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Sunspots: Latheria ‘Jo Ann’ Person

As she talks, I can envision a scene from the movie and popular television show “M.A.S.H.” There’s Hawkeye and Trapper John and “Hotlips” Hoolihan running to the helicopter landing to assess the wounded. Makeshift tents dot the compound below—a mess tent, a shower, a latrine, the “Swamp.” Radar or Klinger frantically man the camp switchboard. But this is not a movie set she describes.

Latheria “Jo Ann” Person was stationed as an Army nurse at the 77TH Field Hospital in Okinawa, Japan. There were 40 cots per tent for casualties. One nurse was assigned to each tent. The tents could be dismantled, moved and reset at a moment’s notice.  This was World War II.

Born on Jan. 29, 1923, in Columbus, Nebraska, Jo Ann was an only child, named Latheria after her mother, grandmother and great grandmother. “My mother liked the name ‘Jo Ann,’ so that’s what I was called.” Parents Alvin “Bud” and Latheria “Babe” Peterson were self-employed.  

After high school, “I had an aunt in San Diego who suggested that I go into nursing,” she said. “In those days women became either teachers or nurses.” She attended Mercy College of Nursing in New York, graduating in 1940.  As World War II began, she worked at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, which was associated with Columbia University. “You worked a certain number of hours at the hospital to earn money for tuition,” she said.

While in New York, she saw a newspaper advertisement for nurses needed in the war effort. “They were going to draft them, but I was politically inclined, so I decided to enlist,” she said. “The Army nurses were a different unit from the WACS (Women's Army Corps). We were all about 21-22 years of age and it was near the end of the war when I enlisted.” Jo Ann entered the Army as a second lieutenant and became a first lieutenant prior to her discharge more than a year later.

“It was an entirely different world,” she said of Okinawa. “We lived on an island in tents with about six other people per tent. We took our baths in the river.”

Jo Ann remembers working alongside “the finest group of men” during the war. “They were polite, helpful and didn’t swear,” she said. “They’d yell ‘nurses coming’ as we approached. We worked long hours, but we also had fun. We went to the beach and on dates. If we went out on a date there was a guard to chaperone to be sure we were treated with respect, and we were treated with respect.”

While she was serving in Okinawa, the atomic bomb was dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, an act that officially ended World War II.

“There were 600 nurses stationed in one spot,” she said. “After the war, our jobs changed. We were moved to other locations like Guam and Korea. Some went home.” Jo Ann was stationed in Korea after the war. “People still got sick and needed medical attention.”

Upon her discharge, “We traveled by ship to Seattle. When we arrived I was wearing men’s boots because I had worn out my shoes. Someone gave me money to buy shoes and people gave us money to buy a meal.” She was admitted for a time to Madigan General Hospital in Tacoma, Wash., prior to returning home.

Of those with whom she served, “there aren’t many left,” she said. She still keeps in contact with a nurse who was assigned with her from Ogilvie, Minn., and now lives in Texas.

Jo Ann graduated in 1948 with a degree in psychology from Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter.

While at Gustavus, she met Lyle Person. “We sat side by side in English class. My last name was Peterson and we were seated alphabetically.” They married in 1948. “I worked for five years in health services at the Minneapolis Star and Minneapolis Tribune.”

The Persons moved to Morris in 1952 and purchased Olson’s Funeral Home, later renamed Olson-Peterson Funeral Home. She worked for five years in the Morris Public Schools as the school nurse as well as for the Morris hospital and clinic.

They lived and raised two children in a home on Lake Crystal. Daughter Sarah (Jeff) Mattheisen still lives in the family home in Morris. Son Peter (Carol) lives in Duluth. There are also three grandchildren—Luke, Nick and Anna. A fourth grandson, Eric, is deceased.

“All the kids who lived on Lake Crystal in those days grew up to be fine young people,” said Jo Ann. “[former University of Minnesota, Morris provost] Rodney Briggs was one of our first neighbors. After that many University people moved into the neighborhood—Grangers, Uehlings, Richards among them. We had an unwritten rule: You could discipline kids if they were in your yard and behaved badly and you could send them home. There were two blocks of kids about the same age. There was no trouble, no fighting.”

The Persons traveled extensively and Jo Ann continued to travel following Lyle’s death. “I’ve been to every country except Australia.”

These days, Jo Ann is still a member of First Lutheran Church in Morris. She’s also a member of the Eastern Star and the American Legion and VFW Auxiliaries.

A resident of West Wind Village, Jo Ann is living with Parkinson’s disease and recently celebrated her 90th birthday. She said an aide asked her what is her secret to long life. Perhaps a throwback to her military training, “I told her I keep my mouth shut, it keeps you out of trouble.”