Just before a Charlotte flight from Atlanta took off last week, the Delta Air Lines pilot told his passengers they were about to get a history lesson.
He told them that roughly 70 years ago, Allied forces stormed ashore at Normandy, France, in what history would remember as D-Day. In the midst of the massive invasion, he said, were flight nurses – including Ethel Simpson, a nurse in the early days of air evacuation with the Army Air Corps’ 806th Air Evacuation Group.
“We are honored to have one of those nurses with us today,” said pilot David McMinn, a brigadier general in the Texas Air National Guard. “Ethel Guffey Simpson is flying home to Charlotte to be laid to rest with her husband, Col. Richard Wright Simpson, also a (World War II) veteran.”
Saturday, in a private family graveside service, Ethel Simpson was buried with military honors at the family plot in Charlotte’s Sharon Memorial Park. She and her husband had raised their two sons in Charlotte, where Richard Simpson, who died in 1996, grew up and graduated from now-closed Central High School in 1928.
Ethel, a nurse at Charlotte’s Sharon Towers Retirement Community in the 1980s, died March 12 at a retirement community in San Antonio, where she’d lived since 2006. She was 99.
“We got to know my mother’s war stories well; she told them often,” said son Rich Simpson of Stone Mountain, Ga. “She was very proud of her military service.”
His mother was born in 1915 on a dairy farm in Shawnee, Okla., and at 19, enrolled at Saint Anthony’s School of Nursing in Oklahoma City. Seven years later, in March 1942, she volunteered as a nurse in the Army Air Corps at Will Rogers Field, a major training facility in Oklahoma City.
Soon she had a brush with history, as she told son Rich and granddaughter Collins Foster of Atlanta.
Don’t disturb the patient
Thirteen days into her service, Ethel was assigned to care for a sick colonel named Hume Peabody, who commanded the 2nd Air Force Support Command based at the field.
Peabody was supposed to fly in the bombing raid of Tokyo and other Japanese cities in April 1942, led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, that demonstrated that Japan was vulnerable to air attacks – an enormous boost to American morale after the country had been drawn into the war months earlier.
Ethel told her granddaughter that Peabody was supposed to fly in the raid, “but couldn’t because he was sick,” Collins said.
After the raid, Ethel’s patient was asleep when she was a approached by a high-ranking officer with news for Peabody.
“He wanted to tell Peabody that the raid was a success,” Foster said. “I knew my grandmother was strong-willed, but she got into a little trouble. She told them they were not allowed to disturb the patient.
“Well, the officers brushed by her and said they would speak to the patient.”
Years ago, Foster and her husband went to see the movie “Pearl Harbor,” and that scene was played out on the screen. “There’s no names, but he’s in a hospital bed with a nurse standing next to it, and these officers have come to tell him about the raid,” she said. “Our jaws just dropped – and we’re thinking: ‘Could that be my grandmother?’”
After they saw the movie, they flew to San Antonio to help Ethel move into assisted living quarters. At the end of her bed were scattered papers. “Mixed in (with) coupons, there was this black-and-white photo of a World War II soldier. I said, ‘Grandmother, this is not Granddaddy.’ ”
On the back, Ethel had written: “General Hume Peabody, first patient at Will Rogers Field. Double pneumonia.”
‘Engage the wounded’
On Christmas Eve 1942, Ethel was shipped to Bowman Field near Louisville, Ky., to get air evacuation training. One day she “bumped into” a young captain named Richard Simpson from Charlotte, whose commanding officer was Ethel’s patient at the time, son Rich said.
They were smitten and wrote often during the war.
After graduating from evacuation school, the 806th was shipped to Liverpool, England, and temporarily assigned to the 390th Bomb Group, 8 miles from the English Channel, where they cared for fliers injured in bombing missions over Germany.
“Her main duty was to engage the wounded in conversation to try to keep their nerves calm and minds alert,” Rich said.
On June 6, 1944, Ethel, then a lieutenant, was leading a marching drill when they saw planes returning from Normandy.
Three days later, she and the 806th came in on a landing strip 10 miles inland from the Normandy beaches and began evacuating the wounded. She spent months caring for them at a mobile hospital and joining crews flying them back across the channel to British hospitals.
On one flight across the channel, clouds built and the pilot had to search for an opening to land. Later, they discovered the plane had run out of fuel. On another, she recalled a young soldier with a severe head injury. His last words: “I’ll never get to see my baby.”
As time passed, she’d often think about that baby.
One of the last times Foster visited with her grandmother, Ethel talked about the soldier, and “she wondered whatever happened to his baby.”
Two months after the war ended in Europe, Ethel and Richard Simpson married in Paris.
Secure for the flight
It was Foster who escorted her grandmother’s casket from Texas to Charlotte.
After she gave McMinn, the pilot, information about Ethel, he climbed down to check on the casket.
Then he began his lesson.
“He started to choke up as he read it,” Foster said. “So did I.”
At the end, the plane erupted in cheers for Ethel Guffey Simpson.