PERRYVILLE — Blanche Johnson was studying at the Deaconess School of Nursing in Evansville, Ind., when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. She had no idea then that what President Franklin D. Roosevelt so famously proclaimed "a date which will live in infamy" would become a defining moment in her life as much as in the lives of an entire generation.
So, what possessed a young woman — 21 years old and fresh out of nursing school — to go to war?
Johnson is sitting on a comfortable chair in a warm room just off the summer kitchen of her Perryville home. She reports her age as 86, but the longer she talks about the era of her life shaped by that infamous day, the more the years slip away from her until she begins to seem like a young woman in a starched white uniform preparing to go to the other side of the world.
She and her classmates had signed up to help with the Red Cross after passing the state board exam, she says, when she got a call from the Army and agreed to lend a hand for six months.
“It was just the ‘Air Corps’ then, not a separate entity as it became later,” she says. “I went to basic first. Lowry Field in Colorado. Then to Kessler in Biloxi, Miss., where we were at a regional hospital. We went to the beach a lot there, and I loved it. I was there for nine months.”
So much for a six-month hitch.
From there, the Army sent her to Harmon Field in Texas for nine months to stage for overseas.
Johnson says the Army taught her an amazing amount in the months leading up to her deployment, which she says she certainly didn’t expect when she signed up.
“I never knew as much about nursing again as I did the day I graduated from nursing school,” she says, shaking her head.
Johnson’s ride overseas was courtesy of the USS Hope, a hospital ship manned by a Navy crew but carrying Army medical teams, called into service to provide medical care in the Pacific theatre during the height of the war with Japan.
“Hospital ships were not supposed to be bombed,” she says. “We had a mine sweeper in front of us, but the bay was just full of sunken ships and the paint wasn’t yet dry from where the last suicide bomber had crashed into the ship. There had been a burial at sea, I remember, so people died on the ship.”
She remembers sitting with other nurses in the shade of lifeboats suspended over them, playing cards, not knowing what to expect as they made their way through hostile waters.
“We were coming into Manila when the war ended — for VJ Day,” she says.
Between the events set into motion on Dec. 7, 1941, and VJ Day on Aug. 14, 1945, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
Johnson was one of the many sent to Japan to help rebuild in the aftermath of what she believes was a good decision. “It was an awful thing to do to people, but I thought it was the right thing because it ended the war,” she says. She doesn’t recall any animosity toward her from the Japanese people and says that, war ended, she felt no disdain for them, either. “We were there to help them, and they knew this,” she says.
One of the many things Johnson had learned in the past couple of years in service to her country was that she was good at her job and that the opportunities would keep coming. Next would be a promotion to captain and a three-year commitment likely followed by another promotion and another three years. Johnson knew she could easily see herself missing the life she had planned by getting caught up in the unexpected life she had stepped into as part of the war effort. She walked away.
Once home, she came to Kentucky to visit some of her Army nurse friends. There was a man, James Johnson, they thought she should meet who also has just come home from the service.
“I was barefoot and wearing a wrap, and I said, ‘Why should I get dressed up?’”
He devastated her, so much so that even today she flushes remembering him standing there in his suit and tie. “He was just so good-looking,” she says.
They married in 1946 and had four children in seven years. They made a life together in Perryville.
He has been dead, she says, for more than two years now. “I sure do miss him,” she says.
James Johnson, a life-long farmer and insurance adjuster, had been awarded five bronze stars and a Silver Star for his service.
The walls of Blanche Johnson’s warm room are covered by silhouettes of little ones and family photos and obvious gifts collected during a life well-lived. A long-ago house fire destroyed all of her ribbons and medals directly related to the course her life took because of events that began 70 years ago today.