He proposed by mail. She didn’t send the ring back.

That’s how it was done when the country was at war, and both bride- and groom-to-be were in the Navy.

That was 1943.

Sam Graham had received a conscription notice less than a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He’d been given 10 days to report for duty, but the Navy allowed him to complete medical school at the University of Virginia at an accelerated pace, because, Graham, who is now 99, said, “the Army and Navy needed us as fast as they could get us.”

The reprieve also allowed him to court Jane O’Neill, who had joined the first group of WAVES — Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, the women’s branch of the Naval Reserve during World War II — without telling Graham.

“My daddy said you’re not going to the Army,” she said. She’s also 99 now. “But he didn’t want me sitting in a college town until [Sam] graduated, either.”

After a three-month session at Smith College, a women’s university in Massachusetts, O’Neill was assigned to the Office of Naval Communications in Washington, D.C., where she coded and decoded dispatches to and from U.S. ships zigzagging across the Atlantic to avoid German U-boats.

The top-secret work meant she was one of the first to read a dispatch dated Aug. 15, 1945, carrying news of the war’s end.

The message from James Forrestal, President Harry S. Truman’s Navy secretary, read: “All hands of the United States Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard may take satisfaction in the conclusion of the war against Japan and pride in the part played by them in accomplishing that result.”

She keeps a photocopy of the message, signed by all the WAVES she worked with, in a thick blue binder with the Navy seal on it. It holds her initial commission and nearly every piece of paperwork, photo and patch she has from her service.

“I’d never seen such celebration in my life,” O’Neill said, describing the pandemonium that followed the bulletin.

It meant they would be going home, she said. But, it took six months.

On March 28, 1946, they were married. Graham almost missed it.

He’d just completed medical school as the war ended and was given orders to report to the Navy Hospital in Philadelphia in four days . His commanding officer let him have the weekend off for the wedding.

“My honeymoon was a trip from Charlottesville to Philadelphia,” he said.

The hospital where Graham worked, and where he became head of rehabilitation a year after arriving, was built with 800 beds, he said. But following the war, it had been overrun with about 4,000 patients, many of whom had been wounded in WWII. Graham worked with and operated on those who had to have limbs amputated.

Back in medical school, he remembered going to classes just after Pearl Harbor.

“You’d go to class just after the first of the year and there’d be x-number of you in the class. Two or three days later, people had just disappeared,” Graham explained, saying like him they’d been conscripted. Some might have volunteered. Many in Graham’s class would have received their degrees is a few months’ time, he said.

“The university did honor those boys by giving them their degrees” — at least those who came back, he added solemnly.

“That was the bad part. All of us had a friend that we knew who never came back, you see,” Graham said.

The couple have been married now for 73 years. They’ve witnessed nearly every pivotal moment in American history in the last century — and they’ve had some life-altering personal experiences, like the train crash they were in at age 81 and the deaths of two grandchildren. But none compares with the country’s entrance into WWII.

“Nothing ever touched that,” Graham said.

They look fondly back on their service. They both wear American flag lapel pins every day.

“I’m glad that I went in,” Jane O’Neill Graham said. “I don’t know what I would have done with my life — I really don’t know what I would have done, if I hadn’t gone in. It made me grow up.”

They know they’re rare: a couple, still living — Jane Graham joked that’s she’s almost middle-aged now — who both served in WWII. But it’s Jane’s service that Graham said he wants people to remember.

“‘People who did what I did were a dime a dozen, but she was special,’” Sally Graham, the couple’s youngest of four children, remembered her father saying.

“I’ve been married to her for 73 years, and she still won’t tell me what she did,” Sam Graham joked. “They must have scared them to death.”

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arockett@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6527

Twitter: @AliRockettRTD

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