Just two months after Old Man Jack passed away, so did the young boy who stood in the US Marine Corps Recruiting Station in Louisiana in 1942.
The man who told me funerals don’t do a damn for him anymore.
Mr. Johnson was gone.
The neighborhood was in shock. I had waved to Mr. Johnson just three days earlier while he and Marge gingerly got out of their car. I said in a louder than normal voice from across the street: “We’re still on for breakfast on Saturday, right Mr. Johnson?” We were to go have breakfast and chat about Old Man Jack – and perhaps learn more of Mr. Johnson. Instead, he died suddenly just three days later. Three days.
After 66-1/2 years of marriage, Marge was now a widow. A sudden illness took his last breath away when bombs could not 70 years earlier. He was 89 years old.
Marge surprised me when she asked if I would video Mr. Johnson’s funeral. I told her it would be my privilege. I was elated to be of some service to her.
After Old Man Jack’s funeral, Mr. Johnson invited me over after I got home from work that night. That was when he volunteered that story about how “he got suckered into becoming a Marine”. Lovingly, of course. You could tell he had esprit de corps in his blood to that day. He was proud of not having BEEN a Marine, but of BEING a Marine. He had all the right to be.
He also talked about how he met Marge. What a wonderful story it was. I will try to capture the essence of what he told me.
By early 1944, Mr. Johnson (now a sergeant) had been taken off the front lines to recover from his grave wounds. He was “pretty messed up,” as he put it. Didn’t say much more. He was put in charge of the motor pool at Camp Pendleton during convalescence.
The base commander’s wife, a proper lady, he said, had come to the motor pool to get her car fixed up. Mr. Johnson said it was a beat up Chevy especially on the inside but it was better than most for those times.
After she commented on the car’s condition, Mr. Johnson said he’ll do his best to make it more presentable.
He had come to know an upholsterer in Oceanside so Mr. Johnson arranged for the interior to get tidied up some. He also had it painted. She was elated.
I wish I had jotted down the commander’s name. Darn.
Sometime towards the latter part of ’44, he said, there was some scuttlebutt about a big operation that was brewing.
But then, the base commander called Mr. Johnson into his office.
“Johnnie,” he said, looking through his file, “you’re pretty used up. I’m sending you to rehabilitation.”
So off he went. While Mr. Johnson used “a hospital out in San Bernardino” as a description, the hospital was likely somewhere near the mountains because he mentioned Lake Arrowhead.
As I write this, there is a good probability it was Naval Hospital, Norco, as it was officially called back then.
During rehabilitation, he ventured to a USO dance being held at the hospital. The USO was such a morale booster for these young men. Mr. Johnson was no exception.
There, against the wall, he said, was this pretty young thing. It was Marge. She was studying to become a nurse…which she did.
…and if I understood him correctly, they got married the day after he got discharged from the Corps in 1945. It sounded like if Marge just didn’t want a husband that would go off to war, let alone as a Marine. She got her way, of course:
Don’t you think they are a gorgeous couple? A gift of chance… and war.
(As a historical note, the “scuttlebutt” ended up to be… Iwo Jima. Part of the 3rd Marine Division, Mr. Johnson said that in a way, he was glad he didn’t go… Not that he DIDN’T want to go but because of what the Marines horribly found out after the first waves landed ashore. He learned from the Marines that made it back that all vehicles that went ashore in the first couple of days were sitting ducks for enemy artillery. This was made worse by all the volcanic ash being spewed up by the artillery rounds, just choking off the engines just minutes later because it would clog up the air filters. Some of boys were burned alive, he was told, after their vehicles got hit…in the same vehicles he was in charge of at Camp Pendleton.)
One reason why I was never able to find any military record on Mr. Johnson became obvious on his funeral day; that’s when I – and the other neighbors – found out his name wasn’t Johnnie, but Doreston.
I was partially successful in videotaping Mr. Johnson’s funeral. It wasn’t as smooth as I wanted it to be for Marge’s sake. There was a bit of disorganization and miscommunication, too. Many of us following the hearse were just waiting in our cars wondering what to do next…when I saw the Marine burial detail getting ready to escort Mr. Johnson’s urn to a covered area. Time for a mad dash.
A couple of notes about the video below if you wish to watch…
I’m not much an editor but I managed to insert the “Marine’s Hymm” from my all-time Marine Corps classic, “Sands of Iwo Jima”. Gives me goose bumps every time. It starts a bit after the 1:00 mark.
There is some footage at the National Medal of Honor Memorial; Mr. Johnson would be interred just yards away. Sgt. Hartsock is my friend’s first husband who was posthumously bestowed the Medal of Honor. You will also see the names of some of the 22 Nisei’s who were also bestowed the Medal of Honor during WWII.
The bugler you see is a long-time friend of Mr. Johnson. I understand he is also in his 80’s and volunteers his services everyday. A very fitting and personal tribute.
This was also the first 21-gun salute I was ever able to have the honor to witness in person. I am glad it was for Mr. Johnson:
During this time, and now armed with his true first name, I was pretty determined to uncover some of his unspoken valor during the Solomon Islands Campaign and the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands…and I was partially successful.
These are two pages from CINCPAC’s official, confidential after battle report. They were called “War Diaries” and are daily operational journals created by various naval commands throughout the Navy during WWII (The Marine Corps is an arm of the US Navy). I was only able to find this single battle report for the Solomon Islands Campaign:
I do NOT know for sure if Mr. Johnson fought on the islands but Old Man Jack never mentioned anything except him serving on the Big E…
As for Mr. Johnson’s wounds, Old Man Jack muttered once “Johnnie was hit twice. The last time was pretty bad.” He didn’t say more.
But Mr. Johnson collapsed at his house in 2011. Marge called me over to help while waiting for the ambulance. Mr. Johnson was on his side, left hand gripping the bed sheets and right arm pinned in under his body. He was too big for me to lift him off the floor by myself. So I yelled, “C’mon, Marine! Get your sorry ass off this floor!” Seriously. With that, he grunted, grabbed the bed sheets one more time, and together, we got his upper body onto his bed…
But in the process, I saw his chest.
Tears of Remembrance and Closing
Two days after the funeral, I had finished putting the video together for Marge. We watched it together on my laptop as she didn’t have a DVD player that worked. Dry eyes had to take a back seat. She was so grateful.
But she called me at work a couple of days later. She asked if I could stop by after work again…and show her the video one more time. I was so surprised by her request…but so happy. She must have liked it.
When I played it for her – and when the “Marine’s Hymm” from the John Wayne iconic classic “Sands of Iwo Jima” began playing, her left hand began to rhythmically and softly beat to the theme song… ever so softly. Then her head bobbed along with the beat. That broke me.
She asked me again to explain the page from the Solomon Islands Battle Report which clearly states how he valiantly fought and incurred his wounds… Then when the 21-gun salute played on the screen, that was it… She broke down. I cannot imagine how large those floodgates may have been for her emotionally.
She thanked me immensely…
But it was so humbling as it was me who wanted to thank her and her husband… the same young boy in that Louisiana recruiting station who did what he had to do… and had enough humanity left in him to forgive.
“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 sailor… and Mr. Johnson was a 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.
The 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.
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.
But 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.
At times, I mix in Memorial Day with it… I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
They will always be veterans in my eyes.
Dad at Miyajima, Hiroshima in the spring of 1949. I now have a bad case of “tennis elbow” and can’t retouch:
He was part of the US 8th Army’s Military Intelligence Service and served during Occupied Japan. Being a “kibei”, he translated during the War Crimes trials, interrogated Japanese soldiers being released by Russia, Korea, Manchuria and China and translated Japanese war documents for intelligence.
Dad today with my two littlest kids:
Went to pay our respects to Old Man Jack. Sun was just too low in the sky for a good pic… 😦 Miss you, Jack.
And went to see good ol’ Bob, too… What a kind, great man he was.
One of the few times Old Man Jack would tell me what island something happened on, it would be humorous – as humorous as he could make it.
He HAD to laugh off some of the horror. He needed to survive being under attack by his own thoughts.
On January 16, 2011, eleven months before he passed away, we decided to go to Denny’s for breakfast. He hated that place – except for their (gawd awful) coffee. He loved their coffee. And he complained about the coffee on the islands. Imagine that. Denny’s coffee couldn’t have tasted that much different. Denny’s uses ocean water, too, you know, for their distinctive flavor. Perhaps that is why he liked their coffee.
“Green Island” was Jack’s last combat station when he earned enough points to be rotated back home. He told me when they yelled out his name, he just ran straight onto this makeshift pier where a PBy was starting up. He jumped in wearing only his shorts and boots. They took off. He was on his way home.
(Click here if you wish to see official US Navy photos of Green Island when Old Man Jack was stationed there.)
In my internet research, I did come across some detailed battle history of Green Island. I printed it out and not knowing how he would react (even after 11 years of friendship), I presented it to him before the (gawd awful) coffee came. I didn’t want him to be TOO alert in case things didn’t go well. 🙂
Well, you can see his reaction. He was “tickled and pickled” I went through the trouble.
During breakfast, he told me about one detail he was assigned to on Green Island – the digging of new holes for latrines. Never mind my eggs were over-easy. But he’s gone through hell whereas I was spared. This was everyday fare for him.
He told me he picked out two “dumb new guys” who thought they knew everything for the detail. They went out where the other “used up” latrines were. He ordered them to start digging new holes in this hard coral-like stuff not too far from the other “used up” holes while he “supervised”.
I knew I would get his goat if I interrupted him. That was part of the fun.
So I interrupted him. For fun.
“Jack…dig? Why didn’t you just have them make a small hole then throw in a grenade?”
Well, I asked for it… in Denny’s… on a busy Saturday morning.
“You dumb shit,” he declared with that boyish grin. “YOU could have been one of the dumb new guys. YOU would have fit right in. We didn’t need any more craters! We had LOTS of craters – all around us! So we dug holes like we were ordered to. So shut up and listen!”
Whooo-ee. That was fun… in Denny’s… on a busy Saturday morning.
I never asked him if he read the history on Green Island. Later on, though, Old Man Jack said he had wanted to go back to those “stinkin’ islands” just to see. It felt as if he wanted to let some demons out.
He never made it back.
Perhaps he’s there now saluting his young buddies he had to leave behind.
Very little outdoes short blurts of wisdom from a World War II combat vet. Nothing fancy-shmancy. No big words. Just good ole salty sailor speak. To the point. He earned that right.
Some of his wisdom will be shared here and there without censorship to honor his generation. You will appreciate that. “If you don’t, I don’t give a shit,” as he would lovingly say.
But there is regret. Regret that I did not video Old Man Jack more often. I have excuses. Many excuses…but they all lead to regret.
A couple of months before he secretly moved away, he was lamenting. Lamenting on apparently losing his long battle with his daughter.
In short, he wanted to live out his life in his home of 58 years. His home across the street from me.
It wasn’t to be. His daughter wanted him to move “up” to Big Bear where she lived. So she could take care of him. That was the battle.
This day, he knew he would be leaving his beloved home. He knew in his heart.
I did have my Droid and managed to turn on the darn contraption in time as we were talking. I sensed an “Old Man Jack-ism” coming. It even recorded and properly saved it. I even uploaded it properly. Amazing. It was meant to be.
He was in his beloved wife’s wheel chair… In his beloved blue plaid shirt with a pocket for his glasses. I thought he was joking about women in general but realized after he moved the significance of what he said that day.
When arguing with women, “A man ain’t got a chance.”
Gotta love this great American.
Short Stories about World War II. One war. Two Countries. One Family