[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.
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.
The carnage he was to experience would be absent even from the worst possible nightmare a nineteen year old boy can possibly have dreamed.
Violence no young boy of 19 should have to endure.
He would have two lives after he stepped into that Marine Corps recruiting station: one of reality during the day and of a nightmare he would never awaken from at night.
I was not close to Mr. Johnson as I was to Old Man Jack; perhaps it was because for the first five years after I moved into this patriotic Naval neighborhood, he and his good wife Marge traveled about the US in their motorhome. They were gone for perhaps six to eight months out of the year. Man, did they enjoy seeing the US of A. After all, he fought for her.
He stayed indoors most of the time when at home while Marge would walkabout during the warm summer nights with her wine and chat with neighbors and me. She enjoyed her Chablis very much. Slowly, her legs would give way to age. Mr. Johnson’s, too.
In the early part of 1942, Mr. Johnson found himself on a little boat out in the middle of the Pacific – the Big E.
The USS Enterprise.
She was one of only three operational carriers in the Pacific. The Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown.
The Battle for Midway
He was on his way to the Battle of Midway (Mr. Johnson did not tell me that. Old Man Jack did.). June of 1942.
A tremendous gamble of scarce naval assets and young men by Admiral Nimitz.
PFC Doreston “Johnnie” Johnson manned her anti-aircraft batteries as a US Marine.
Thousands of young lives were lost during the most critical sea battle – on both sides. But the critical gamble paid off for the US. The Japanese Imperial Navy lost four carriers. They would never recover.
But we lost the Yorktown. A tremendous loss for the United States…but the tide of war changed.
Miraculously, the Enterprise escaped damage.
And as far as I understand, so did the young boy from Basile, Louisiana, Mr. Johnson.
At least physically.
Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands Campaign
His next trial would be Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands campaign.
It would be an insult to to all the brave men that were there if I were to even try and express in writing what brutal sea combat was like.
I was not there. But every young man there thought – every second – that there was a bomb coming at him. Constantly.
Like hearing shrapnel from near bomb misses ricocheting off the batteries – or striking flesh. The deafening, unending thundering of “whump-whump-whump” from AA batteries. The yelling. The sound of a mortally wounded enemy plane crashing into the water nearby with a likewise young pilot. The screams of wounded or dying boys.
This is taken from a naval summary: “After a month of rest and overhaul, Enterprise sailed on 15 July for the South Pacific where she joined TF 61 to support the amphibious landings in the Solomon Islands on 8 August. For the next 2 weeks, the carrier and her planes guarded seaborne communication lines southwest of the Solomons. On 24 August a strong Japanese force was sighted some 200 miles north of Guadalcanal and TF 61 sent planes to the attack. An enemy light carrier was sent to the bottom and the Japanese troops intended for Guadalcanal were forced back. Enterprise suffered most heavily of the United States ships, 3 direct hits and 4 near misses killed 74, wounded 95, and inflicted serious damage on the carrier. But well-trained damage control parties, and quick, hard work patched her up so that she was able to return to Hawaii under her own power.”
“Repaired at Pearl Harbor from 10 September to 16 October, Enterprise departed once more for the South Pacific where with Hornet, she formed TF 61. On 26 October, Enterprise scout planes located a Japanese carrier force and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Island was underway. Enterprise aircraft struck carriers, battleships, and cruisers during the struggle, while the “Big E” herself underwent intensive attack. Hit twice by bombs, Enterprise lost 44 killed and had 75 wounded. Despite serious damage, she continued in action and took on board a large number of planes from Hornet when that carrier had to be abandoned. Though the American losses of a carrier and a destroyer were more severe than the Japanese loss of one light cruiser, the battle gained priceless time to reinforce Guadalcanal against the next enemy onslaught.
Regardless of who is correct – and we’ll never know for obvious reasons – Enterprise gunners shot down more planes at Eastern Solomons in 15 minutes and at Santa Cruz in 25 minutes than did the vast majority of all battleships, carriers, cruisers and destroyers throughout the entire war.
She was the last operating carrier in the Pacific.”
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the violence of World War II, perhaps these photos will give you an idea.
Try – just try – to imagine you are on that ship… Nineteen years old. The Japanese planes are shooting at you and dropping bombs on you. Dead and wounded boys are everywhere. Fires are raging… The ship is listing…and through all this, you must continue to man your anti-aircraft guns… Protecting the ship and the lives of your fellow Americans.
Remember these young boys. I always will.
Mr. Johnson was one of them.
Mr. Johnson was one of those wounded.
And I have proof of his valor and guts on board as a US Marine.
“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.