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An Army nurse from Ivanhoe – B

Last week we met Ivanhoe’s Norma Jean (Pederson) Johnson, who graduated from Ivanhoe High School in 1940; continued her education at the St. Barnabus School of Nursing in Minneapolis; and graduated as an RN in 1944. Like many of her fellow nursing graduates, she volunteered for military service, in her case with the Army Nurse Corps.

Norma Jean completed her Basic Training at Camp Carson, Colorado before deploying to Manila, the capital of the Philippines, with the newly-formed 316th General Hospital.

Manila was in ruins from weeks of heavy fighting, with much of the city center and entire neighborhoods destroyed. The nurses were housed in a heavily-damaged, former convent. The American forces there did not need another General Hospital and Norma Jean explained what happened to her unit.

“We were pretty much mingled in with a lot of others. In the Philippines we were dispensed where we were needed with different units. We never functioned as the 316th.”

Norma Jean described her initial assignments in Manila.

“We were assigned hospitals and, of course, at the hospitals we had our meals. One of the hospitals that I was assigned to was Santo Tomas in the Philippines. It was a college at one time, but this was where the prisoners were kept – at Santo Thomas.”

Norma Jean was referring to several thousand, mostly American and British subjects, who were interned behind walls and barbed wire at Santo Tomas for the duration of the Japanese occupation. The internees included dozens of US Army and Navy nurses who had been captured when the remaining US forces in the Philippines surrendered in the spring of 1942.

Norma Jean described her work in Manila.

“I worked there (Santo Tomas) and also at what was at one time a tubercular sanitarium that was made into a hospital. Since Santo Tomas was a prison, it too had to be made into a hospital. Our convent was here and just down the road the tubercular sanitarium and just a little ways farther was Santo Tomas on the other side of the road. So, you see, you could walk to either one of them. But I worked in both those places. Just taking care of the wounded. It was mostly battle injuries. I never felt that we were short of nurses.”

Once US forces had secured Manila and the surrounding area, the fighting moved further north as the Japanese Army retreated. Norma Jean recalled how her medical unit relocated north to treat the soldiers injured in the fighting.

“After Manila was taken over by MacArthur (The US commanding general) we moved to the northern Philippines. And there was fighting there. The Japanese were in caves and embedded into the (hillsides). So we went up there. I don’t remember how long we were up there. Maybe a couple months. Most of the time was in Manila.”

When her unit returned to Manila, she returned to working at the 120th General Hospital at Santo Tomas, but conditions had improved. Shortly after she returned, she recalled the dark cloud of war lifting from the Philippines in mid-August.

“It was in the evening. I was not working. I can remember where I was and the horns and the bells and everything in Manila just rang. And we knew what had happened. Everybody just cheered and everyone ran out in the streets – hugged on another. (Norma Jean laughed) It was – it was wonderful!”

The end of hostilities in August and the formal surrender of the Japanese government and military on Sept. 2, 1945, confirmed the war’s end. This led to a more relaxed life for the Army medical personnel in Manila. Norma Jean laughed as she recalled some of those changes.

“We spent little time in our quarters. They weren’t places that you could spend an evening. We just had a cot. That’s all. No one spent time in there and there were about sixteen in a room. We had an officers’ club. Every unit had a club where you could go and dance. We had a lot of good entertainment. Let’s see, Artie Shaw’s band . . . they were in the Navy, a lot of those fellows were, but they would come ashore and they would entertain us. There was a lot of music in the Philippines. They liked music and we always had a good band. I liked to dance and we didn’t spend time in our quarters if we could get to a dance.”

She remembered the nurses even had an opportunity to get away from Manila.

“We went up into the mountains I remember one time. That was in the Philippines and it was cool and that was a pleasant outing. We’d get about a week off and they’d give us R&R. It was a camp for nurses.”

Norma Jean laughed again when she described another incident in Manila.

“One day it was announced over the intercom that there was ice cream downtown in Manila. We had not had ice cream in the whole time we had been over there and it sounded so good. So a couple of us got someone to drive a jeep and we went to downtown Manila. We stood in line for miles on this hot, hot, hot day. We got up to the 3rd person to get ice cream and they ran out. And we had a hard time getting a ride back to base,” she ended with a laugh.

The war had ended, but Norma Jean’s overseas service was not yet over.

— I welcome your participation in and ideas about this exploration of prairie lives. You may reach me at prairieviewpressllc@gmail.com.

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