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Luckiest veteran alive

Harold Johnson reflects on World War II experiences - Pearl Harbor

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Monday marks the 74th anniversary of the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor.  Harold Johnson was there - literally fighting for his life.  Harold Johnson is pretty low-key for a gentleman who has survived some of the most illustrious battles in maritime history. He talks about his World War II adventures with a certain nonchalance, the way a person in a banal job might talk about a period of time in the office.  But Johnson's office was the sea, which even during calm-water times of peace holds dangers like overexposure and drowning.  Throw in a few bombs, torpedoes, kamikaze pilots, and maybe a hidden reef, and get a completely different picture of a day at work.

"I grew up in Bellingham, Washington; the depression was still going on," Johnson began. "Work was hard to find.  I decided to quit school and join the Navy.  It was April, 1941." He was 17 and aware that he was joining during a potentially volatile time.  "We knew there was a war over there; we kinda' figured we'd be in it in a year or so," he added.  "I grew up around the Navy, raised on the water.  I decided to take the Navy over the Army.  I was kinda' glad I did."

He continued, "I was only in about six months when Pearl Harbor happened." Johnson was aboard the USS Oklahoma on Battleship Row, "one of the first ones hit with torpedoes." He recalled, "the ship rolled over, in a matter of minutes that thing was upside down ... Lotta people trapped in there, you could hear them knocking for days." He escaped due to his battle station in the powder room on the foredecks, and due to lucky timing when he grabbed the ladder that he climbed to safety despite a ship he guesses was listing at 30 or 40 degrees.  Another lucky break came when, in the water, he saw an upside-down airplane and grabbed a pontoon.

It was in this position, in six inches of oil, that Johnson said "he watched a ship come over ... ship behind us got a bomb hit. The oil caught fire, and the fire was spreading across the water.  I decided to swim out to the motor launch."  There, he said, boats from submarines came over; Johnson said, "we all got together and fished out other people, and headed back to the sub base." He recounted of the oil-slicked sailors, "you could stand next to your best friend and you wouldn't know who he was. We cleaned up with aviation gas and then showered with GI soap."

The rest of that day was quiet, but not restfully so.  Johnson remembered, "Every once in a while, guns would go off ... they were false alarms but everyone was nervous ... you had it on your mind, what was gonna happen next?" And of course, being a Navy newly at war, there was no rest for the oil-stained weary.  The next day was spent patrolling and dropping depth charges aboard the USS Worden, a destroyer which was supporting the USS Lexington aircraft carrier.

Johnson was involved in the battle between Japanese ships and the Lexington and USS Yorktown when the Lexington was sunk.  He was also there on the Worden when  the Japanese code was broken.  Johnson recounted, "we knew Midway was coming up ... we rushed back to Pearl Harbor, replenished, formed three task forces and headed toward Midway.  We spotted the Midway fleet.  We kinda' surprised them.  We launched airplanes.  We sank almost all of their ships."  

It was a decisive victory for the Allied movement, but Johnson recollected more grim moments in the war.  During an escort of the USS Enterprise,  Johnson recalled, "they launched all the planes.  None of ‘em came back ... a lot crashed.  The remaining landed on Midway Island."  Johnson paused reflectively and noted, "we lost a lot of pilots."

Johnson recalled a liberty gone-awry shortly after Midway, which led him into another close scrape with combat.  "Being young sailors, we went out on the town and stayed at the YMCA.  We got a phone call, ‘report back immediately!" but the taxis and busses weren't running because of the black out.  We got back to see our ship going out to harbor."  Johnson and buddies were sent out to another task force with marines. "We didn't know where we were going, and neither did the marines.  Turned out, we invaded Guadalcanal."  

The duty was transporting marines, and Johnson recalled, "the third day, there was an air raid.  Bombers were dropping bombs on the ship.  I was on gun watch.  They sank cruisers, destroyers ...  The firing of guns lit up the target," Johnson remembered, musing over the eerie nature of the event. "They could've gone into the harbor and sunk all our transports.  But the Japanese turned tail and got out of there."  Similarly, Johnson and his other AWOL buddies went back to their ship, gratefully received their deck court marshal ("it was enough to give you an idea of what they could do to you," Johnson mused, "it was a deck court marshal - they went easy on us",) and had minor adventures that included time in dry dock in Bremerton.

"We finally got out of dry dock and took on all this foul weather gear.  We knew we were going someplace that was cold."  They ended up going to Alaska, and the Aleutian chain, to set up for invasion. "It was a task force with Army engineers.  We went in to set up beach markers so the transport could unload.  On the way out we picked up SONAR contact... Captain thought it was a submarine."  But it wasn't, it was a reef. And the ship got caught up and broken up on it.  Johnson heard yet another "abandon ship" command.

"In that water, you don't last long. It's too cold.  Lucky transport was there, and sent out a ship."  Johnson repeats, "I was lucky there. We lost about twenty to exposure.  I was lucky.  I made it.  A lot of the others jumped in without foul weather gear."  Shortly after this, Johnson was sent to Bremerton and received survivor's leave for 30 days, and then got orders to go to school in Miami, sub-chaser training.  

It was there Johnson learned the skills he would use for a while, escorting transports.  At first there were losses: "Every time we escorted, usually we'd lose one or two ... then it was like they turned the water off.  No more trouble.  The German sub fleet was dwindling.  I was a sub chaser for a year.  It was a good duty compared to the others; good crew, good ship, good food." They spent most of their time in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Panama.

Johnson continued, "then I finally made rank.  I got sent to an LSD, a ship with a big back door. I spent the rest of the war there.  We invaded New Guinea, got the Philippines back after two invasions, secured beaches, went into Manilla ...  After the Philippines we went to Okinawa.  That was a bad place, with the Kamikazes ... all the Japanese were left to fight with."  He continued, "We were lucky there - we never got hit.  Sometimes they'd put a smoke screen out, you couldn't see them on the ship but you could hear the planes."  He paused and reflected, "I don't know what was worse, outside or in."

After that, Johnson went home. "I got out just before the war ended, and got to celebrate.  That was a real celebration." He was discharged in San Diego.  Johnson recalled, "I got my money and they talked me into joining the Reserves.  Four years later I was in Korea, spent two years in Japan and Korea."  He paused.  "I was finished at that point.  I got out."  But even as a civilian, Johnson kept military ties, moving to Whidbey Island where he still resides, and serving a total of 40 combined years with Civil Service work combined with his wartime service.

As a World War II veteran, Harold Johnson is one of a rapidly diminishing class of hero. So why does he think he survived all the intensity of several major historical battles that took so many lives? "I still think about that," he mused. "You know how they say that someone upstairs, in Heaven, is looking out for you?  I don't know. I think maybe my dad up in Heaven is looking out.  I never got a scratch.  Guys next to me getting blown up, guys lost to exposure ...  I didn't hesitate to jump overboard and save myself.  I was young could scramble pretty good."  He finished, "I was lucky."

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