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Interview with Richard Johnson [07/19/2004]

Thomas Swope:

This is the oral history of World War II Veteran Richard Wendell Johnson. Mr. Johnson served in the U.S. Army with the 96th Division, 383rd Regiment, Company I. He served in the Pacific Theater, and his highest rank was staff sergeant. I'm Tom Swope, and this interview was recorded at Mr. Johnson's home in Concord, Ohio on July 19th, 2004. Richard was 80 at the time of this recording. Where were you living in 1941?

Richard Johnson:

In Muskegon, Michigan, which is a little town on the west coast of Michigan and --

Thomas Swope:

How old were you?

Richard Johnson:

'41?

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

Let's see, I was 18 -- 17, 17.

Thomas Swope:

Were you still in school or out of school?

Richard Johnson:

I graduated in June of '41 from high school at age 17, and then I went to Harvard in September.

Thomas Swope:

Do you have specific memories of December 7th, 1941?

Richard Johnson:

Yes, yes. As a matter of fact, I was in the library in college studying when news came of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum. What do you remember about that day?

Richard Johnson:

It was certainly interesting, and it was significant, but I really wasn't that into world events and affairs. I was much more focused in -- tunnel vision -- in college things and dates and things like that.

Thomas Swope:

Did any of your classmates decide -- or run out there and sign up the next day?

Richard Johnson:

A number of them did -- joined various things. But I -- I was unable to do so because my eyes, without glasses, are so poor that nobody -- Navy wouldn't take me and the Army wouldn't take me and the Air Force wouldn't take me. Nobody would take me.

Thomas Swope:

So did you go to -- or is that part of your regular physical for the draft, or did you actually go to them and try to enlist?

Richard Johnson:

I actually tried to enlist, yeah.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum. And they wouldn't take you?

Richard Johnson:

But they wouldn't take me. So I -- I kept on in college until June of '43, two years later. And then I went home for a little summer vacation and I was going to summer school then at Harvard, and in Detroit they would take me, limited service.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

You know, you'll never go overseas, there's lots of things for you to do here, and so on. So I went through limited-service basic training in Wisconsin, and --

Thomas Swope:

Do you remember your first day in training -- basic training?

Richard Johnson:

Yeah, it was -- it was wet up in Wisconsin, and all I remember is a lot of mud. We were up in the Dells area and so on Sundays we'd go down to the Dells and wash off our wet, muddy fatigues, do our laundry. But then I got transferred to Fort Shurn(ph) from there, and because I was limited service, I couldn't really get involved in too much, although, I used to be a football player, and I was on the Fort Shurn(ph) football team. And I -- I played football in college and high school and -- but in those days they didn't have protective masks. So here I am, this eye is 2800, the left eye without glasses, and it's 2400 in this eye, so my -- I have big thick glasses -- and I played football, without any protection.

Thomas Swope:

You ever got hit in the face?

Richard Johnson:

Oh, yeah. Broke my nose and broke a lot of glasses.

Thomas Swope:

What position were you playing?

Richard Johnson:

Center --

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

-- on offense and linebacker on defense. In those days, they didn't have -- you played all the time.

Thomas Swope:

Sure.

Richard Johnson:

You -- you didn't have a separate defense and a separate offense. But then I finally was able to get into ASTP -- and this is in the fall of '43 -- and went down to a little college in Peoria -- Peoria called Bradley Polytechnic Institute, which is -- used to be famous for its professional basketball teams.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

And -- but it took me a while to get into ASTP because they had a 10 percent quota on limited service -- servicemen.

Thomas Swope:

Right.

Richard Johnson:

So it took me a while to get into it. So I got down there, and I was -- I was just interested in getting into something, you know, doing something, and also getting more college credits, which I did. And we formed a football team down there and another college guy and myself -- well, we were all, not all college guys, but many were. Fellow named Lou Groza had been to Ohio State was there also. So I was center and he was right guard and we -- we had a pretty good football team there at that ASTP unit. But then in the late '44 and early -- well, '43, and late -- early '44, after the Battle of the Bulge, what they did was close down all the college training programs -- Army and Navy and the Air Force, and so on -- and the whole six-service command which is, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois, was sent out to Oregon to the 96th Division.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

And I was magically changed from limited service to Class A at the stroke of a pen.

Thomas Swope:

Yeah. Did they ever give any explanation for that or --

Richard Johnson:

No, no.

Thomas Swope:

___+

Richard Johnson:

Well, I think I was really our secret weapon because as I -- I made -- I was in two first-wave landings, on one in the Philippines, Leyte --

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

-- in October of '44, and second one was Okinawa, and as the Japs saw me heaving my way ashore they died laughing, saying, "Here comes blind Wendell." So it was -- it was an interesting kind of thing. But I -- I -- they -- they kept getting me glasses when I broke them, 'cause you break them frequently, you know, and --

Thomas Swope:

So what can you tell me about your infantry training before you went overseas?

Richard Johnson:

I had re-, and second infantry training before getting into the 96th Division, and it was -- this was more rigorous than the first one, and it included a lot more rifle practice, and I -- I was a good shot, and I was a marksman -- Class A Marksman even with the glasses.

Thomas Swope:

Yeah.

Richard Johnson:

But I'd done shooting when I was, you know, earlier -- teenager. We also had amphibious training because we were headed off for the islands and -- so we -- after training in Oregon, we went down to California, and practiced amphibious landings on the LCVPs in California and around San Diego and so on. And then we got leave and went off to the Hawaiian Islands and we did more amphibious training there, on Maui especially, getting ready for landing on the real islands.

Thomas Swope:

So that would be late summer of '44 probably?

Richard Johnson:

Yeah, umhum.

Thomas Swope:

Yeah.

Richard Johnson:

And then we got into transports and this was in late summer, maybe early fall, and we were -- we were scheduled to land not in -- not in the Philippines but on one of the other islands and at the last minute they changed it so that we all went to the Philippines. And this was -- we -- this was the 7th and 96th Divisions, just two Army divisions. And these were under MacArthur. These were not under Nimitz and the Navy. The -- those -- those forces, mostly Marines, went into the islands, you know, Tarawa and Eniwetok and so on. But the -- the heavier duty landings, in the Philippines especially, were reserved by the Army for -- under MacArthur. And so we landed on October 20th, and it wasn't a serious landing. It wasn't a tough landing, in that it wasn't like the Marines on Iwo Jima or Tarawa or anything. There weren't as many Japanese there in -- in the Philippines. That's one of the reasons they picked that island of Leyte, because it was lightly held. And, so, we didn't have a whole lot of casualties. The biggest hazard there was the swamps and we -- we went inland through the swamps, and just, you know, knee-high -- hip-high mud --

Thomas Swope:

Umhum

Richard Johnson:

-- and we -- we finally got into dry land, you know, about five miles inland, but, then, they couldn't get supplies to us 'cause they couldn't get the trucks -- there were no roads through the swamps. So for, gee, a couple of weeks -- well, the other thing that happened was the Japanese Navy came in and there was a Battle of the Leyte Gulf, biggest Naval battle in World War II, where fortunately we beat the Japanese, but that chased away all of our supply ships, and so for two weeks those of us who were inland we live -- we lived on three things -- one was coconuts, one was Indian corn, and the third was sugarcane. And I lost about 30 pounds just on that diet. But, you know when you're hungry enough you -- you'll eat what you can. I did learn a nice trick, though. You pick the corn off the corncob -- or the plants, and how do you cook it, you see? If you're in a very wet, muddy, rainy atmosphere, which is what Leyte was. Well, I -- they showed me how you -- you heard about satchel chargers, the things they -- they throw into a cave and blow up a cave well? It's a series of -- it's composition C, and they're -- they're cubes or squares, but that square, about a foot long and they stuff you know a dozen or so of those in that, and they blow it up. Well, if you take that composition C and put it in the bottom of your foxhole, even though it's muddy, and light it, it burns with a very hot, smokeless flame. You take your canteen cup and fill it half full of water, you take your C rations, which is what we all -- all we had to eat were C rations -- and you -- you -- you dent it so that it fits into the cup, and then you boil -- you heat the water and that heats your C rations. You can do the same thing with corn. You can heat the corn in your -- in your canteen cup.

Thomas Swope:

Obviously you don't use too much of the compound.

Richard Johnson:

Very carefully, but we all kept a stick of it in our --

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

-- packs.

Thomas Swope:

One stick, not a satchel?

Richard Johnson:

No, just -- just a stick of it.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

No. Well there was one group in -- in each company who were the heavy-weapons guys.

Thomas Swope:

Right.

Richard Johnson:

And they -- they carried -- they carried a lot of those.

Thomas Swope:

And you carried the extra?

Richard Johnson:

We just carried little -- so that we could heat our food.

Thomas Swope:

Was there enough left over to do the job they were needed for?

Richard Johnson:

Oh, I think so. But you don't care about that, you just --

Thomas Swope:

Right, right.

Richard Johnson:

-- you know you're protecting yourself.

Thomas Swope:

So what else do you remember about --

Richard Johnson:

Well --

Thomas Swope:

Do you remember specifically when you said there wasn't a whole lot of opposition when you went in; right?

Richard Johnson:

Right.

Thomas Swope:

Do you remember specifically your first day when you were under fire in ___?

Richard Johnson:

Well, yeah. Later on that day -- later on that day when we got more further inland we ran into the Japanese opposition.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

And they were up on the high hills, and we were down in the swamps, and -- so we -- we circled -- kept them trapped there.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

And that's -- that's what we did. The second phase for us was up in the mountains, 'cause Leyte was a mountainous island, and the 77th Division was coming around the end and closing in on the Japanese on the other side of the island around a town called Ormoc and 96th Division was on this side, and some of us were up in the mountains and it was to keep the Japanese from coming over the mountains, to the side we were on.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

Where all -- the most populated site. So that was an interesting experience, because we had a -- we had -- our battalion was up there in the mountains, and the battalion has three, four companies of infantry in it, and so each day we'd have a battalion up in the mountains protecting the passes and -- but they had to be supplied with water and food and ammunition and so on. The only way to get it up there was on your back. So there would be one company up there and -- 'cause there wasn't that much room for a whole lot of soldiers -- and then each day the other companies would bring stuff up to them, like, you know, five gallons of water, five gallons of water weighs 45 pounds. You carry that on your back and you go a couple miles up the hill -- the mountain over the rivers and so on, and then you'd have a day or two days off for rest and you'd be back up carrying supplies. And up there -- and -- and we would alternate also between carrying supplies and being up there, and a couple of memories of being up there a lot of dead Japanese, and -- you know, they were along the trails, and there were skulls and what, and also it was cold up there, and we had -- there were long leaches, they were about six inches long, so when you -- when you had a foxhole up there you -- you had to watch out for the leaches because they could attach to your skin.

Thomas Swope:

Did you burn them off or how did you --

Richard Johnson:

Yeah, you'd burn them off with cigarettes. But a lot of sickness up there. We lost more to sickness than to Japanese bullets on -- on Leyte. I had things like ringworm and hookworm and stongyloidiasis and yellow jaundice and dinghy fever and so on -- and those were normal kinds of things.

Thomas Swope:

Did you have any problems with any of that?

Richard Johnson:

Yeah, yeah. I -- well first thing up from the mountains I got bronchitis, and that's contagious, you know, second cousin to pneumonia. But we had a rule that unless you had a temperature over a 102 you couldn't go back to the hospital. Well, I made it. I had a 102 and a half. So I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks in isolation. And went back again. And I also got yellow jaundice and back in the hospital with that and --

Thomas Swope:

You mentioned going out there and seeing some of the remains. Was there much souvenir collecting with the outfit?

Richard Johnson:

There wasn't much to collect, really. That was more of a factor in Okinawa --

Thomas Swope:

Yeah.

Richard Johnson:

-- and in the Philippines. Now, I also was never a souvenir collector. Well, little bit, but -- now I didn't -- I didn't go into caves, for example, and so on. 'Cause that can be dangerous to your health because there could still be Japanese in there -- and we did lose some. But on Okinawa we had -- there was some entrepreneurs who had pliers, and they would -- well, they -- they would on Okinawa -- I'm changing now from Leyte to Okinawa.

Thomas Swope:

That's okay.

Richard Johnson:

Many hill-side tombs -- and these were concrete tombs in a little courtyard out in front of them -- and the Japanese would use them for -- you know, they'd have machine guns in those and they'd fire at us, you know. You're not supposed to desecrate the tombs in the Okinawa names, but hell if the Japanese are shooting at you from them --

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

-- you know, it's just like a pillbox, see.

Thomas Swope:

Right.

Richard Johnson:

So here -- here are hundreds of these tombs on the hillsides as we go along -- and I did go look at some of them and they had a system where they put grandma in a jar on the lowest shelf until grandma was reduced to bones. And then they put her in a smaller jar up on the second shelf and then when she was reduced to dust they put her in an even smaller jar up on the -- on the top shelf. Well, some of our enterprising infantrymen would go in and the Japanese had a lot of gold teeth and our infan -- some infantrymen would go and pull out grandma's gold teeth and take the gold home. I never did that. Or they'd go in after, you know, maybe Japanese pistols or swords or some -- and I -- I didn't do that either. I survived, that's --

Thomas Swope:

Yeah.

Richard Johnson:

I focused on surviving rather than souvenirs.

Thomas Swope:

I'll get back to Leyte. What else do you remember about Leyte?

Richard Johnson:

Oh, let's see. Up in the mountains, let's see, that was my 21st birthday and there were wild pigs around and the cooks shot one and they cooked it for a birthday party for Wendell. I -- I trust -- well, they did cook it well enough so that I didn't get trichinosis or anything.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

Which you can do with that. But other than the health aspects, I didn't get wounded or anything on Okinawa but -- that's --

Thomas Swope:

Pretty much it?

Richard Johnson:

Pretty much it.

Thomas Swope:

How long were you on Leyte then?

Richard Johnson:

From October 20th until, oh, February.

Thomas Swope:

February?

Richard Johnson:

When we got on boats to go to Okinawa.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum. Did you go straight from Leyte to Okinawa?

Richard Johnson:

Yes, umhum.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

On an LST which is "landing ship tank."

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

And we got about, I think, about a battalion of infantry on that, and I don't know if you've ever seen an LST or not, but it's a --

Thomas Swope:

Oh, I'm sure --

Richard Johnson:

It's -- it's a long vessel with a level deck and then the hold -- main hold is all full of the -- these alligator tanks --

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

-- and go ashore, you know, with -- with tracks and can climb over the reefs.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

And that's what we went into Okinawa on was those. And that --

Thomas Swope:

How many soldiers can get in each of those?

Richard Johnson:

I don't know.

Thomas Swope:

Like --

Richard Johnson:

Battalion maybe. Well, a company is 100 and -- our company -- company's 170 men. So, maybe like 500 --

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

-- on there.

Thomas Swope:

On the LST?

Richard Johnson:

Yeah.

Thomas Swope:

And in each one of the amphibious vehicles you could fit how many -- how many of those did you have in the LST, do you remember?

Richard Johnson:

I don't recall. I don't recall.

Thomas Swope:

I'm curious to know. It usually looks like there's only, like, 20 guys in each one of those, or something like that.

Richard Johnson:

Yeah, it's like 20 or 25.

Thomas Swope:

Yeah, yeah, exactly. So how early did you go in on -- first of all, how -- how far a trip is that from Leyte to Okinawa? How many days, do you know?

Richard Johnson:

No, I don't recall.

Thomas Swope:

A while.

Richard Johnson:

Well, I do recall this, that halfway there -- halfway there we encountered the tail end of a typhoon.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

And that same typhoon had sunk several Navy ships, destroyers, and so on, that had been caught in it, and about -- fortunately we were in the tail end of it and -- but the waves were so high that -- here, picture the deck of this LST with tents and cots and duffel bags and rifles, and so on, and we were all sleeping on the deck. Everything was washed away from the waves.

Thomas Swope:

Wow.

Richard Johnson:

All of our equipment. So we were all -- all down below, and -- but we had -- we had saved our rifles and ammunition and so on, and just -- just amazing force in the typhoon. Well it wasn't even a full typhoon, it was a tisow(ph), yeah. But one other days before we landed, April Fools' Day, I was told that I was going to be the new flamethrower operator for I Company. You know, how do they do this? And I don't know who the former guy was, but no instruction, no instruction manual, the darn thing weighs 82 pounds when it's fully loaded, and they said, "Okay, Johnson, you're a flamethrower operator." That's it. I said, "Well, I'd like to try it off the stern of the" -- oh, you'll burn up the ship. I had no practice. So here I go ashore on Okinawa climbing over the seawall with this monster on my back and fortunately the landing at Okinawa for us -- and the Japanese had -- reading this book -- had decided on that as a strategy -- a strategy -- the general had decided that it would not strongly defend the landing beaches, but rather defend the southern half of the peninsula of the island. So we didn't -- we didn't get a whole lot of fire, but it was a magnificent spectacle on April first when you're going ashore in these alligators and here are the battleships and the cruisers and the aircraft carriers, and they're all firing all over your head. Huge amount of sound, you see. But it was a beautiful sunny day and it wasn't raining or anything. So -- but I don't know, three or four days later we -- we pivoted and turned south -- 96th Division did -- and we ran into the first opposition and there were a series -- well, there were two kinds of things, one was a really rocky cliff like kind of thing called Kakazu ridge, K-a-k-a-z-u, and this held us up for more than a week. And we took a lot of casualties attacking Kakazu ridge. Well sort of along side of it, along the ocean there was a lot of rocky outcroppings from which the Japanese were machine gunning us, and at first it took us by surprise and then we really had to go after those, and one was called the "pirate's den" and -- so they said, "Johnson, go burn out those caves." So -- okay, you know you -- you don't say no. And so I -- I -- I sidle up alongside of them, and I couldn't get the darn thing to work. You got two triggers. The trigger at the front you pull that, and that starts the igniter so that there's flame going through there. The second trigger is back here and that releases the napalm to go through the -- the tube past the igniter and into the caves and at the Japanese and so on. I couldn't get the igniter to work, so I ran back, and I said, "Hey, does anybody know how to make this damn thing work?" So they -- they finally -- finally got the thing to work and it was -- it was, I don't know, rusty or something or other, so then they said, "Okay, go back and burn the caves." But I went back and I burned out three caves, and you had to be very careful not to have it splash back on you because you could burn yourself. So that took care of the snipers in that rocky -- what they called it -- the pirate's den, but there was no more shooting from it and it -- from what I can read that's not a good way to die, because, you know, you either get burned up or the exhaust -- the oxygen is exhausted and so you suffocate. So apparently that's what happened to the Japanese in the pirate's den there. So that's the only time I used it.

Thomas Swope:

That's the only time you used it?

Richard Johnson:

Yeah.

Thomas Swope:

Now, I had heard that flamethrowers -- guys who were flamethrowers were likely targets for snipers?

Richard Johnson:

Yes, umhum.

Thomas Swope:

Did you find them shooting at you a lot?

Richard Johnson:

Yes.

Thomas Swope:

A lot more than the other guys?

Richard Johnson:

Yes. Yes. But I didn't keep it that long and the reason was the next day we had a so-called surprise dawn attack on Kakazu ridge, see. Well, I don't know what went wrong, but it was fire after dawn -- now, when you're -- when you're carrying a flamethrower in the company, you're -- you're the last guy. Here are a 170 or 180 guys and in this situation the attack went down a steep hill and -- and then up the steep other side of the Japanese were on the other side. And by the time I got there to the top of the hill to go down after all the other companies -- company done it, I and the platoon sergeant who was with me, we said, "This doesn't sound like a very good idea to do." Because, you know, the whole -- the Japanese were all awake, and they were firing machine guns and mortars and rifles, and so on, and our company, we lost something like 60 men that day from that attack. And so the sergeant and I stayed up at the top thinking, you know, discretion is a better part of valor -- or he who fights today and runs away lives to fight another day. And the Japanese saw us and were sniping at us and mortaring us, and so on, and one mortar shell landed on the other side of -- I took the flamethrower off so I had a rock in one side and a flamethrower in the other as sort of protection, and the mortar hit on the other side of the flamethrower and blew out the tanks, blew out the napalm tank and -- but fortunately it didn't explode -- didn't burn or anything. Well about 20 feet behind us we had noticed there was a like a -- a circular hole and where we were was clearly not good 'cause they could see us and were firing at us -- so we said, "One, two, three," and dashed back and jumped into the hole and got there without getting wounded and we had to stay there all day long. 'Cause whenever we raised our head to see what was going on, you know -- so we didn't get out of there till nighttime when it was too dark for them to shoot us. So we made our way back to the rest of the -- but we took -- the battalion took serious losses -- serious losses in that first major battle. And that's how I lost the flamethrower.

Thomas Swope:

That's how you lost it? All right. And, well, let's -- let's get to how -- how were you wounded?

Richard Johnson:

Okay. This is later on, and --

Thomas Swope:

Umhum. Well, if you want to cover stuff in between that's fine -- if you want to cover up to that point.

Richard Johnson:

Yeah. Well, it -- it was a -- just a meat grinder operation --

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

-- because the Japanese -- that -- well -- you know, ___+ very well, had fortified this island. This island was sort of like their Fort Benning which was the infantry training camp for U.S. soldiers in this country. They used that island to train their soldiers -- infantry. And they had all the hills strongly fortified, and "strongly" meaning they had tunnels going from one side to the other side, and so most of the time we'd get heavy fire from a Japanese machine gun, rifle, mortars, and so on and we'd never see them. They were -- they were hidden in the tunnels, and it wasn't until the flamethrower tanks were developed and came along and would burn off the hillside and we could really see where the fire was coming from. But in the first parts of that -- that campaign you just -- just couldn't see it -- where the Japanese were and so we took very heavy casualties from that kind of thing. So we just -- just kept grinding away and grinding away and grinding away and grinding away and took a lot of casualties and in the process most of the time we did not have an officer. We had -- we had inadequate numbers of officers and normally you should have, you know, in a company there should be a lieutenant for every platoon and most of the time we didn't have any platoon lieutenants.

Thomas Swope:

Get picked off?

Richard Johnson:

They were getting -- yeah, getting wounded. And they did bring in some poor SOBs who were told to, you know, be platoon lieutenants, and they came out of a coast artillery and the Air Force administration, so -- and they didn't know anything. So I was about halfway through the campaign they made me platoon sergeant, and I was -- well, in the infantry if you survive you -- you -- you advance. And I don't know how many out of a 180 who landed there were maybe 15 or 20 still, then, who -- who were still there. So I was one of the survivors. So, I guess that's how I got to be a platoon sergeant. But here I am, 21 years old and in charge of 20, 30, 40, 18, 19, 20 year olds who just, you know, are fresh off the boats because our -- with those heavy casualties you just get green young men, and that's -- that's a real challenge when you think about it. So here we are grinding our way south, and we're -- we're almost down to the end of the island and -- I'm getting to where I was wounded -- we overran a lot of the Japanese who would hide in caves, and then come night they'd come out of the caves and try to go through our lines back to their lines, you see. Well, here we are on this -- it's a -- it's a pretty steep escarpment -- it's called the Yeyudoke(ph) escarpment and this had had many defense lines for the Japanese for several days and we were perched halfway up this escarpment, and it's like midnight and our troops had been coming up and down this trail all night long, and here comes another group of half a dozen smelly soldiers. When I say "smelly" we were all smelly, you know, we --

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

I don't know who smelled worse us or the Japanese. But, anyhow, we found out that these were Japanese coming from behind our lines going -- trying to go through our lines to where the Japanese were in front of our lines. And so we got into a firefight about -- at midnight and we're throwing hand grenades and firing at them. And we -- we killed most of them and blocked it. Well, anyhow -- and it was a bullet, hit the rock against which I was leaning and splattered my back with metal and coral rock fragments, and -- wasn't that serious, you know, I didn't go back right away or anything like that, but I stayed another day. But it -- it started to get infected and starting to be bothersome. So they said, "Hey, Johnson, go on back and get it treated." Well -- but that's how I dropped out. So it was -- it was not a serious wound but it took a lot of attention. I probably had 30 or 40 fragments in my back, and so on, and so I went back to the hospital -- field hospital and they said, "Well, gee, you need more attention, you need more glasses, you've got ringworm, and you've got hookworm." So they put me on a hospital ship back to Saipan.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

And so I was out of the Okinawa campaign at that point, and so they got all the fragments out or most of them out and all -- not all of the bugs out of my system 'cause I -- two years after I was discharged I found there was still some more bugs left in the system at Fort Hospital in Detroit. But anyhow, in a replacement depo there on Saipan, they said -- see, I was a staff sergeant and the war was over, and the question of troops returning, depending on how many points you had. Well, there was a first sergeant in an Anti-ack Aircraft Ordnance Battalion on the shores of Saipan, who had enough points to go back, so they needed a replacement. So I could be a replacement for him. And would I -- would I like to do that? Would I like to get out of the infantry? No, I know, the rest of the division was on Mindoro --

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

-- what was left of it getting ready to attack Japan.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

And I thought, well, maybe I've done my bit with first- wave landings in the Philippines and Okinawa. So, I said sure -- I'd -- I'd -- I'd do it. That was -- that was a very nice transition.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

'Cause I did not go back to the -- Mindoro and the 96th Division went down on the beach and the -- this Anti-Aircraft Ordnance Outfit was unlike any other infantry outfit I'd been with. They had basketball court, and they had a -- the supply sergeant had been a former liquor salesman, so we had a complete bar there -- chairman of the finance committee with -- with my background in financing.

Thomas Swope:

So I guess we are closing in on the end of the war then?

Richard Johnson:

Yes.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

Umhum. And the campaign ran through June 25th -- something like that in '45, and I exited a few days earlier.

Thomas Swope:

So you were there pretty close to the end campaign on Okinawa?

Richard Johnson:

Yeah. Umhum. Yeah, I was there, let's see --

Thomas Swope:

Getting back to Okinawa -- was there -- I can imagine the answer to this question -- much of a problem that you saw with stress, combat fatigue, that sort of thing?

Richard Johnson:

There was a lot of it, yes.

Thomas Swope:

Yeah.

Richard Johnson:

And different reactions fortunately -- fortunately it never really got to me that strongly.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

Maybe thanks to my nature and thanks to a lot of cigarettes and thanks to prayer, thanks to good luck, and so on. But it did hit others more strongly, and I've seen -- I've seen soldiers -- well, one specific example I can recall, the Japanese had a big rocket-type motor device and then they -- they would shoot it out of these caves and it -- it -- it was a, you know -- had sounds coming out of it and -- very impressive -- and you'd see it coming toward you. Well, what do you do? Well you get down flat or you start running maybe, or so on, and because it's a terrific concussion and it blasts a big hole and so on. And it can be very dangerous. So a couple of those came close, pretty close to us.

Thomas Swope:

What was the size of these things? You're talking about a -- a rocket; right?

Richard Johnson:

Well, yeah, at least a foot --

Thomas Swope:

Yeah, they're pretty darn --

Richard Johnson:

-- or two feet --

Thomas Swope:

-- big enough that you could see it --

Richard Johnson:

Yeah.

Thomas Swope:

-- coming through the air.

Richard Johnson:

And just slowly. It wasn't superfast or anything.

Thomas Swope:

Right.

Richard Johnson:

And -- but they -- we didn't see those on -- on Leyte, but we did see those on Okinawa, and -- now that -- that injects stress.

Thomas Swope:

Now, when you were out there on the hospital ship were there many kamikaze attacks out there?

Richard Johnson:

It was about 50/50 -- well not on the hospital ship itself, but the wounded going back to Saipan was about 50 percent Navy and about 50 percent Army. And then the Navy were from those kamikaze attacks.

Thomas Swope:

Right.

Richard Johnson:

Yeah, that -- those were very bad, very bad. We would see some of the Japanese airplanes coming over us, and they were coming down from Japan and they would come through the valleys to get at the ships, and we'd fire at them but we never shot any of them down. They were going too fast.

Thomas Swope:

Did you have any close buddies on Okinawa?

Richard Johnson:

Well, I used to. But I don't -- I don't have any -- anymore.

Thomas Swope:

Did you lose any friends when you were over there?

Richard Johnson:

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Thomas Swope:

Yeah.

Richard Johnson:

Yeah, I lost most of my -- any buddies, just in normal combat conditions. So I don't -- I don't really have any -- any friends from the Army.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

And a good many college friends were also killed, all of my roommates, and so on. So, I --

Thomas Swope:

Did you get any -- you were there what, about three months on Okinawa almost?

Richard Johnson:

April, May, and June, yeah.

Thomas Swope:

Mail call -- did you get any mail over there?

Richard Johnson:

Yes, occasionally.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

I don't remember a whole lot. I'm -- I'm sure my parents wrote and -- and I wrote, and so on, but I don't have strong memories of -- of mail, either sending or receiving.

Thomas Swope:

So nothing -- no particular parcels or anything that come to mind that they might have sent?

Richard Johnson:

Yes. My -- my mother would send, you know, cookies and things like that.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

So those were always enjoyed because again our rations were pretty much C rations, the kind that came in cans and the K rations which were more in card -- cardboard cartons, and you get pretty tired of that. Although, you're very happy when that's all there is to eat.

Thomas Swope:

Right.

Richard Johnson:

You'd rather eat those than not have something to eat. But I can recall one of the characteristics on Okinawa was that a lot of the C rations came from Australia, and by the time we got them, the ones we got were rusty cans. And I don't think it affected the inside, but very clearly the rear echelon in the quarter master core in our division, and so on, they kept the shiny cans for themselves, and they sent the rusty cans over to us guys who were up there fighting.

Thomas Swope:

Did you get any breaks in combat in Okinawa at all? Any R&R breaks at all on the island?

Richard Johnson:

One time. One time we had -- we went back and we picked up a hundred replacements in the company, and we went back to an airport, and so that was a few days -- a few days. But that was about all. No -- no other breaks. We never saw the USO shows. It was -- it was the -- the rear -- the rear guard who saw all the USO shows and so on. But weather -- weather -- the weather was different. Okinawa was more like around here.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

You know, pine trees and sunny weather, and so on. But we did have -- in May it was a very rainy, rainy season and the roads got so muddy that the trucks couldn't get through very easily with our -- our supplies. So we were on short rations, for half of May, because we were too far up there for the -- them to get supplies to us, you know. And we'd -- you know, we'd be on one side of the mountain and the Japs on the other and we'd -- we'd be sliding down, and they'd be sliding down. But there were some interesting characteristics. You know, here we are perched on one side and the Japs on the other side, the Navy -- battleships, cruisers, and so on, did some close-in support, and they would fire. And most of the time they'd land -- the shells would land on the Japanese, but some of the times they landed on us. Which, you know, when you got a 14-inch shell coming toward you, that makes a big bang, and some of them were misfires. And we had the same kind of thing -- problem with short rounds. I don't know whether it was Marines who did it or Army who did it, hard to tell, but we had some white phosphorous shells, ranging shells land in our area and the -- that is bad, bad stuff -- white phosphorous gets on you, 'cause it'll -- it'll burn right through your skin. And the only -- the only solution is to cover it with water 'cause that -- that reduces the burning effect of white phosphorous. If you could get -- get your arm under water. The only way to do that is to maybe take your helmet off and put some canteen water into your helmet and -- let's say you have it on your hand, get it -- get it down in the water in the canteen in the -- in the helmet.

Thomas Swope:

Did you get burned by any of it?

Richard Johnson:

No, I did not but some of my friends did and, so I -- I contributed my water to prevent their hands from getting completely burned up.

Thomas Swope:

Did you have to take any prisoners at all?

Richard Johnson:

Toward the end -- toward the end there were cases where Japanese soldiers would masquerade as civilians and get back through our lines and try to create trouble that way, and so you couldn't always trust them. But toward the end there were more civilians who were giving up. But the Japanese code of, you know, military honor, it was cardinal sin to surrender, you know. They -- they -- they had been taught that all their lives, that you just don't do that. And so when any of our troops surrendered, as they sometimes did, especially from aircraft landing, the Japanese had no respect for Americans who surrendered they, you know, they beheaded a lot of soldiers in the air -- in -- pilots and so on. That was not our style. But --

Thomas Swope:

Did civilians kind of feel the same way, too, on Okinawa. Did they commit suicide rather than surrender -- that you -- that you can tell?

Richard Johnson:

Hard to tell. Hard to tell.

Thomas Swope:

I've seen pictures of the --

Richard Johnson:

Yeah, I've seen pictures --

Thomas Swope:

-- them jumping off of cliffs.

Richard Johnson:

Yeah, I've seen pictures -- especially on Saipan and I don't know if they did it on Okinawa or not but it may be that there weren't as many civilians who were committing suicide on Okinawa. At least from -- from what I could see because I -- I -- I remember seeing long lines of civilians going back through our lines. And they were in very bad shape, you know, they were malnourished, and clothing was very skimpy, and it could well have been soldiers, you know, hiding in amongst them but -- that was entirely possible. But one -- one scene I remember particularly, one village we went through -- and it was not unusual for villages to be burning as we went through them, you know, the artillery would maybe set them on fire, and so on -- and here was this pond -- pretty sizeable pond -- there's a woman out in the middle of it, and -- very badly burned. She was in the water to, you know, reduce the burning sensation, and she was -- she was doing like this. Which I think meant, you know, shoot me.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

And, well, what do you do? You know, you're not a medic. You're not going to shoot her. It's against our code to do that kind of thing. So I tried to find a medic to -- to help take care of her and finally we did get one to help her. But we -- you know, we're not going to shoot her. But, you know, here -- here's a dramatic moment, and how do you cope with that?

Thomas Swope:

Do you remember your reaction to the news about Ernie Pyle's death?

Richard Johnson:

Not very much. I remember more the news about President Roosevelt's death.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

But here we are strongly involved in combat and -- okay, so a president dies, you know. That's -- it's not as relevant and important as making sure we have enough food --

Thomas Swope:

Survival.

Richard Johnson:

-- or protecting yourselves against those mortars coming in or survival. Yeah, survival's more important. Yeah, I remember President Roosevelt -- I don't recall -- I may have heard it, but I don't recall that.

Thomas Swope:

Any speculation about what they thought Truman would do when he took over?

Richard Johnson:

No, no it wasn't --

Thomas Swope:

Didn't have time to talk about things like that; right?

Richard Johnson:

No.

Thomas Swope:

You weren't really talking politics a lot.

Richard Johnson:

No. No it -- survival is the main mode.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum. Well, anything else you remember about Okinawa free form in case I haven't covered anything -- if there's anything else you remember.

Richard Johnson:

Well, let's see. Yeah, I did get invited to become an officer. Now, I could never become an officer before because my eyes were too bad, you see. And ___+ but toward the end of the Okinawa campaign they were so short of officers that, you know, they were desperate. They said, "Hey, Johnson, how would you like to be a second lieutenant?" I said, "Well, thanks but what are the implications?" Well, you have to stay in after the war is over.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

I said, "I don't think so. I really want to get back to college." So I declined with thanks, but I could have been a second lieutenant, I guess, for awhile. But it wasn't any -- any less risky being a second lieutenant than being a staff sergeant.

Thomas Swope:

Yeah.

Richard Johnson:

So what, make a little bit more money than -- that really wasn't that important.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum. So you said you were -- were you on -- anything else about Okinawa before we get to the end of the war? Make sure you covered everything in your notes there.

Richard Johnson:

Let's see. No I think that's pretty much it.

Thomas Swope:

We covered it pretty good?

Richard Johnson:

Yeah.

Thomas Swope:

So you were on, did you say Mindoro when the war ended; is that right?

Richard Johnson:

No, no. I was -- the division was on Mindoro.

Thomas Swope:

Oh, the division, right exactly. You were with the ___+.

Richard Johnson:

But I was -- I -- I had been transferred out --

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

-- to this Anti-aircraft Ordnance Battalion --

Thomas Swope:

Right. Okay.

Richard Johnson:

-- on Saipan.

Thomas Swope:

On Saipan.

Richard Johnson:

Which is -- which is a nice place to be because that was a staging island for people going back to the States.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

So when -- when the point got down -- point count got down to -- I think I had 54 points -- to that, I was there. And so in early December '45 I found myself on a ship going back to the --

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

Now these Liberty Ships take forever to get anywhere. And it was like three weeks, four weeks, or something on the ship, but I finally got to the Chicago area and was discharged -- let's see, January 31st -- December 31st, and my folks had driven down from Muskegon, Michigan -- couple hundred miles north of there, and we had a party.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

And that -- that -- that's a happy memory, too.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum. A party there in Chicago?

Richard Johnson:

Yeah, yeah. Stayed overnight at a nice hotel, and it was like a New Year's Eve party -- pre-New Year's Eve party. So that -- that was a happy ending to that situation.

Thomas Swope:

Any trouble adjusting to civilian life, after -- after that after all you'd been through?

Richard Johnson:

Not really, not really because I could flick -- switch gears, and so I was, I don't know mid-January, late January, I was back at Harvard resuming my college education, and continued till I -- I graduated in September of '46. And that's just a little over a year after I should have graduated if there hadn't been any war, in spite of having been in the service for two and a half years. So -- but I did pick up credits from ASTP and other -- other courses so that -- and they were friendly at Harvard and sympathetic and then -- so on to -- to help the guys through the system, you see.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

And the GI bill was just a marvelous thing, just a super thing for not only me but also for hundreds of thousands of other veterans who otherwise wouldn't have a chance to have any college. And with that they, you know, did -- did get that opportunity to do it. As a matter of fact, I was able to not be a financial burden to my parents due to the GI bill and also my savings, not only to finish up my undergraduate work but also went out for two years at the Harvard Business School, and that was paid for by the GI bill and my savings and my wife's earnings.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

So we broke even -- we broke even on two years of graduate school and that's much better than many students nowadays who incur thousands of dollars of debt for college. But thanks to the GI bill, you know, that really saved our bacon financially.

Thomas Swope:

Any other vivid memories come to mind about your experiences during the war?

Richard Johnson:

No. I think I've covered some of the humorous -- it's interesting the mind -- mind works nicely, at least mine does. I tend to remember the humorous things more than the nasty things.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

You know, you know, there'd be many, many, nasty things that I saw, you know, hundreds of people being killed, blown up, and so on, but it sort of -- the mind sort of shelters you from that, I guess. You remember some of the humorous things, like -- well, a humorous thing, Okinawa, a Jap mortar attack, and a mortar lands in a foxhole, a muddy foxhole, and blows the occupant of the foxhole up out of the foxhole and he isn't even wounded. Big joke, oh, look at that. Or another -- another -- this isn't sick humor but a slit trench, an informal outhouse, and here's -- here's a soldier stooped over a slit trench doing his job and a mortar round lands not too far away and splatters his butt with shell fragments, so his butt is all bloody. And we just die laughing.

Thomas Swope:

Yeah.

Richard Johnson:

Infantry humor.

Thomas Swope:

Right. Exactly.

Richard Johnson:

There's another one. We're taking this hill on Okinawa and it's sort of a flat-top hill, and we're charging up there and Japanese are retreating and firing at us and a number of our -- my associates were from Kentucky and West Virginia and -- good infantrymen with a rifle but, you know, hillbillies, and their music would drive you crazy. But anyhow -- anyhow, here's this guy from Kentucky and the rest of us are down on the ground because the Japanese are firing at us, and he's standing up there and he's pulling his pants down, and he -- he'd been shot in his groin.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

And he had to make sure that no vital parts were -- had been hit. And he -- and he stood up until he made sure that he still had a penis. Talk about humor.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

True story. When he finally decided that it was okay then he got down on the ground.

Thomas Swope:

You mentioned music. Were they playing it themselves or did they have record players or what was --

Richard Johnson:

Well, in barracks they did.

Thomas Swope:

Okay. Okay. Yeah, right.

Richard Johnson:

Yeah. But it used to drive me crazy. I'm -- I'm a musical kind of person, but I, you know, have -- had done more singing in church choirs --

Thomas Swope:

Right.

Richard Johnson:

In Boston I sang with the Boston Symphony for several years --

Thomas Swope:

Oh, really?

Richard Johnson:

-- and that's quite a thrill. Yeah, at age 17 to be up there on stage in Boston Symphony singing the Brahms "Requiem."

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

Yeah. My brother was a senior when I was a freshman. So he got me involved with that, and so I've -- I've continued. I'm still active at singing with the church choir and Counsel on Aging and used to be with AARP and so on.

Thomas Swope:

Umhum.

Richard Johnson:

But I'm slowing down a little bit now. I'm entitled when I'm 80.

Thomas Swope:

Exactly. You think we covered it?

Richard Johnson:

I think so.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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