On this day in 1897, a heroine is born. Grace “Tugboat Annie” Lally would serve as a nurse in both World Wars, but she is perhaps best known for her service during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Lally was then the Chief Nurse aboard USS Solace, the only hospital ship in port on that terrible day.
Solace was a state-of-the-art ship that was said to sit “like a swan in a covey of dull gray ducks” during her time at Pearl Harbor. Her nurses “extoll[ed] the luck which had sent them to the Pacific paradise that was the Hawaiian Islands.”
Naturally, that idyllic situation wouldn’t last. On December 7, 1941, Lally was getting ready for church when she heard “the sharp rattle of a machine gun” and the sound of planes. Running to a window, she saw a dive bomber attack USS Arizona.
Lally’s years of experience served her well. She spurred her 12 nurses into action and set up emergency wards. “I have never ceased being amazed at how quickly we reacted to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor,” nurse Ann Danyo Willgrube wrote. “We never had disaster drills, yet when we realized that we were actually at war, every person on board that ship seemed to know instinctively what to do.”
All around Solace, ships were being bombed. Amazingly, Solace herself wasn’t hit, and Lally would later say that Solace’s survival amid so much chaos and destruction made the day seem even more surreal.
You can imagine the types of medical and surgical tasks that were needed that day, but you likely don’t know about the non-medical support that Lally and her fellow nurses provided in the weeks that followed.
Lally knew that hope and optimism were critical. A grim and dreary ship would undermine efforts to heal minds and bodies. Thus, she instructed her nurses to be cheerful. “The nurses smiled, joked, laughed at their own stories even when they weren’t funny,” one historian describes, “and carried on under the leadership of a Chief Nurse known for her sense of humor.”
During one alert, Lally noticed that cookies were cheering people up. After that, she ordered the cook to ensure that cookies were always available. Hot coffee worked similar wonders, so coffee and sandwiches were kept constantly on hand, too.
Importantly, Lally figured out how to celebrate Christmas, despite the terrible attack. “[W]e had managed to collect four scraggy cedars in Honolulu,” Lally wrote in 1945, “together with enough tinsel, holly, decorations, toys, and knick-knacks so that every man aboard the Solace would have a gift and a celebration.” She recruited a yeoman to dress up as Santa Claus. She had a Christmas tree hoisted on the mast of Solace, per Navy tradition.
The nurses went Christmas caroling among the wards.
Topping everything off, the nurses worked to make personal gifts for those in their care. An angel food cake was baked for one sailor who used to get one from his mother. A blind man was given something he could feel, and the nurses gave a machinist’s mate the kind of mechanical ballet dancer that he was accustomed to giving his daughter.
“We were right to give the ballet dancer to the machinist’s mate,” one nurse later recollected. “When I went back to say good night, there he was, fast asleep, a bit of smile on his face, and the toy clutched in his hand—just like a kid.”
We often hear of war heroes and their heroic actions in battle, but there’s a softer side to war heroism, too. Some war heroes simply ensure that our hard-working or wounded soldiers can go to sleep with smiles on their faces.
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American Women in a World at War: Contemporary Accounts from World War II (Judy Barrett Litoff & David Clayton Smith eds. 1997)
Emory A. Massman, Hospital Ships of World War II: An Illustrated Reference to 39 United States Military Vessels (1999)
Joellen W. Hawkins & Irene Matthews, “Tugboat Annie:” Nursing’s Hero of Pearl Harbor—Grace Lally (1897-1983) (Journal of Nursing Scholarship; 1991)
Kate Messner, History Smashers: Pearl Harbor (2021)
Katie Lange, The Pearl Harbor attack, as remembered by the nurses who were there (U.S. Army website; Dec. 2, 2016)
LCDR Grace B. Lally, NC, USN, The War’s First Christmas (American Magazine; Jan. 1945) (reprinted HERE)
Nancy MacLennan, Navy Nurse tells of Hospital Ships: Lieut. Grace Lally Pictures 5 Months in the South Pacific Aiding 4,039 Patients (N.Y. Times; May 11, 1943)
The Heroic Nurses of Pearl Harbor (Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau website)