This National Nurses Week, we thought we’d pay tribute to the nurses of the past, particularly WWII, one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. Army nurses don’t always get the respect they deserve during Nurses Week, hovering in between the military and healthcare communities. But back in 1944 when Hitler’s forces were charging through Europe, the nurses of Axminster Hospital near the English Channel were called into action, doing everything they could to save as many lives as possible.
75 years later, retired nurse Opal Grapes, now 98 years old, looks back on the longest day of her life as a WWII nurse. Learn more about this horrific day and how the nurses of the past contributed to the war effort.
Preparing for D-Day
Opal Grapes is one of the last 2,000 surviving Army nurses from WWII. Grapes was in her early 20s when the fighting began back in 1944. She recalls her training as a young Army nurse recruit: “I grew up on a farm, so I was already in pretty good shape. 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.”
Grapes is a native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Ferrum, Virginia. She had just completed her training as a registered nurse in Lynchburg when she decided to enlist in 1942 just before she turned 22. Looking back on her decision to join the war effort, Grapes has no regrets.
“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.”
Knowing she was caring for the brave soldiers who fought and died for our country made her role as an Army nurse all the more rewarding.
Caring for the Soldiers in Need
On June 6th, 1944, the nurses of Axminster Hospital rolled up their sleeves for the longest day of their professional lives. They heard a loud din as the first wave of aircraft headed for the beaches of Normandy. The next day, 450 casualties started arriving at their transient facility.
In addition to treating their wounds, Grapes and her colleagues cared for the soldiers’ emotional needs as well. Gapes recalls caring for a 19-year-old soldier, staying up all night with him. “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.’” Grapes recalled how she was trained to contain her emotions when caring for the soldiers, but she couldn’t always hide what she was feeling.
Grapes eventually met her husband, Bob Grapes, who managed to make it out of the war unscathed, only to suffer a serious auto accident just a few years later. They got married in 1951.
How WWII Nurses Changed Their Profession
Like the rest of the nurses in the Nurse Corps, Grapes and her colleagues were originally considered civilian caregivers, but as the war went on, they started receiving official military training. By 1943, all the nurses in the Nurse Corps were made commissioned officers with equal pay and benefits as their male counterparts.
Thanks to their contributions to the war, the Nurse Corps forever changed the world’s understanding and appreciation of the nursing profession. These brave women gained valuable professional and educational opportunities during their time in harm’s way, eventually passing these opportunities to all American women. After the end of WWII, women of all different backgrounds started rolling up their sleeves and going to work for their country.
Opal Grapes’ story reminds us of the power of nursing. We’re proud to honor her amazing life story this Nurses Week.