iii] They then joined the Red Cross.
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the U.S. Army Nurse Corps had only 403 nurses on active duty. In order to fulfill its needs, both stateside and abroad, it instituted an aggressive recruiting program. Powered by the highly effective slogan “American Nurses for American Men,” the Army Nurse Corps increased its ranks astronomically to 21,460 by the end of the war.[iv] The Red Cross, alone, supplied a whopping 18,000 of these additional nurses.[v] Among those entering the Army through that avenue were Marion and May Overend.
In early 1918, the two young army reserve nurses accompanied Mount Sinai's recently activated Base Hospital No. 3 to Europe. They reported in mid-January 1918 at Ellis Island, New York, and trained at the armory there with their unit until 6 February. On this date, the Overend sisters—two of more than 10,000 U.S. Army nursing reservists that deployed overseas during the war—embarked on the S.S. Lapland for Europe. After they arrived at Glasgow, Scotland, the nurses and civilian employees separated from the rest of the unit and proceeded directly to France. Here, some of them—Marion included—were assigned to surrounding hospitals until Base Hospital No. 3, which was to be situated at Vauclaire, became operational.[vi]
On 15 March 1918, Marion was among the first contingent of five nurses to report to the 3rd A.I.C.'s newly built Camp Hospital No. 14. She busied herself helping to organize the 300-bed facility. Later, she assisted with accident cases, some of which were "badly smashed," abdominal surgical cases, and a wide variety of minor injuries.[vii] She and her colleagues routinely worked day and night—reportedly, without complaint—administering to the sick and assisting in surgical procedures. Colleagues considered Marion "a thoroughly competent nurse and a valuable operating room assistant."[viii]
[i] Interview with Dr. Ralph H. Beaumont, great-nephew of Marion and May Overend.
[ii] Geoffrey Elliot, The Mystery Of Overend And Gurney: A Financial Scandal In Victorian London. York, UK: Methuen Publishing Ltd, 2007.
[iii] Personal correspondence with Ms. Barbara Niss, Director, Archives & Records Management at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
[iv] "Army Nurses of World War One: Service Beyond Expectations," Army Heritage Center Foundation website, https://www.armyheritage.org.
[v] Lavinia L. Dock, R.N., et al. Official History of American Red Cross Nursing. New York: MacMillan, 1922. p. 310.
[vi] Cyril Barnet, The Mount Sinai Unit in the World War, New York: The Mount Sinai Hospital, 1919.
[vii] Gorrell's History of the American Expeditionary Forces, Air Service, 1917-1919; Series J, "Training," Vol. 9, p. 287.
The pilot involved in the 16 June 1918 accident was Capt. John Notman Thorp, Jr. He was born in Patterson, New Jersey, on 17 July 1890, the son of John N., Sr. and Margaret Thorp. He described his occupation as “salesman” prior to entering the service. Exactly when and where he learned to fly is unclear, but before entering aviation, he was a captain in the 5th Infantry of the New Jersey National Guard. Records suggest that Thorp entered the U.S. Army flight program—as a Guardsman—on 5 August 1917 and began training on 16 August.[i] He attended ground school at the Ohio State University School of Military Aeronautics.[ii] Where he received his flight training is unclear, but before he went overseas, he succeeded in earning both his Reserve Military Aviator and Junior Military Aviator ratings. On 11 January 1918, Captain John N. Thorp, Jr., Infantry, National Army, was officially appointed 1st Lt., Aviation Section, Signal Corps.[iii] Despite the administrative "demotion" to lieutenant, he continued to assume his National Guard rank of captain.
Capt. Thorp left for Europe aboard the S.S. Carpathia on 15 January 1918 as a member of the 141st Aero Squadron.[iv] Soon after arriving in Europe, he was detached from the 141st and assigned to the 3rd A.I.C. at Issoudun. On 22 February, he took command of the 35th Aero Squadron and became officer in charge of Fields No. 1 and 2.[v]
Some innovative experimentation took place under Capt. Thorp’s reign. This included the introduction of aircraft mudguards and the use of in-flight speaking tubes and electric telephones. In addition, he oversaw the much-needed construction of barracks and a road connecting Field No. 2 to the main camp.[vi] Given the scope and importance of Thorp's position, it is obvious that his superiors considered him a capable officer and pilot.
[i] Juliette A. Hennessy, The United States Army Air Arm, April 1861 to April 1917. Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1985, p. 248.
[ii] Mike O'Neal, personal correspondence with Colonel Rick Glasebrook.
[iii] Cablegram Number 1064, dated 10 April 1918, from General Headquarters, American Expeditionary Forces, NARA Record Group 120, M930, Roll 12, Main Series.
[iv] Gorrell's History, Series E, "Squadron Histories," Vol. 17, p. 107.
[v] Gorrell’s History, Series E, Vol. 7, p. 288.
[vi] Gorrell’s History, Series J, Vol. 9, p. 292. The 3rd A.I.C. Chief Engineering Officer at this time was 1st Lt. Edward V. “Eddie” Rickenbacker. He was instrumental in the design, installation, and testing of the mudguards, which were similar to the ones he had used as a racecar driver. These prevented the wheels of training aircraft from slinging clumps of mud into propellers and other critical structures. The speaking tubes were found to be practical, but the electric telephones less so.
A Fatal Flight
Nursing in WWI was in many ways as trying as soldiering. The hours were long and the work was often stressful, depressing, and physically draining. It is not surprising that when these young women occasionally had some time off, they took advantage of it by taking walks and bike rides, visiting local villages and sites of interest, and spending time with friends and colleagues. Sometimes, when the nurses and other medical personnel assigned to the 3rd A.I.C. had a few minutes to spare, they walked or rode over to one of the many active flying fields operating in the immediate area to watch the young aviation cadets perfect their flying skills. Such was Reserve Nurse Overend's intent on 16 June 1918, when she, another nurse, and two physician colleagues decided to head over to nearby Field No. 2 to have lunch.[i]
While there, someone remarked that it was a nice day for flying. One of the young doctors accompanying Overend—a Medical Reserve Corps first lieutenant—replied that he had never been up in an airplane before.[ii] Capt. Thorp happened to overhear the doctor and stated he would be happy to take him up, so they all headed out to the flying field. Here, Capt. Thorp had a 23-meter Nieuport Type 80 (80 h.p.) two-seat trainer with the numerals 951 painted on the side of the fuselage pulled out of the hangar and readied for flight. No one could have suspected that on this bright Sunday afternoon, Reserve Nurse Marion L. Overend would soon die in that airplane.
The field Liaison Officer who had pulled the Nieuport out of the hangar, 1st Lt. E. Norman Hunt, looked it over and found it to be airworthy. It was a relatively new machine they had acquired from Field No. 3 on 26 May, but Thorp had already flown it several times. Consequently, he and the young medical officer took off for a short hop, returning in about ten minutes. The airplane performed well and Hunt described Thorp's landing as "perfect."
After the medical officer left to go back to the hospital, Reserve Nurse Overend persuaded Capt. Thorp to take her up for a ride, as well. Though it was not in strict accordance with existing regulations, he finally agreed. She then put on a heavy coat and climbed into the airplane. There was some difficulty getting the engine started—perhaps an omen of things to come—but at about 1500 hours, they took off.
Exactly what happened—and what went wrong—on this flight can only be gleaned from witness testimony given to the Board of Investigation. After taking off, Thorp headed northwest toward the town of Vatan, before turning and heading back toward the field at an altitude of about 2,000 feet. Witnesses observed it suddenly dive down and level off slightly before disappearing from sight. It impacted the ground about one and one-half miles from Field No. 2, near the town of Ménétréols-sous-Vatan.
Those arriving at the scene found Nurse Overend lying on the ground next to the wrecked Nieuport. Capt. Thorp was walking up the road, yelling for an ambulance. He appeared dazed and the pupils in his eyes "quivered and dilated." His only recorded words were, "I think it's all off." He then put his arms around Lt. Hunt and started to cry. Hunt helped him into a motorcycle sidecar and had him taken back to the field.
The exact cause of the crash was never determined, but it seems apparent that the airplane's engine, which had been so difficult to start, failed in flight. Thorp then pushed the nose down and initiated a glide toward the best available landing field, which lay on the far side of a line of trees. When he apparently realized he was going to be short of the field he had selected, he tried to dive and zoom over the trees. Unfortunately, he either did not have enough momentum or pulled up too late. The right wing crashed into a tree about 20 feet from the ground, followed by the left wing at a slightly higher level. The Nieuport careened into the ground at a high speed and veered around to a stop. On-scene investigators found no obvious mechanical problems with the controls or airframe, so they assumed that the engine had been at fault. However, it is not known whether this was ever substantiated.
Captain Thorp was more seriously injured than it appeared, most likely with a severe concussion. He testified to the Board of Investigation that he had absolutely no recollection of the flight or anything that occurred during it. Thus, Thorp, the only witness who could have shed any light on the cause of the accident, was unable to reveal any details as to what caused the forced landing; nor could he explain why he was unable to execute a successful dead-stick landing from 2,000 feet altitude over some of the flattest and least obstructed terrain in all of France.
Marion Overend was not nearly as lucky as Thorp. She suffered devastating internal injuries. The Camp Hospital commander, Lt.Col. R.H. Goldthwaite, M.C., testified that she had suffered several fractured ribs, which punctured blood vessels leading to her heart, her lungs, and other vital organs. This created a "severe left hemopneumothorax" that sent the young woman into shock. He concluded that her death was instantaneous.
[i] All the facts about the Thorp-Overend crash are derived from the official accident report. It was generated by the Board of Investigation that convened on the following day, by order of the 3rd A.I.C. Commanding Officer, Maj. Carl Spatz. The copy used by the authors was obtained from Craig Fuller at Aviation Archeological Investigation and Research (AAIR), and email@example.com.
[ii] The Board of Investigation interviewed the young medical officer who went up for a ride before Nurse Overend. His name, although only partially legible in the report, appears to be 1st Lt. P.F. Kored (perhaps Rored), M.R.C (Medical Reserve Corps).
Major Carl Spatz, the Commanding Officer of the 3rd A.I.C., also provided testimony to the Board of Investigation. His purpose was very specific: to clear up the inevitable legal fallout from the accident. He stated that the intent of existing regulations was to prevent the type of joyride that ended in the death of Nurse Overend. However, since the military status of nurses was at that time somewhat unclear—they were neither officers nor enlisted—he was inclined to "give her the benefit of the doubt." He determined that her status was similar to that of an enlisted man. This, he concluded, made Overend's actions and death "in the line of duty and not as a result of her own misconduct." This expedient decision served, essentially, to clear everyone involved of any wrongdoing—at least from an official standpoint. Now, the Army could conclude the matter with everyone's good name and record intact.
The death of the popular young nurse cast a pall over the base. "The entire camp was thrown into sorrow by the tragedy, as her cheerful and genial disposition had won her hosts of friends."[i] She was given a military funeral befitting the affection and respect her friends and colleagues felt for her, with nearly the entire hospital staff in attendance. She was then interred in US Army Cemetery #32, AEF, 3rd A.I.C., Grave #36—one of 91 victims of "aeroplane accidents" recorded by Base Hospital No. 14.[ii] After the war, her remains were transferred to the St. Mihiel American Cemetery at Thiaucourt, France, Plot A, Row 6, Grave 14.
Marion Overend’s memory is preserved on at least one Canadian War Memorial, and her name is one of the 171 listed on the 3rd A.I.C. monument, located near Paudy, France. The monument stands on the site of the cemetery where she first lay. For reasons unknown, however, she is incorrectly listed on the monument as Marion L. Watkins—an apparent clerical error that unfortunately found its way permanently onto the metal plaque.
As for the unlucky Capt. Thorp, most of his life following this tragic incident remains mostly—at least to these authors—a mystery. A few weeks after the accident—and well before the war ended—the Army shipped him stateside, where he arrived on 17 September 1918.[iii] One can only conjecture as to why. Perhaps his injuries required it, but it seems more likely that he suddenly found himself persona non grata in the eyes of the Army for his role in the unfortunate incident. He was discharged from the military on 15 January 1919.[iv]
In the post-war years, Thorp returned to his prior civilian life as a sales engineer. Eventually, he was also able to resume his military career. His name appears on the roster of the 309th Attack Group, an Air National Guard unit based in Chicago, Illinois, during the 1920s. Capt. Thorp commanded the unit briefly in 1925 and again, as Major Thorp, from 11 March 1926 until 1 December 1929, when the unit became inactive.[v] Little else could be found about the life of John Notman Thorp, Jr., other than that he died in January 1967.[vi]
The loss of life that occurs in a war is, without exception, tragic; but society manages to justify it on the grounds that it helps achieve some greater good. However, the needless death of an intelligent young woman like Marion Overend, a nurse who had dedicated herself to helping others, is more difficult to accept. Though her Sunday afternoon joyride of 16 June 1918 was “in the line of duty,” she took an unnecessary risk and paid for it with her life. At least now, her story has been told.
[i] "Plane News," December 21, 1918, p. 3. Gorrell's History, Series M, Vol. 12.
[ii] Gorrell's History, Series J, Vol. 9, p. 288.
[iii] National Guard Service Record of Capt. John Notman Thorp, Jr. (via Mike O'Neal).
[v] Clay, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Steven E. US Army Order of Battle 1919-1941; Vol 3 Services - Air Service, Engineers. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute Press, p. 1326.
[vi] Social Security Death Index.
The author wishes to express his grateful appreciation to Todd Tifft, Mike O'Neal, Alan Toelle, Dr. Ralph H. Beaumont, the San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives, Craig Fuller of Aviation Archeological Investigation and Research (AAIR), and Ms. Barbara Niss, Director of Archives & Records Management at Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai.