Mr. Johnson, USMC – Part III

I figured if Mr. Johnson wanted to tell me more, he would have.

But as with Old Man Jack, I never asked for more.

I believe that’s how these combat vets want it.

They don’t want to be quizzed about what they said or asked to describe more.

They will tell you some things of what they experienced.  Probably to let the devils out that have been eating away at them for 70 years.

They have a built in limiter to keep more memories from popping back up…the things they saw or did that they try so hard to suppress to stay sane.  Every minute for the rest of their lives.

They deserve that respect.  Always.  And you feel honored they felt enough confidence in your character that you would accept what they were telling you as is.

I feel they appreciated that.

___________________________

I was alone with Old Man Jack during visitation. It was good as I was able to say good-bye in private… The mortuary didn’t invest in good quality Kleenex, though.

Mr. Johnson and I walked together into the little chapel where Old Man Jack’s funeral service was being held.  His flag-draped coffin was proudly presented up front.

It was mostly relatives as all his friends had passed away before him.  I felt distant as I don’t recall ever seeing them visiting with Old Man Jack.  But they were relatives.

Mr. Johnson and I were likely the only ones there outside of family besides a daughter of one of his fellow employees from the old Northrop plant.  We had met once when Old Man Jack was in ICU from a tremendously bad intestinal infection.

His only daughter Karen was busy going over things with the reverend.  You will have to excuse me if I used the wrong term for him; it was a Christian service and I am not.

Mr. Johnson and I sat next to each other in the back row.

__________________________

Here is Old Man Jack on our tiny patio deck, in his trademark blue plaid shirt losing another “chat” with his only child, Karen. I’m sure – in spite of his boasts – he lost to his lovely wife in a similar fashion through the years… Hence, “A man ain’t got a chance.

Karen finally approached us.  It was good to see her again.  I hadn’t seen her since she moved Old Man Jack up to their mountain home just five months earlier.

We greeted and it was already tough not to shed a tear.  She then said, “Koji, we have enough young relatives here to be pallbearers but I know you and dad were close.  I think he would like it very much if you would be one of his pallbearers.”

I looked at Mr. Johnson.  I guess I was unknowingly seeking his acceptance knowing they both fought a bitter war together.

Mr. Johnson smiled and nodded his head as if he knew I was asking him if it would be OK.

It was emotional.  My eye plumbing was already leaking a bit before but it broke loose.

After Old Man Jack fought on “those stinkin’ islands” and had nightmares for the remainder of his life, I was now going to help carry this great American on his last journey.

I kept the gloves in memory of Old Man Jack and the honor he allowed me.

It is a mark of the Greatest Generation.  Forgiveness.  Honor to the end.

_________________________

Just a short vid of the flag presentation to Jack’s daughter.  (I apologize for the video quality but they only sell the video cameras with the little swing out screen now.  It’s hard to get used to and hard to see the image in bright sun…and impossible to hold still…but towards the end, you can see Mr. Johnson sitting right behind her.)

I wondered what was going through Mr. Johnson’s mind after saying to me earlier “…funerals don’t do a damn thing for me anymore”.

He didn’t get teary-eyed once.  A true Marine, I thought.  I also briefly felt he had his mind on other pressing matters.

I was about to find out.

__________________________

After the ceremony, I helped Mr. Johnson back to my car.  He hadn’t said much at all nor showed ANY emotion.

I opened the car door for him; it would be a struggle for him to get back into my low-slung machine with his bad back and unsteady legs.

But he stopped short of getting in.  He towered over the roof of the car as he was standing on the curb next to other graves.  I remember clearly his right arm was on the roof of the car and his left was seeking support from the top of the passenger door glass.

Then he spoke.

“Koji, I’m sorry I was so curt with you in the car…when I said funerals don’t do a damn for me anymore.  I hope you’ll let me explain why.”

I didn’t know what was coming.  He continued but he had that look on his face.  The same glassed-over gaze Old Man Jack had when he was going to talk about something he was trying to forget.

“Koji, the Japs jumped us and they jumped us good.  Real good.  We were caught out in the open.  We had fighter cover but there was just a shit load of them.  Just too many.  They were coming down at us from every which way.”

He mimicked with his right hand that he had elevated towards the sky toy planes – just like we did when we were kids.  But these weren’t toys that day.  He was reliving a battle…but he didn’t say where or when.  Just like Old Man Jack.

“They just kept coming and coming.  We took a bad licking.  A real bad one.  We just kept reloading and firing at them.

We lost a lot of good men.”

He stopped for a moment.  He never once said he was on the Big E.

“I got put in charge of the Burial Detail.  There weren’t too many of us left that could get around.”  He was, I assume, talking about his fellow Marines.  He was a Private at that time and at the Battle of Santa Cruz; you will find out later how I discovered that.  But it’s not good when a young Marine private who was in boot camp just months earlier gets put in charge of a burial detail on board the greatest lady of the sea.

“I don’t know who the son-of-a-bitches were.  They were wrapped up in canvas and a shell would be put inside at their feet to weight them down.  Then we’d dump them over the side.  We’d salute.  Then we’d do it again…and again…and again.  I don’t remember how many times I saluted.  I didn’t keep count.  But that’s why funerals don’t do much for me anymore.  I had been in enough of them.”

__________________________

I was left humbled and voiceless.  Too late I realized Mr. Johnson WAS having sickening thoughts running through his mind – from the time when I asked him to help hold ME together.

And I was ignorant to even think he had his mind on other pressing matters during the funeral.

With that selfish request, I instead helped unleash some vile memories within him.

__________________________

Mr. Johnson himself would pass away shortly thereafter.

More to come in Part IV.  I hope you’ll stay tuned.

21 thoughts on “Mr. Johnson, USMC – Part III”

  1. Oh Koji. How powerful. But I get the feeling from your telling of the story that he wouldn’t have said a word if he hadn’t of needed to say anything. It sounds like he found a voice when with you. I’m waiting for the rest. Thank you for your very tender care of these valiant soldiers.

    1. Well, I feel its more like what most combat veterans are like. They do chat about everyday things but they (normally) avoid talking about the war. They just want to forget.

      As for the “voice with me”… He, along with Jack, knew WWII history was a passion of mine. Not for the violence but for the resulting world from it. I do feel Mr. Johnson felt bad about curtly answering me. He is quite the gentlemen and very learned. He was successful in life and lived very modestly. But I tried to be there when they needed me…as I hope you will soon read.

      For the record… Neither Old Man Jack or Mr. Johnson EVER called me the “J” word or saw me as one. It only came out when they recalled the past and when it did, they were simply the enemy that was out to kill them. I know you know that but I wanted others to see… 😉

      1. I do understand, and I hope others do. It seems obvious (at least to me) that they respected you fully. To be able to relate things to you in an honest fashion and know that you understood their point of reference.

        I appreciate learning about this. Your posts about these men bring the history of that time to us, today. THough we “learned” of the this war, most of us alive today don’t “know” it. And we never will, not like your father and these men know it. But this makes it more personal.

        When I read posts like this one, I don’t see these “old” veterans. I envision the young man on that ship. You made that very real in such a clear and simple statement Koji.

  2. i worked as a care aid and looked after seniors for a time and i’ll never forget the one story a gentleman in my care told me of his experience. he was crying as he told it as was i. i looked at him and thanked him for fighting. what a powerful moment that was for both of us. it changed me, it broke my heart.

  3. I agree with Chatter Master, Koji. I am sure that the deep respect and admiration you have for these heroes really is a gift for them in their final years. What amazing men. I am glad to have had the chance to know them a bit through you. Debra

    1. Thank you, Debra. Indeed, it was an honor for me…and they are all slipping away. If you know one from that period, befriend them. It may be one of the most rewarding things you may experience. 😉

  4. Hi Koji. It is midnight here and I was just browsing before turning in when I came across this story. I know the degree of respect you have for these men and your words really convey the hell they went through, the things they saw, not as wise old men, but as kids, dealing with things no-one should have to deal with. It is good that you add these accounts, this is the last opportunity we have to hear them from those who were there.

    Ian

    1. Thanks, Ian, as always. And as I mentioned to you in return, it would be nice to read about your own father’s sacrifices – physical and mental – during the war but from the other side of the “pond”.

  5. Koji, I was just thinking of Jack and Mr Johnson when I came across this collection on Flickr yesterday of another Marine at Bougainville. I think it might interest you. Read them in order. Keith

    NAK Letter Home from New Caledonia 1943-05-21

    Kelley Totems

  6. A deeply heartening story that should be repeated more often – not only to inspire more veterans to tell their experiences, but as you said Koji – it is good for them to cry. Wishing the US Marine Corps a very Happy Birthday right along with you!

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