Nancy Leftenant-Colon always knew she was going to be a nurse, and she wanted to “do her part” for her country.
She combined these pursuits, along with her commitment to others and persistent spirit, to become the first black woman in the regular Army Nurse Corps.
The Cradle of Aviation Museum awarded retired Army Maj. Leftenant-Colon and two others for their accomplishments Tuesday and inducted them into the Long Island Air and Space Hall of Fame.
“I just love people,” she said.
Leftenant-Colon, 95, an East Norwich resident who grew up in Amityville, enjoyed talking to the service members she cared for and engaged them in conversation by remembering things about their lives.
“They were glad to see me,” she said. “We became good friends.”
Leftenant-Colon worked as a housekeeper for a year to afford training at Lincoln School for Nurses in the Bronx before joining the Army reserves in 1944. But she never thought about the barriers she overcame. She was too focused on the “very efficient” jobs required of her.
“It wasn’t hard for me to do because I enjoyed it,” she said. “You’re really on your own, and whatever you do, it’s your decision. I knew I was the boss.”
The Army approved Leftenant-Colon for regular service in 1948 before she became an Elite Flight nurse with the Air Force once the branches split in 1947.
She traveled to “wherever they needed me,” she said, including Korea and Japan, where she tended to the wounded during the Korean War.
“Our mission included staying with the patients regardless of who went down or what,” Leftenant-Colon said. She also served as the Tuskegee Airmen Inc.’s first and only female president, from 1989 to 1991.
Honored along with Leftenant-Colon were astronaut Ellen Baker, who completed three space shuttle flights with NASA, and entrepreneur Juan Trippe, who founded Pan American World Airways.
The Cradle of Aviation museum has inducted new hall of famers annually since 2009. It tries to honor at least three pioneers from different eras of air and space development each year, said Andrew Parton, the museum’s executive director. Last year’s class included astronaut Kevin Kregel, Air Force flying ace Francis Gabreski and philanthropist Harry F. Guggenheim.
Baker was born in North Carolina, but grew up in Bayside, Queens, where she attended Bayside High School. When she was in school, becoming an astronaut wasn’t something young girls could aspire to. “Only boys were astronauts,” she said.
But in 1977, NASA started to select women for the space program. Baker, who was attending medical school at Cornell University at the time, decided to consider a new path.
She served as a mission specialist on three missions in 1989, 1992 and 1995, logging more than 686 total hours. Baker was not the first woman in space, or even the first woman from New York, something she sees as a welcome change.
“By the time I came around the barriers were broken,” she said. “If you ask me how many women have flown in space, I couldn’t tell you, it’s actually a lot. I’d have to sit down and count them now.”
Ed Trippe accepted the induction on behalf of his father, Juan, who died in 1981. He called the award an honor for his family and father, a “barnstormer” with his aviation interests grounded in Long Island, where he started Long Island Airways, an air taxi service to the Hamptons.
“Long Island was always the hub for all things aviation,” he said “He’s on that wall with some very impressive people.”