Military History Books
by Harold A. Skaarup   
Nursing Sisters, Canada, Pararescue (Parabelles)

Pararescue Nursing Sisters 

ca 1951.  Airforce Magazine article, Spring 2009.

Data current to 24 May 2020,

Flying Officer Marian Neilly,  May 1955 in Trenton, Ontario.  (DND Archives Photo PL130186)

Flying Officer Marian Neilly, an RCAF para rescue nursing sister who participated in Operation Pike's Peak at Lowry Airforce Base, Denver Colorado, on March 24, 1955.  The Joint USAF/RCAF exercise aided the two services’ rescue units in adopting a system whereby both can participate in rescue missions in either country.  (DND Archives Photo PL-76256)

Flying Officer Marian Neilly (left) and Flight Officer Marion MacDonald, both nursing sisters, wear their para rescue jumping gear during Operation Pike Peak in Colorado in March 1955.  (DND Archives Photo PC-676)


Nursing Sister Grace MacEachern.  (MacEachern Family Archives Photo)

Gracie (Gagnon) MacEachern Grace “Gracie” MacEachern (née Gagnon) was a pioneer for women at a revolutionary time for women’s roles and rights. She was a “parabelle”, a romantic term coined for para-rescue nurses from the 1950s in the Canadian Forces. That not only made her an asset in redefining gender roles, but also in what would become modern day search and rescue (SAR) in Canada. In the words of her son, Bruce MacEachern, an Air Force Major, “she really blazed a trail for women and for the Air Force itself”. Following the death of her first husband, Cranston Woodward, she enrolled in the Canadian Forces in 1951, where she received a commission as a pilot officer just prior to joining the para-rescue course at the age of 32. The para-rescue course offered in the 1950s was attended by nurses and doctors, who at the time were the only medical personnel to jump out of airplanes on rescue missions and they did so on a voluntary basis. The course was the foundation of, and at that time the only equivalent to, today’s vigorous and demanding SAR technician training course While the ground-breaking achievements of all the para-belles are worthy of commemoration, Mrs. McEachern was especially noteworthy for the fact that she was the first woman to do an operational jump in para-rescue. This first jump was in Mount Coquitlam, British Columbia, just one month after she took the para-rescue course, to rescue a geologist.

Grace MacEachern and crew at an air show in Abbotsford, British Columbia.  (MacEachern Family Archives Photo)

Pilot Officer Isabelle Thomson, a nursing sister from North Bay, Ontario, and a student of the third peacetime para rescue course in Jasper, Alberta, uses a signal mirror.  (DND Archives Photo PL-52552)

Para Rescue Team 29811, Leading Aircraftman C.L. Hegadorne, Flying Officer (Nursing Sister) E.R. Kelly and Corporal R.E. Crawford, study a map before take-off.  (DND Archives Photo PL-87049)

 (DND Photo)

Nursing Sister "Parabelle" publicity shot, Sikorsky H-5 Dragonfly (Serial No. 9602), No. 103 Rescue Unit, Greenwood, Nova Scotia, ca 1950s.

Nursing Officers continue to serve in the present day Canadian Armed Forces Medical Service, many having deployed on tours of duty overseas in the Gulf War, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Somalia and Afghanistan.  Internet: