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Post office named after nurse

The Covina branch will carry the name of Lillian Kinkela Keil, who flew on missions in WWII and Korea to evacuate the wounded.

October 29, 2006|Jean Merl | Times Staff Writer

She was known as an "Airborne Florence Nightingale," a flight nurse during two wars who flew 425 combat evacuation missions, aiding and comforting more than 10,000 wounded soldiers.

Lillian Kinkela Keil received 19 medals and ribbons for her service in what is now the U.S. Air Force. That made her the most decorated female veteran in U.S. military history, according to Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte).

On Saturday, more than a year after her death at 88 from cancer, yet another honor was bestowed on the diminutive nurse with the adventuresome and compassionate spirit: The newly spruced up Covina Post Office was renamed for her.

Officials from the San Gabriel Valley communities that Keil had long called home joined Solis and U.S. Postal Service representatives at a ceremony held beneath a sunny sky on the post office's freshly repaved parking lot.

The Covina Concert Band played. American Legion Post 790 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8620 -- Keil had been an active member of both groups -- presented American flags to her two daughters.

A grandchild, Emily Whitmore, 11, led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance, and her family heard Solis praise Keil for her "exceptional leadership and service to our country."

At a table displaying photos of Keil throughout her life of service, postal workers issued commemorative stamp cancellations to a long line of friends and well-wishers.

All the fuss would probably have puzzled Keil, said daughter Lillianne Wittman.

"She was real humble," Wittman said. "She felt she was just doing her duty like everyone else." She added that her mother tried to comfort the wounded soldiers as well as tend to their injuries.

But when Solis presented Keil with a congressional resolution -- shortly before her death on June 30, 2005 -- announcing the impending post office renaming, Keil "was in awe," Wittman recalled.

Lillian Mary Kinkela was born Nov. 17, 1916, in Arcata, Calif. She earned a nursing degree after high school and became one of the first generation of stewardesses, for United Airlines.

In 1943, she enlisted in what was then the Army Air Forces, rising to the rank of captain. During World War II, she witnessed the first German buzz bomb attacks on London and, after the D-day invasion of occupied France in June 1944, she went to Normandy to help retrieve and treat the wounded.

She returned to her stewardess job after the war but signed up for military flight duty again when the Korean War broke out in 1950.

Her Korean War service attracted the attention of Hollywood -- she was technical advisor on the 1953 film "Flight Nurse," which was based in part on her experiences.

Kinkela married Walter Keil in 1954 and was honorably discharged from the service in 1955. The Keils moved to Covina in 1958, and she continued her nursing career in local hospitals while raising her family.

Walter Keil died in 1980.

"I think she would have been very proud" of Saturday's tribute, daughter Adrianne Whitmore said after the ceremony.

"This community was her home for many years, and she had so many friends," Whitmore said. "Many of them come to this post office, and now they can see her plaque here and think of her."

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jean.merl@latimes.com

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