When Opal Grapes and the other Army nurses at the Axminster station hospital near the English Channel heard a terrible roaring early on June 6, 1944, they knew their personal longest day had begun.
The din overhead came from an armada of aircraft bearing the 82nd and 101st Airborne. By dawn, the naval bombardment of the Normandy beaches could be heard. And by that afternoon, the first of some 450 D-Day casualties began arriving at their transient facility.
“Everybody knew things were building up to the invasion,” said Grapes, then Opal James, of those events three-quarters of a century ago. “I don’t want to say we were excited, but there certainly was a lot of anticipation.
“Everyone had a job to do, and we were prepared to do it.”
Numbering fewer than 1,000 before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army Nurse Corps grew to more than 59,000 by the end of World War II. There were 15,000 more in the Navy. President Franklin Roosevelt, in his final State of the Union address in 1945, even proposed that nurses be drafted to ease what he called “a critical shortage.”
“I grew up on a farm, so I was already in pretty good shape,” said Grapes, who is one an estimated 2,000 surviving Army nurses from World War II. “But they had us doing close-order drills and calisthenics because we had to be ready for those 14-16 hour shifts when the fighting got rough."
When Nick Mueller walks through the D-Day section of the National WWII Museum, it’s not the wall-sized picture of the German defense structure…
Offering comfort along with treatment to countless servicemen, the nurses made major contributions to the extremely low post-injury mortality rate. Fewer than 4 percent of American soldiers who received medical care in the field died of wounds or disease.
While those in the Nurse Corps were considered civilian caregivers in the early months of the war, within a year they started receiving thorough military training as well. In 1943, all nurses were made commissioned officers with equal pay and benefits as the men.
Along the way, the skills and experience gained by those in the Nurse Corps increased the status of their profession.
And they gained the educational, occupational and social opportunities that the war opened for all American women.
Grapes, now 98 and residing in assisted living in Houma, doesn’t dwell on the big-picture developments the war brought about for nurses and women.
But she knows what it meant for her, a native of the Blue Ridge Mountains community of Ferrum, Virginia, who had just completed her training as a registered nurse in nearby Lynchburg before enlisting in 1942, shortly before her 22nd birthday.
“Being in the Army made me a better nurse than I ever could have been,” Grapes said. “It made me stronger and helped my character.
“It changed how I felt about my country. I just had a great feeling of satisfaction about it all.”
And then, there was what nurses did for the men she tended to.
“They called us ‘angels,’ ” Grapes said. “They really loved us.”
Of 45 stories, Grapes is the only American servicewoman whose account of D-Day is included in the National World War II Museum’s recently released 75th anniversary book about the invasion, “Everything We Have.” The museum in New Orleans has about 600 oral histories by women. (There are more than 10,000 oral histories in its total collection.)
Kali Martin, the museum’s research assistant who provided major support for the book project, said while those directly in combat should and do dominate the work, it was vital that Grapes’ recollections of D-Day, which were recorded in 2010, be included.
“It was important to tell the story of D-Day from various perspectives,” she said. “And while women were not on the front lines on D-Day, they definitely had an important role.
“We began looking at oral histories of nurses in England on D-Day, and we had few who fit the timeline. Of those we listened to, Opal’s stood out because it illustrates the tough experiences those women went through and how strong they were to deal with such tragedy day after day.”
Grapes’ story is definitely compelling, and it doesn’t even include her ship being torpedoed en route to England in 1943.
While feeding and bathing the wounded took up much of the nurses’ time in her unit, a few nights after D-Day Grapes found herself assigned to spend the night comforting a 19-year-old soldier who was not expected to survive due to a severe abdominal wound.
“I stayed with him all night,” Grapes said in her oral history. “He was crying, screaming and praying all night, and I stood there praying and crying.
“It was the worst thing I went through. Early the next morning, he died. To me it was a great relief because I thought, ‘He’s now at rest; not in pain anymore.’ ”
Part of the training the nurses received was to maintain control of their emotions. That was one night, Grapes recalled, that she lost it.
“I’m glad we didn’t get many cases like that,” she said. “But no matter how you felt, you had to move on.”
Although some nursing units landed in France as early as a week after D-Day and closely followed the front lines (201 Army nurses died during the war), Grapes’ unit remained in England until early 1945 when they were sent to Camp Sibert, Alabama, for six months to train in tropical medicine in anticipation of being deployed in the Pacific, where disease killed five times as many American troops as combat.
But while Grapes was on leave that August, Japan surrendered after the dropping of the atomic bombs.
“I can tell you we celebrated that night,” Grapes said.
Grapes mustered out of the Army a few months later, and, using the GI Bill to get a degree in nursing education, she became a Veterans Affairs nurse, working first in Richmond and then in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
That’s where she met Bob Grapes, who had escaped injury in combat in the Pacific only to be seriously hurt in an auto accident. They married in 1951.
The couple had two daughters, and Bob's job as a petroleum engineer required him to travel, so Opal gave up nursing in the late 1950s.
One of the Grapes’ stops was in Leeville, and the couple eventually retired to Mandeville, relocating to Houma in 2006 to be near their daughter, Brendy, and her family.
Bob Grapes died in 2010, and, in 2015, at 95. Opal moved into assisted living. Although she needs a walker, she exercises daily and keeps mentally sharp by reading voraciously and doing newspaper puzzles.
She credits her long life partly to being in the Army.
“It sure hasn’t hurt me later on.”