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An Army nurse from Ivanhoe – C

We’ve been learning about Ivanhoe’s Norma Jean (Pederson) Johnson, a 1940 graduate of Ivanhoe High School who graduated from the St. Barnabus School of Nursing in Minneapolis in 1944 and, like many fellow nursing graduates, volunteered for military service, in her case with the Army Nurse Corps.

She completed Basic Training at Camp Carson, Colorado before deploying with her hospital unit to the Philippine Islands in the Pacific where she began caring for wounded soldiers at two Army hospitals in Manila, the heavily-damaged national capital. The nurses were quartered at a former convent that had been heavily damaged during the fighting.

The war ended with the surrender of the Japanese government while Norma Jean was serving in the Philippines, but her overseas service was not over. She and her fellow nurses continued caring for injured soldiers and socialized during their off-hours away from their damaged and overcrowded nurse quarters.

Norma Jean explained how access to a chaplain and chapel services were important to her.

“We always had a chapel to go to. The Protestant minister that came overseas with us had been in the European Theater and they just shipped him right across. He just really shouldn’t have been there. He should have been sent home. But the Catholic priest kind of took over and saw to it that the Protestant girls were covered. He was great. He took care of us. They’d come and talk to us. I’m a Christian and my Christian faith meant a lot to me. I think it is what kind of held me together over there and disciplined me.”

Practicing her faith in Manila also led to a troubling experience.

“In Manila we went to church to a big cathedral once — it was bombed out, of course. But they were having a service and the natives (Filipinos) were there, humbly presenting their gifts or whatever, and a bunch of our soldiers came in and just ravaged the place — were just abusive. I suppose they had been drinking. I thought it was so horrible — but we aren’t always perfect.”

The end of her service in the Philippines, however, did not end her overseas service. She described her next assignment.

“We went to Japan then. We were at St. Luke’s General Hospital right in Tokyo. It was real nice. Modern. It was an American hospital during peacetime and it had all the modern facilities, so we felt like we were really on the Waldorf-Astoria. Our living quarters were also adjoined with the hospital. I worked in Intensive Care and then I worked in Contagion.

The Army’s 42nd General Hospital had taken over St. Luke’s Hospital and Norma Jean became a member of its nursing staff. She described how the patients and nature of her nursing changed with this assignment.

“I think maybe in Japan it got to be more the effects of war, you know: malnutrition, amoebas, and maybe psychiatric help.”

Norma Jean returned to the US on a troopship to Seattle in April 1946 as the Army drew down its overseas forces. She reflected on the Army colleagues who left the greatest impression on her.

“We had wonderful doctors. Several of them were from the University of Minnesota and two from John Hopkins. They were wonderful to the nurses and incorporated the nurses in teaching. We went to a leper colony once that they had arranged for us to go to. They were just a good bunch of family. That’s what they were — family. I had a very good friend — her name was Millie Lewis, and she is now gone, but she was a very dear friend. She was from Pierre, South Dakota. We went overseas together and came home together.”

Norma Jean found her homecoming somewhat disorienting.

“I think I was surprised at coming home and finding people so upset because they didn’t have enough sugar — that they didn’t have enough this that they didn’t have enough that — when people had gone through so much. They were worrying about little trivia. It took me a little while to adjust. I think I needed time to really – to rehabilitate.”

She adjusted to civilian life and, like every other veteran she knew, put her wartime experiences deep inside her and moved on.

“After the war, we were just so glad to get on with our life; to marry the ones we wanted to marry; and to have our families, we never talked about the war. I never heard anyone talk about the war.”

But her wartime experience left a deep impression on her regarding how our nation should use its power.

“I’m very definitely against war, if we can handle it any other way. See, during WWII we were attacked. We had no recourse, really. There was a sense of patriotism that this is what we have to do. It was the thing to do — the honorable thing to do. And if you felt in your heart that you had the ability to do it, you did it. I don’t think any questioned that it was right to do at that time. And it has changed my opinion about how to handle things and to enjoy peacetime – to take care of the needs of people – feeding them and providing for people, rather than killing them. I think if we spread love and care, that’ll take care of some of the anger in our world. Our bombs don’t do it.”

Thank you for your service, Norma Jean.

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

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