Joan Schechner’s fingers turn the pages of a photo album filled with faded black-and-white snapshots.
There are soldiers, grinning, standing shirtless beside a canvas tent. A Christmas tree decorated with foil chewing gum wrappers. A young woman in a bathing suit.
That young woman was Schechner 70 years ago on the Japanese island of Okinawa.Schechner, now 94, and living in Evergreen Park, still owns the bathing suit. Its blue and green stripes remain vivid.
So do her memories of Aug. 15, 1945, and the news that came that day of Japan’s surrender to the Allies, ending World War II — VJ Day.
“I can’t believe it’s been that many years ago,” says Schechner. “It went fast.”
Joan Schechner, 94, is a WWII nurse vet who served in the Pacific theater and remembers the tumult at the news the Japanese had surrendered. She displays the swimsuit she brought with her to war — and still has. | Stefano Esposito / Sun-Times
As wreaths are laid this weekend to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the victory of the American and Allied Forces over Japan, Schechner’s memories turn to when she was a 25-year-old nurse from Chicago who’d spent a year working in a “shock” tent on Okinawa, cleaning grit and grime from American soldiers’ wounds to ready them for surgery. When the news broke that Japan had surrendered, she recalls, pandemonium swept through the encampment of tents and Quonset huts.
“Boy, all hell broke lose,” Schechner says, sitting in a faded pink recliner in her apartment. “Everybody was celebrating.”
No booze, though.
They could have used it. Though she was nowhere near a battlefield, Schechner remembers seeing plenty of bloody wounds, day in and day out, during the steamy 12-hour shifts she worked.
Joan Schechner, 94, seen during her time as a WWII nurse who served in the Pacific theater.
“See, it was hot, and these big old flies would come around and smell the blood and stuff,” she says. “You had to keep those big old flies away.”
Perhaps it’s the passage of time, or maybe it’s because her memories aren’t as sharp as they once were, but Schechner has mostly only good things to say about her time on Okinawa.
“The patients were wonderful,” she says. “They were so thankful for everything you did for them. You were glad that you could help them.”
She can laugh now at some of the memories — including having to eat more Spam and canned “fruit cocktail” in a year than most people consume in a lifetime. “I still eat all of that stuff,” she says.
Oh, and that bathing suit. She bought it in Hawaii on the ocean voyage from the West Coast.
Why, in a war zone, did she think she’d have time to use it?
“I don’t know,” she says. “I figured there would be water.”
Besides, everyone else had one, she says.
Joan Schechner, 94, still has the bathing suit she took with her when she went off to serve in the Pacific as a nurse in World War II.
As it turned out, she got to dip her toes in the surf “maybe four or five times.”
Until about a year ago, Schechner was giving talks to “ladies groups,” Girl Scouts and high schoolers about her experiences during the war. She’d show them her military uniform, the old photographs and a white parachute “one of the guys” at the field hospital on Okinawa gave her so long ago.
“I sent it home to my mother, and she made me a blouse, and I got married in that blouse,” says Schechner.
She doesn’t leave her home much these days. She says she doesn’t feel the need. And though she’s traveled in the United States, she’s never been overseas since the end of the war.
When the question arises about whether she thinks that dropping the atomic bomb was the right thing to do, it’s clear the passage of time hasn’t changed her mind.
“If that was going to end the war, that was what had to be done,” she says. “I feel that way today. I don’t want to still be over there fighting.”