[Please also see “Mr. Johnson, USMC” if you wish to learn the background of this couple from the Greatest Generation by clicking on the link.]
Well, Marge, you made it indeed… To see your beloved husband Johnnie for Memorial Day.
A heroic US Marine who fought on-board the USS Enterprise in World War II.
And he was but 17 years old when he set sail for the Battle of Midway.
Seventeen. You said he was still in high school when he signed up for the Marines. Unbelievable.
We were met by thousands of American flags being planted by hundreds of Boy Scouts and volunteers. You were so happy to see the red, white and blue saturating the cemetery, bit by bit.
While the Boy Scouts hadn’t made it to your husband’s resting place yet, we had our own little flag… and your beautiful bouquet we were able to pick up along the way. You were so pleased with them but we made it a promise the next bouquet will be the colors of the USMC – scarlett and gold. You knew he would like that. Yes you did.
It was only the Saturday before Memorial Day but you were so elated to see how many people were there already…and we arrived at 10:00 AM! You were worried we wouldn’t be able to find a place to park when someone upstairs opened one up for us.
You were so anxious to visit him that you made it out of my car in record time and walked as quickly as you could!
While you used your stroller to get to the general area of his grave site, we had to leave the stroller and walk the last twenty yards on very saturated ground. You were holding onto my arm so tightly as the muddy earth gave way as we walked. Remember? My shoe sunk into the soil and inch or more.
And when we got there, we couldn’t find any water decanters… They were all being used by the hundreds of other mourners…but by some lucky grace, we ran into Vicky… She had bought 1,000 beautiful flags on her own and her niece was placing them neatly all along the columbine. She went out of her way to find one for you!
Your bouquet was so beautiful, Marge. You said quietly Johnnie – your husband of 66-1/2 years – would like them so much. You miss him dearly, don’t you Marge? I miss him…
And like the last time, on Easter Sunday, you talked with him…
You shared with me again of how he left your life…and you were there for him til the very end… and how alone you felt because you are the last one alive from amongst your friends. There is no one else. You said you still look for Johnnie at your assisted senior care center to ask him a question but he doesn’t answer…
We promised to go back in two months, yes?
I will be calling you because he means so much to you… and it means so much to me.
I wish people would understand your love and devotion.
“She’s the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” said Old Man Jack in a trembling voice and with very wet eyes.
On March 3, 2003. Truly.
He was referring to the F4U Corsair. I had taken him to the Chino Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, CA. The WWII aircraft there – all of them – fly.
That’s right. They get up in the air.
Planes that were engineered with a minimal lifespan as they were meant for combat were still spinning their props for the men who flew them – or worked on them.
Old Man Jack was one of them.
Do you know what these beautiful planes look like? What they may have sounded like to Old Man Jack 70 years ago? Ever see one fly? A vid I took at the Planes of Fame Airshow:
In case you haven’t figured it out, his Corsair is “on the tail” of a famed Zero of the Imperial Japanese Navy in this mock dogfight. I filmed it almost ten years ago at an air show there at Chino Planes of Fame.
Old Man Jack was an “AMM 1/C” during WWII, or “Aviation Machinist Mate First Class”. He could have re-upped after the war and been promoted to Chief Petty Officer but like Mrs. Johnson, Carol would have none of that.
I am not positively sure as Old Man Jack would only give tidbits here and there but he was responsible for the aircraft. Before flight – and while remembering this was at the front lines on “those stinkin’ islands” – he would get into the cockpit and make sure all essential bells and whistles worked after his crew worked on it all night. I also believe he was to pilot one on occasion to maintain his certs. Very simplistically said on my part.
The pilot was headed off into harm’s way. The pilot’s life depended on Jack and his crew. It’s airworthiness.
But one thing is for certain – Old Man Jack said many times “there just weren’t enough spare parts so we had to make do.”
But back to the story…
Our friendship had begun to solidify by then… I had mentioned to him that I was a member of the museum and that he wouldn’t have to worry about me paying for his entry. But that wasn’t why he hesitated. You will see why. And I found out later myself why he was so hesitant.
Back then, the museum’s WWII hangars were divided into the two main theaters of operation: the European and the Pacific – where Old Man Jack was stationed during the thick of things.
We meandered through the European Theater hangar. He recognized them right away. The P-51. The P-47. Others.
He had brought along his “walking chair”; it was light and when folded up, it was a walking aid. If you press down on it a certain way, it would spread out into a little chair. Well, he was doing good…and I was happy.
To get to the Pacific Theater hangar, you would leave the European Theater hangar and mosey across a tarmac.
It was a hot day. Old Man Jack was in a t-shirt. Blue, of course.
We were slowly making it across the tarmac. I knew a Corsair was in there – pretty as the day she rolled off the assembly line. As the hangar door was cracked open, you could see the wing spar.
Then Old Man Jack stopped. At the white “X” marked in the map above. Dead in his tracks.
He propped open his chair.
He sat down.
I was wondering if he was tired. We were out in the sun. Why’d he stop there?
I walked back to him. His hands that still firmly shook your hands were on his knees. His head was bowed down.
Then I saw it.
His shoulders were shuddering a bit at first, then began to bob up and down.
The man who had a barrel chest…the man who worked on these planes as a young man whose bushy eyebrows had turned white with age …was crying.
Deeply. No sounds. He was holding it in…
I walked away.
The plumbing in my eyes broke too.
I think he cried quietly for about a couple of minutes. Out there on the tarmac. In the sun.
Old Man Jack then straightened up. He wiped his eyes.
“Young man, earn your pay. Give me your hand and help me up.”
Old Man Jack was back.
We walked over to her – Jack’s beloved Corsair. His eyes were still wet.
I remember him saying very quietly while trying very hard to hold back his now visible anguish, “I knew a lot of young boys who flew them,” his voice cracking with 70 years of nightmares tormenting him. “Some of them just didn’t come back. I could never stop thinking, ‘Did a Jap get him… or was it me?'”
Nothing more need be said.
That’s when he told me she was the most beautiful girl in the sky. But like any woman, she was a pain to keep happy.
“We didn’t wear shirts because it was so _ucking hot; I’d burn my stomach and chest on that hot metal.” He pointed at the wing spar (the bottom of the “gull wing”) and said, “We would always slip on those damn spars. You never had good footing.”
He then recollected other things. He told me “We’d stick a shotgun shell into a breech under the cowling and fire it off to turn over the engine.” As I surely didn’t know much better back then, I asked why. “Because the dumb son-of-a-bitch who designed the plane didn’t put in a starter. That’s why.” Oh, boy (with a smile). “And if she didn’t turn over, you only had a couple more tries at it before you had to let it cool off.”
Old Man Jack then smiled a bit when he admitted he fell off the wing while taxiing once. “Like a dumb smart ass kid, I stood up on the wing when the pilot was taxiing. You were taught to lay on the wing to point which way to go but (the wing’s surface) was too damn hot so I stood up. We hit a bump and off I came.” (Note: the Corsair’s nose was long to accommodate the powerful engine. It was so long that it obscured the pilot’s forward view during taxi and landing.)
One more thing he said. “There was nothing better than seeing the flight come back after a patrol at wave top, do victory rolls then peel off.” He was a bit choked up.
When we got home, he said to me, “I didn’t know how I would react if I saw something and that’s why I put you off in going. But I feel good about it now. Thank you, young man.”
But we’ve been “at war” against terrorism – both foreign and now domestic – since 2001. More than 11 years.
But the war against Japan started officially for us on December 7, 1941. We were caught flat-footed.
Yet it was over by August 15, 1945.
Incredible. In 3 years, 8 months, 8 days. How could that have happened so quickly (relatively speaking)? Have you ever thought of this timeline?
Well, I have removed my Kevlar flak vest for all you bloggers who love history – and who are immensely more versed and intelligent than I…or is it me?
Below herein is my “Top Ten” list of the reasons why Japan lost the Pacific War…so quickly.
I’d like to hear your opinions, corrections, or teachings.
Hunting season is open. Rubber bullets are most suitable.
1. Long Range Failure of Pearl Harbor Attack
a. Attack plans skewed towards sinking of carriers (which were not there). Genda wanted to insure carriers were sent to bottom and therefore be unsalvageable. Because our carriers were not there, pilots overly concentrated on battleships or other less tactically important ships.
b. The ordnance used by the attacking Japanese was inappropriate for sinking battleships.
c. The first wave of Japanese torpedo bombers – although a complete tactical surprise – was a dismal failure with very few hits.
d. Failed to destroy dry docks and fuel dumps (Hawaii is an island country and had to import all fuel…like Japan).
e. Nearly all ships damaged by the attack were refloated.
f. Insufficient training by Japanese Navy in preparation for attack.
g. Lastly – and for some foolish reason – they attacked on a Sunday morning.
2. Breaking of the Japanese Naval Code and the failure of the Japanese to accept it was broken.
3. 24-hour Repair of USS Yorktown after Coral Sea in Preparation for Battle of Midway.
4. Innovation of US Navy to Use CO2 for Fire Suppression.
a. US Navy would flood fuel tanks on ships with carbon dioxide thereby displacing oxygen before battle.
b. Japanese ships had useless fire suppression systems with fuel right alongside ordnance.
5. Innovation of Rubber-lined Fuel Tanks and Armor Protection for Pilots on US Aircraft
a. “Self-sealing tanks” in wings.
b. Impressive armor shielding for the pilot (especially in the Grumman F6F Hellcat).
c. Japanese planes had neither, leading to insurmountable casualties and easy shoot-downs, i.e., Japanese aircraft would “flame” or disintegrate under withering fire from .50 caliber guns.
6. Battle of Midway
a. Huge tactical gamble by Nimitz in usage of Spruance as task force commander.
b. Tactical decision to launch torpedo planes early on by Spruance. While all but one pilot perished and no torpedoes hit, Mitsubishi Zeroes assigned to combat air patrol were at low altitudes since they shot down the torpedo planes.
c. Dauntless dive bombers (with US fighter cover) were able to dive relatively uncontested and caught Nagumo between launchings with ordnance scattered about.
d. Confusion by Japanese pilots that two US carriers were sunk. In actuality and while eventually sunk, the USS Yorktown had been hit in the first wave but the fires had been put out before the second wave attacked.
e. With the sinking of four Japanese carriers (see Fire Suppression above) and loss of valuable pilots, the Japanese Navy ceased to be an offensive force.
7. Production Might of the US
a. We had eight carriers at time of Pearl Harbor (in the Pacific and the Atlantic) but were down to two after the Battle of Midway.
b. We lost the Wasp, Hornet, Lexington and Yorktown by then.
c. The USS Enterprise was the last operational carrier. The “other” carrier, the USS Langley, was used only for training purposes and was out in the Atlantic.
d. By the time of the invasion of Okinawa in 1945, however, we had over 40 carriers as part of the assault fleet alone.
8. Semi-automatic M1 Garand rifle and the M-2 Flamethrower
a. Japanese military were burdened with reliable but bolt action Arisaka or failure-prone Nambu armaments. (Bolt-action implies the shooter must lower his rifle to load the next round and then re-sight.)
b. The M-1 Garand took an eight-round clip. The round had tremendous stopping power, was rugged and a rifle squad could lay down withering fire with the semi-automatic. The shooter did not have to lower his rifle to load the next round and re-sight.
c. On Iwo Jima and other island battles, the Japanese were rarely seen. As such, the flamethrower was critical for success although accompanied by high mortality rates.
9. The Japanese-American (or “Nisei”) Soldiers in the Top Secret Military Intelligence Service (MIS)
a. MIS secretly accompanied Marines and soldiers for every Pacific Theater amphibious assault or parachuted in with Airborne troops.
b. Nisei’s were the actual soldiers that listened in on Japanese Navy radio transmissions and NOT US Navy personnel. One transmission disclosed details on Admiral Yamamoto’s flight schedule which led to his shootdown.
c. Quickly translated captured major Japanese battle plans for Leyte Gulf (Z-Plan) and allowed for the lop-sided victory at the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”.
d. The invaluable intel provided by the MIS proved to the (generally unsupportive) top echelon that the Japanese military was near operational collapse in many combat areas.
10. The US Marine Corps
OK. So what about the B-29’s or the atomic bombs/fire bombings? Aren’t they some of the reasons Japan lost the Pacific War?
No. Not in my humble opinion.
Historical facts will show that the B-29s were largely ineffective until the time LeMay unleashed the firebombing campaign on March 9, 1945. The first B-29s were deployed out of India and China in the summer of 1944. For the first missions, about 20% failed to reach their target due largely to mechanical trouble. Of the approximately 80% that made it to target, only a couple of bombs actually hit target. Therefore, ineffective results.
Their engines were also prone to overheating in flight. Criminy.
As for the firebombings/atomic bombings, it is my opinion Japan had already lost the Pacific War due to the ten summarized reasons above. Intelligence obtained by the US Army MIS Nisei’s like my dad’s predecessors support that conclusion. When the Nisei interrogated Japanese prisoners at the front lines, it was clear they were nearly without food, water, medical supplies or ammunition. Their morale was also devastated. For instance, Japanese soldiers that surrendered would say, “We were terrified. For every mortar round we would fire at the Marines, ten rounds would come back.” The Japanese needed to make every round count; the Americans didn’t.
Japanese soldiers – dead, wounded or captured – would have uncensored letters from home on their person. After the Nisei translated those letters on the battlefront, they disclosed that their families, too, were without much food or water…and that morale was extremely low.
So some Greek dude said centuries ago that, “In war, truth is the first casualty.”
Pretty smart. But that applies even today – and certainly during World War II.
We were raised with certain textbooks for our history classes. We believed in them. We had no reason not to.
But the truth is, there are many versions of history. Factual versions. Incorrect versions. Factual versions “edited” by the victors. Factual versions written by the losers. And new versions. And versions to further patriotism.
But there is one thing for sure… Said by one of the most brilliant minds this world has known:
“I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Koji, funerals don’t do a damn thing for me anymore.”
That was Mr. Johnson’s reply while I was driving us to Old Man Jack’s funeral. I had asked him to help hold me together as I knew I would fall apart.
“Oh-oh,” I thought to myself when I heard that curt reply. “I guess I hit a nerve…”
Mr. Johnson was Old Man Jack’s next door neighbor.
Nearly SIXTY years. Hell, I ain’t that old yet. Well, I’m close.
They got along real well for those 60 years… except Jack was a WWII sailor… and Mr. Johnson was a WWII Marine. They reminded each other of it often.
Lovingly, of course.
Old Man Jack happily reminisced that “…us white caps would also tussle with them Marines ‘cuz they thought they were better than us”. But Jack would have gotten the short end of the stick if he took on Mr. Johnson. He towered over Jack and me…
And Mr. Johnson was a decorated WWII Marine.
Decorated twice…that I know of.
Our cozy neighborhood called him “Johnnie”. I always addressed him as Mr. Johnson…He used to say, “Damn it, Koji. I wish you’d stop calling me that.”
I never did call him Johnnie. I just couldn’t.
But in the end, we found out his real name was Doreston. Doreston Johnson.
Born August 1, 1923 in Basile, Louisiana. A tiny town, he said, and everyone was dirt broke.
I wish I knew why he wanted to go by “Johnnie” but later, I discovered Doreston was his father’s name.
After Jack passed away, I visited with him. He opened up a bit.
The Depression made it tough on everybody but then war…
When war broke out, he was gung ho like many young boys at that time.
It was expected. You were branded a coward if you didn’t enlist or eluded the draft. You were at the bottom of the heap if you got classified 4F.
He said went to the Army recruiting station. They said they met their quota, couldn’t take him right away and to try again next week.
He then went to the Navy recruiter. They also said pretty much the same thing but that there was an outfit “over there that’ll take ya”.
It was the United States Marine Corps.
The Marines “took him”…right then and there, he said.
Mr. Johnson said, “I was a dumb, stupid kid at that time” – slowly shaking his head…but with a boyish little grin.
It was 1941… When the United States Navy had their backs against the beaches… MacArthur blundered after Pearl Harbor and thousands of soldiers were taken prisoner in the Philippines.
The country’s military was poorly equipped and poorly trained. With outdated equipment like the 1903 Springfield and the Brewster Buffalo. And most gravely, the US Navy was outgunned.