Irma Darphin served as a nurse in Europe after the Normandy Invasion. (Photo used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.)
By George Morris
The smell of cordite no longer hung in the air when Lt. Irma Darphin came ashore on Utah Beach in 1944. Six weeks had passed since D-Day, and shells no longer fell, bullets no longer flew and the groans of the wounded no longer sounded along the Normandy coast.
But there was no shortage of wounded soldiers in France, and Darphin was on her way to help them.
Darphin, a Crowley, Louisiana, native and longtime Iota resident, was part of the Army’s 127th General Hospital, which spent the last 10 months of the war treating casualties as Allied armies pushed their way to Germany.
She and the rest of the hospital’s roughly 100 nurses first set foot on the continent at the same place where the 4th Infantry Division landed on June 6. Her route inland would take her across the beach and through another town that figured prominently in the D-Day invasion.
“They still had some of the debris out on the beaches,” said Darphin. “We went on to St. Mere Eglise. We spent the first night in a bombed-out church because of the anti-aircraft (fire), but it was nothing threatening, really. They just wanted to be real safe with the ladies. They were real good to us.”
The nurses spent more than a week in tents, then moved on to Rennes, which had recently been taken by Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army.
“We just opened up this hospital,” she said. “We had to clean it out because the Germans had been there and they left it filthy. Everything they left went out the windows and the doors and were hauled off to a dump pile someplace. Then we filled it up and started admitting patients. I think it took us maybe two weeks.
“After we got to Rennes, that’s when we really had the casualties come in.”
The nurses lived with a group of nuns, at first, and had to be escorted to the hospital each day for fear that German snipers might find them an easy target. In a city wrecked by the Allied bombing that led up to D-Day, there was little for them to do but treat the many wounded. One lighter moment came when her brother, Capt. Hughit Boulet, visited her in Rennes.
“We went in and most of us worked 12 hours. Some of us 16 hours. We were busy, busy, busy, and they came in fast because there were a lot of casualties at that time,” Darphin said.
As the armies pushed east, the 127th General Hospital was moved to Nancy, about 50 miles from Germany and Luxembourg. The nurses got to spend rest time in Paris.
“We went through the cities that had been bombed out, and people were there,” Darphin said. “That was the saddest part of the Army for me, to go through all these bombed-out cities and watch all these people trying to find their homes.”
Locating the hospital in Nancy put it near the action of the Battle of the Bulge, the German counterattack in December 1944, that failed in its goal to drive a wedge between the American and British armies.
The hospital remained there until Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945.
The surrender allowed residents to remove the blackout curtains that hung over their windows at night to prevent the city from being visible to enemy aircraft at night.
Darphin said the city’s lights made it look “like one big diamond lit up.”
“That’s when our neighbors got outside and sang and cried and hugged each other,” she said. “It was happy. The war was over.”
In Europe, that is. The 127th staff was told they would be sent to the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations, but Japan’s surrender after the atomic bombings in August 1945 ended those plans.
In the meantime, the hospital treated U.S. prisoners of war after their liberation.
“When our POWs started coming back, and you can imagine what they looked like — not quite as bad as the Bataan March, but pretty bad,” Darphin said. “They did not want to stop but they had to so we could refurbish them and feed them a little bit and stabilize them and give them their medicine. They had to come back in steps, also. But those poor POWs were so anxious to get home.”
Darphin didn’t get home until October 1945, and she returned to her nursing job in Orange, Texas. A year later, she moved to Jennings, married and stayed home to raise four children before returning to work at the Southwest State School for 20 years.