Witness to History Elgin Wartime Nurse Saw the End of WWII, Start of Nuclear Age
Elejalde-Ruiz, Alexia, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz Daily Herald Staff Writer
The planes always flew at night, but not like this. The buzz this night was louder than normal, and more frequent. The nurses, who had been told to stay inside their huts, knew something big must be going on.
But it wasn't until the next day, however, on Aug. 6, 1945, that the voice crackling over the one radio in their camp announced that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima.
The plane carrying the bomb, a B-29 called the Enola Gay, had taken off from Tinian Island, part of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean where Mary "Betty" Loechner, a 22-year-old nurse from Elgin, was stationed.
Loechner called it the best-kept secret of World War II.
"We had no knowledge at all," says Loechner, now 82. "We didn't even know what an atom was."
Loechner was part of the 309th General Hospital Team, a troop of nurses sent to Tinian Island to prepare for the barrage of casualties expected to emerge from an imminent American invasion of mainland Japan. Like most Americans of her generation, she was grateful that detonating the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, and later Nagasaki, ended the war before an invasion took place.
"I'm glad it stopped any more killing on either side," she said.
But it didn't stop the rebellious tomboy from getting the adventure she sought.
Loechner sat in the Enola Gay and visited Nagasaki weeks after the atomic bombing. She waved to soldiers on the USS Indianapolis hours before their ship was swallowed by the Pacific waters and worked nearby as Japan signed its formal surrender.
But with only a radio and rumor to rely on for information, Loechner didn't grasp the historical significance of some of the most momentous developments of the war until she was back in the United States, and could pick up a newspaper.
On a recent hot Monday afternoon, Loechner unfurled the faded American flag that hangs outside the charming white house in Elgin where she's lived for 57 years. Inside, her husband, George, who is confined to a wheelchair, listened to classical music as he sat under framed displays of his medals from World War II, where he fought for almost four years in Italy and North Africa.
Sixty years ago, Betty Loechner was a saucy girl with a penchant for airplanes and a knack for getting away with what she shouldn't do.
Today, her conspiring eyes reveal a love for adventure that's hard to let go.
We were needed
She says she joined the military both because, "We were needed," and because, "If boys can do it, I can, too."
She was among the more than 400,000 women who served in the military in World War II.
Over ginger ale and English toffee cookies, she told her war story.
She graduated from Elgin High School in June 1941, and immediately entered the nursing program at St. Joseph Hospital. She and her childhood friend had been plotting a nursing career since the third grade, mostly because they wanted to be airline stewardesses, which at that time required nursing training.
But the very day Loechner and her friend were "capped," the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
"We decided that day that we'd go into service," Loechner said.
Their last year of nursing school, the girls were among just four of their class to enter the cadet program at Hines Veterans Hospital in Maywood, recently started to encourage more women to join the military. Pay of $1 a month lured more ladies to the challenge, but Loechner said she and her friend needed no cash, and even less encouraging.
"We just wanted to get away from the nuns," she said. "They wouldn't have had to do a thing for me."
Witness to history
It was July 1945, and their destination, at that point, was still unknown when Loechner finally was headed to her first posting out of the county. …