Rock County veteran eager to see World War II memorialLUVERNE — Johnnie Johnson is fondly referred to as a triple-decker by some of the staff at the Royal C. Johnson Veterans Administration Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D. The nickname refers to the collection of medals Johnson earned while serving in World War II — the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Navy Commendation.
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
LUVERNE — Johnnie Johnson is fondly referred to as a triple-decker by some of the staff at the Royal C. Johnson Veterans Administration Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D. The nickname refers to the collection of medals Johnson earned while serving in World War II — the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Navy Commendation.
Johnson, of Luverne, is among more than 60 World War II veterans who have already submitted applications to take part in the first ever Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight, planned in the spring of 2010. World War II veterans will be flown to the nation’s capital free of charge to view their memorial in a whirlwind, two-day trip. Fundraising is just getting under way to provide the trip for up to 120 veterans.
Sitting in his home on East Warren Street earlier this week, just a few blocks down from where he grew up on West Warren Street, Johnson said he just wants to see all of the names of his fellow comrades etched in stone in the World War II memorial, which was completed in 2004.
With the exception of the four years he served in the war, and a brief stint in Worthington, Johnson is a life-long resident of Rock County. He was 21 years old when he and a trio of other guys from Luverne went to Sioux Falls to enlist in the service. Two of the guys didn’t pass the test and were sent home, but Johnson and Lloyd Licht were accepted. Each enrolled in the Navy.
“I’d seen so much of the Army fighting, and the Navy recruiter said we’d never have to crawl on our hands and knees, but we crawled on our hands and knees just to survive,” he said.
Johnson completed his basic training in San Diego, Calif., while Licht went elsewhere. The two men never saw each other again.
As he awaited assignment to a ship, Johnson worked briefly as a photographer on the California naval base. Then, in early 1942, a unit commander offered him the opportunity to work on the fleet oiler USS Sangamon. The ship was destined for Guadalcanal, a province of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
En route to their destination, one of the men on board contracted spinal meningitis and died, resulting in a quarantine placed on the entire ship. When the quarantine was lifted, the ship headed toward some of the smaller islands in the South Pacific.
“The Japs had taken over so many of them,” Johnson recalled.
His job aboard the USS Sangamon was to work in the 100-octane gas room, managing the fuel hose and aviation fuel tank for America’s military airplanes needing to refuel.
“One thing about the fuel system that people don’t know — for every gallon of fuel that went out, a gallon of water replaced it,” Johnson said. The water sank to the bottom and left the remaining fuel floating on top, while also keeping the ballast of the ship on an even keel.
Two electric and two saltwater turbines were used to pump the fuel to the hangar deck and the flight deck, several decks above the fuel room.
Because of his job several decks below sunlight, Johnson was often unaware of what was going on around the ship during its journeys, unless it was under attack. When that happened, orders were sounded throughout the ship.
From 1942 through 1945, the USS Sangamon earned eight Battle Stars. Johnson’s personal display of the honors he earned includes the Philippine Liberation, American campaign, Asiatic Pacific, Good Conduct and World War II medals, along with the Combat Action ribbon.
The battle of his life
May 4, 1945, started out just like any other day aboard ship. Johnson said they were headed toward Japan’s mainland when orders were sounded that the USS Sangamon was under attack.
“This was supposed to be our last encounter with the Japs,” he said.
The attack, etched in history as the Battle of Okinawa, began at approximately 7 p.m. when Japanese kamikazes — suicide pilots — organized their attack. According to historical accounts, the first kamikaze missed its mark and hit the water about 25 feet from the ship. A short time later, at 7:33 p.m., a Kamikaze dropped his bomb on the center of the flight deck and flew his plane right into the target.
Fires broke out everywhere, and Johnson and his comrades worked to protect the fuel tank from exploding by spraying carbon dioxide onto the steel tank. When the work was done, they crawled through a tube up two decks to get to the weather deck. They were trapped there because the hatch was locked, and had to wait until a first lieutenant came along and opened the door.
It was when the door opened that Johnson’s memory goes blank. When the fresh air hit the space where they were standing, a fire ball erupted and burned the sailors from head to foot. They passed out immediately, and Johnson remained unresponsive for quite a while.
The men were transported to a forward dressing room, created to treat the injured, and were packed in skin grafting grease to keep the air from reaching their bodies.
Johnson remembers the horrible smell of the grease, the inability to see, hear or talk and the words of his skipper when he said, “I brought you out here, and I’m going to bring you home.”
“They kept us doped up for a long while — at least a couple months,” Johnson said. “They kept us wrapped up like a mummy.”
Today, Johnson has little scarring to remind him of that harrowing day back in 1945.
Good with the bad
While there was little to celebrate among soldiers and sailors fighting in World War II, Johnson said they did what they could to cheer each other up during their nearly four years aboard ship. After successfully securing an island and chasing the Japanese away, the men were treated to beer parties on the island.
Then there were the day-long initiation rituals each time the ship crossed the equator. Johnson said the clippers were brought out by the seasoned sailors, and the newbies had to get their heads shaved with the dull blades of the device. Johnson described the feeling as getting your hair yanked out by the handfuls.
“It’s a wonder what you do for entertainment sometimes,” he said.
Perhaps the best memory Johnson has of his time at war was the USO tour stop by comedian Bob Hope and a beautiful female entertainer, Frances Langford.
“They didn’t have much power for the mics,” recalled Johnson, adding that Langford wasn’t sure what to do on stage because the guys couldn’t hear her.
“One guy said, ‘Just stand there, lady!’” Johnson said with a smile.
“They hadn’t seen a woman for so long,” said his wife, Rose.
Johnson said the USO tour performers like Hope deserve a lot of credit because of the risks they took to perform for the troops.
“Even guys on the island would swim out and throw hand grenades at the ship,” he said.
Johnson gets a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face when he tells the story of the ship’s mascot, a mixed-breed dog smuggled aboard by a sailor while the ship was docked in San Diego. Sangie, as she was named, could climb a ladder faster than any man and didn’t hesitate one bit to guard the lookout station with her fellow sailors.
“She had all the medals, plus the Purple Heart,” Johnson said. Well ... all but one medal, that is. Unlike many of her sailor counterparts, Sangie was never bestowed the medal of good conduct. She got into a little trouble during the ship’s brief docking for repairs at the San Diego port, and several months later, back out at sea, she gave birth to a litter of puppies.
“We sent her puppies with destroyers as they came to refuel,” Johnson said with a smile. “The people on the destroyers were so tickled to get the puppies.”
Proud to serve
Johnson has been on the waiting list to take part in the Honor Flight since last spring, when he submitted his application to join a contingent from South Dakota. When that flight was filled, there were about 50 men from southwest Minnesota who were told their trip would be delayed.
The second born of five sons, and among three who served during World War II, Johnson is the only one in his family who served in World War II who is still living. His oldest brother was drafted, while his younger brother enlisted in the Navy and was stationed on a submarine. Johnson dreams of seeing the World War II memorial that honors all three of them for their war-time efforts.
About a month ago, the day before Thanksgiving in fact, Johnson learned he has lung cancer. This week, he was to return to the VA hospital in Sioux Falls to discuss the course of treatment, which will likely be radiation. Just as he fought to do his part in the war, Johnson will fight this cancer too. After all, he is on a mission — a mission to see his memorial.