Around midnight on June 6, 1944, US Army Nurse Opal James and her comrades heard the roar of planes—thousands of them. They gazed up from their station near Axminster, England, at a sky swarming with aircraft. “We knew that something was happening,” she recalled during her vivid oral history interview with The National WWII Museum, the excitement in her voice recapturing the intense emotions she felt when she realized D-Day was underway.
Nurses on all sides of the conflict contributed fundamentally to their countries’ struggle for victory. In the case of the United States, more than 59,000 women served in the Army Nurse Corps alone.¹ It is not unusual, though, for their actions to be relegated to the background, to a footnote, or to the casual passing reference. Consequently, we need histories of World War II that integrate nurses, medics, surgeons, psychiatrists, medicine, and the many types of wartime hospitals (field hospitals, general hospitals, evacuation hospitals, station hospitals, and convalescent hospitals, to name several examples) as well as hospital trains, hospital ships, and medical transport aircraft, more fully. This account of Opal James Grapes (1920–2022) comes out of some reflection on this deficit in contemporary historical writing.
Like millions of her peers, she had been pulled into world history by Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Born Opal James in rural Franklin County, Virginia, in July 1920 and one of six children raised on a farm, she had followed the path of her older sister and studied to become a registered nurse. Pearl Harbor occurred right as she finished her state board examinations. James immediately joined the Army and was integrated into the Army Nurse Corps; her nursing skills would now support the US war effort.
Six months of training ensued at Fort General Hospital in Temple, Texas. James and other recruits marched, conducted close-order drills, and practiced calisthenics. In many respects, the physical rigors expected of these nurses differed little from those demanded of the men. Her group then departed for New York to prepare for the Transatlantic voyage to the United Kingdom.
James was one of about 300 nurses who boarded the SS George S. Simons, a troopship crammed with soldiers. She recounted a seemingly terrifying story about how the vessel, torpedoed by a German submarine, had to turn back and make for Nova Scotia—but James admitted she did not even realize the ship had been hit! Transferred to the passenger liner Queen Mary, she made the journey across the Atlantic in five days, arriving in Scotland.
From there, James traveled to her ultimate destination: a transit hospital in the small town of Axminster, in southwestern England, not far from the English Channel. Her unit, the 10th Station Hospital Unit, would provide life-saving aid and comfort (i.e., both general medical and surgical treatment) to American wounded. She would spend more than two years there.
James and the other nurses of 10th Station Hospital carried out the most exacting tasks. They administered first aid to patients, as well as fed and bathed them. The transit hospital could house 1,000 patients at a time, and shifts often ran to 16 to 18 hours a day. On D-Day, hours after glimpsing the Allied air armada heading out to support the invasion, patients began streaming into the station around midmorning. Among them were Germans. “We treated them, just like anybody else,” James said. That day, unsurprisingly, stood out amid her many vivid recollections.
In her oral history, James detailed injuries she and the nurses confronted during her time with the 10th—abdominal, face, leg, and arm wounds. She witnessed some of the most unspeakable damage war can cause to the human body and never forgot those results of extreme violence, the men with faces disfigured or limbs blown off.
Frequently, people who have been through war can excavate bedrock episodes that changed them forever. In James’s case, this was the memory of a 19-year-old man brought into the transit hospital. Knowing there was nothing more they could do for him, James thought he would die right away. But he held on for an agonizing final night, crying, screaming, and praying. And James, tapping the deepest well of her humanity, cried, screamed, and prayed right there with him before he passed away around daybreak. Despite having some relief at knowing his suffering had ended, James said she steeled herself around the heartache and death, imposing strict control over her emotions.
Other less onerous recollections populate James’ remembrance of her WWII service. She described how friends she had made in England gave her a dozen eggs shortly after D-Day. The gift, rendered at a time of arduous rationing, embodied the joy the local populace felt for the Americans’ presence. Dancing and shared meals around Axminster, combined with a few trips to London, helped alleviate some of the trauma these women constantly encountered in their daily work.
Once the Nazi regime collapsed in May 1945, James wondered what would happen next. Told that she would return to the States to learn about tropical medicine, she knew it was a matter of time before she transferred to the Pacific to participate in the assault on the Japanese Archipelago.
Fortunately, the war ended before James had the chance to undergo this new round of training. Due to the efforts of women like her, less than 4% of American servicemembers treated in the field or in evacuation hospitals in that conflict succumbed to their wounds.² But this incredible number came with a cost—201 Army nurses lost their lives between 1941 and 1945.
Decades later, James conveyed tremendous gratitude for her opportunity to serve. World War II remained an essential part of her being. In 1951, she married Robert Clayton Grapes, a veteran of the Battle of Okinawa, and she utilized the GI Bill to further her education. Bob and Opal would build a family with two daughters and five grandchildren. Eventually, family and work brought her to the states of Louisiana and Georgia.
Opal James Grapes passed away on May 31, 2022, at the age of 101. Her wonderful story is incorporated by Nick Mueller, the Museum’s founding president and CEO, into Everything We Have, his account of D-Day. Access Opal James Grapes’ oral history in its entirety here.
¹ I take this information from the brochure, “The Army Nurse Corps in World War II,” available on the US Army Center of Military History’s website: https://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/72-14/72-14.HTM.
Jason Dawsey, PhD
Jason Dawsey, PhD, is a Research Historian at the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.