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WWII physical therapist remembers Tinian

WITH four brothers in military service, she wanted to experience what it was like to serve the country. And she did, when she joined the WAAC — the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps.

Mrs. Jean Lit shows a photo of herself taken in 1945, while standing beside a B-29 plane during a recent air show at Southern Illinois Airport. Photos by David ConradWorld War II veteran and retired physical therapist Imogene “Jean” Speegle Lit, 96, served as a member of the WAAC and the medical unit that established five general hospitals in the Marianas during WWII.

Attending an air show at Southern Illinois Airport that featured a B-29 Superfortress brought back memories for Lit, who worked with B-29 pilots and SEABEES personnel.

She was thankful that her neighbor, retired history professor David Conrad, took her to the air show that reunited her with a B-29.

Few of her contemporaries remain, and Lit is grateful that she’s still around. “At my age, I’m still living,” she said.

She told Variety that she doesn’t know of any other female WWII veteran who’s still living.

She shared how she entered the military.

“I had four brothers in service. I decided to go in ... so I could share their experiences,” she said.

She became part of the medical corps.

Lit said that early on, they went to participate in hospital-building to help take care of the wounded.

Imogene “Jean” Speegle Lit poses beside the “Enola Gay” on Tinian in 1945.Asked if she was on Tinian during America’s bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Lit confirmed, “I was there when the bomb was dropped to end the war.”

Lit said the dropping of the bomb was a game changer. “Being on Tinian, we had so many soldiers who were bombing at the time. When the bomb was dropped, we knew that would be changing things.”

She also shared that they had long known that a special bomb would be made, but she said they were not allowed to talk about it publicly.

“We knew that they were planning,” she said.

She told Variety, “The plane that dropped the bomb was called ‘Enola Gay’.”

She remembered that B-29 pilot Col. Paul Tibbets named the plane after his mother.

She fondly recalled posing beside the “Enola Gay” after it returned from its successful mission.

Lit said she learned a lot of things about public health while on Tinian.

“I learned more than the average person would have,” said Lit, adding that she was the only physical therapist present at the time.

She also mentioned trips she made to Saipan and Guam as the hospitals were being built.

Asked how long she was stationed on Tinian, she said, “Not too long.”  She told Variety that she soon moved on to Japan.

“I was in Japan for over a year during the occupation,” she said.

Lit was in Tokyo for a year, where she said they set up a hospital.

She recalled that there were several patients brought in with polio, and Lit said she was the only one who had prior experience with the illness.

Lit also said that while in Tokyo treating patients, she helped train nurses.

Lit notes that not only did they treat American soldiers, they also took care of wounded and sick Japanese.

It was while serving in Tokyo, Japan that Lit met and fell in love with clinical psychologist Alfred Lit.

Mrs. Lit served for three and half years in the WAAC.

The Cullman, Alabama native said that when they returned to the U.S., she married Mr. Lit.

“I married a New Yorker,” she said.

Variety learned they married on January 27, 1947, after they had both been discharged from service at the war’s end.

She said they lived in N.Y. for 10 years and then moved to Michigan, before settling in Southern Illinois in 1962, where her husband worked for Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

“I have been living in this area ever since,” said Lit, adding that she continues to reside in the same house that she and her husband built.

Mrs. Lit, who has been a widow for the last 12 years, lives alone in the house located just outside of Carbondale, Illinois, in the town of Murphysboro.

In a phone conversation with Variety on the Fourth of July, she said she may move to a retirement home.

She cherishes having a wealth of memories from serving during the war.

“I had a good history of experiences,” she said. “Unfortunately I don’t have my immediate family still living.”

She said all of her siblings — sister Pauline Speegle Murray and brothers Clyde Wesley Speegle, John Harold Speegle, Quinton Brice Speegle, Henry Elisa Speegle, and James Raburn Speegle — have passed away.

Looking back, Lit  said she is glad to have served the country and to have shared her brothers’ experiences.

On the role that women played during the war, Lit says she was elated that females were given the opportunity to serve the country. “It was marvelous!”

She said they were needed at the time, initially in hospitals. Then, she said, women became involved in other areas of military service.

For those interested in learning more about the islands where she served, she recommends the book, “The Enola Gay.”

According to Lit, in the book, which has been republished, “You get a lot of history, particularly about Tinian and Guam.”

Now, close to seven decades down the road, Lit tells the members of younger generations to enjoy and celebrate freedom.

“Count your blessings — one by one,” she said.

Lit advises them to not dwell “on what you missed.”

“Cherish what you’ve got,” she said.