World War II veteran Joseph Johnson of Columbus holds a scrapbook his daughter Gwen Lollar made for him, along with the French Legion of Honour Medal awarded to him in 2013. Johnson, 89, is also the recipient of four bronze stars. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Johnson is one of 14 veterans whose personal accounts of World War II are in the book “Last Eyewitnesses,” released in 2014.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Joseph Johnson shows some of the NASA photographs of his crew training to load a 45,000 pound Jupiter missile in 1957.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
May 23, 2015 10:51:37 PM
When Joseph R. Johnson landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, June 6, 1944 -- D Day -- he prayed fervently the blessing his daddy had said for him the day he left the farm at 17 for the Army would kick in.
"I looked around and I saw all that mess, and I figured out right then as a young boy that I was in trouble," Johnson said, sitting on the screened porch of his Columbus home. "I said, 'Heavenly Father, that blessing my daddy gave me needs to work' ... and it did work. I can bear witness to the world, it did work."
Johnson is one of the last eyewitnesses to D Day. His memories have been recorded in a book written to preserve some of the last voices of soldiers that went ashore at Normandy.
"Last Eyewitnesses: World War II Memories, D-Day to 70th Anniversary" was written by John Long and Walter Parks. Both grew up in Saltillo. Long is an Army veteran and a former Lee County prosecuting attorney. Parks, a Mississippi State University alumnus and aerospace engineer, had a long career with Lockheed Martin before forming a film company and later UnknownTruths Publishing Co., which published "Last Eyewitnesses" in 2014.
"Soon, all these brave men will pass to another time and place," writes Long in the book's introduction. " ... Their personal memories must be preserved."
Fourteen veterans aged 88 to 93 were interviewed for the project -- paratroopers, glider pilots, artillery men, medics, dog soldiers and a sailor. Four of them died within 38 days of their interviews.
Be a good soldier
On D-Day, Joe Johnson, a farm boy from Goodway in south Alabama, was stunned by what he saw on the approach to Utah Beach by sea.
"I was just amazed to see that many ships! I didn't know the United States and the allied countries had that many ships ... "
So many of the armada had been sunk by the Germans, the captain of his transport had to maneuver around masts jutting out of the water to reach shore.
With the 551st AAA Antiaircraft Automatic Weapons Battalion, Johnson set foot on land amid the tumult, one of more than 150,000 allied troops landing that day, according to the D Day Museum.
He did as his daddy, an elder in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had instructed: Listen to your commander and listen to the spirit, and be a good soldier.
It was a horrific time in history, but as Johnson observed, " ... Hitler's goal was to conquer the world, so the American soldiers had a world to save when we stormed that beachhead of Normandy."
His military experiences are indelible. "I can tell you every hour of it," the veteran said.
They include one of his first tasks -- taking out tall, thick hedgerows at Normandy where the Germans had dug in.
"Patton said he wanted those hedgerows down ... and we backed that half-track (half truck, half tank) up there and we sawed them down like a weed eater," he recounted.
On the farm, Johnson could "knock the eyes out" of squirrels and rabbits. He put that skill to use as a Bofors 40mm gunner helping to protect the "Hell on Wheels" Second Armored Division.
He frequently went on reconnaissance.
"We'd go behind enemy lines to find out where they were and what they were doing," he explained. "It's a scary time in your life. If you step on a stick and it breaks, your hair will push the helmet right off your head."
He told of a solo recon mission when dozens of opposition troops suddenly erupted from haystacks. They held a white flag.
"I was right in the middle of them by myself, and I was scared to death ... they were Polish, forced to fight by the Germans or they'd be shot, and they wanted to surrender."
Johnson's memories are many and varied. Some are good ones -- like seeing Bob Hope and Doris Day on a USO tour.
Others, of course, are awful. One of those is the Ardennes Forest in Belgium.
"We were sent to the Ardennes, near the Battle of the Bulge," Johnson began. " ... Patton had sent part of the Third Army up there, and we were gonna try to get those kids out of there."
The forest was "the coldest place in the world." "There ain't no deep freeze in the world as cold as that place was," he said. So cold, that many of the soldiers had frozen to death.
"Lord, that was pitiful," Johnson said, tears forming.
Tears came again as he shared what he calls the capstone of his military service -- Dachau.
Johnson is one of few men living who ever walked into the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, Germany. Helping to blow up a crematorium there is something he will not forget.
When soldiers liberated Dachau in 1945, they found railroad cars outside the camp stacked with bodies in various states of decomposition. Inside, there were more bodies and severely emaciated survivors.
"I remember two men on a single bed, just skin and bones," Johnson said. After he was able to convey that he was an American, one of them managed to murmur, "I knew you'd come someday."
Nothing gave Johnson more satisfaction than being part of planting the TNT that blew a crematory sky-high.
"It's inconceivable that men could be capable of such evil ... so it was a great blessing to do that," he said.
Near the end of his service, Johnson also worked with the CIA, traveling across Europe to pick up arrested SS (Schutzstaffel, German for "protective echelon") troops and transporting them to Nuremberg for war trials.
The day finally came when he made his own journey home -- 17 days on a converted cattle ship, from Germany to New York. The Statue of Liberty never looked so good.
As Joe Johnson talked of World War II, somber moments were plentiful, but so was humor. He has a well-developed sense of it.
He relished telling of encounters with Gen. George S. Patton.
"That's my hero right there," he said, tapping his finger on a magazine cover of the military leader. "Tell you somethin', he's the greatest -- we could use 10 of these guys right now."
He heaped praise on the war-time women of America.
"They were the greatest generation of women this world will ever know. ... They went to the shipyards and the airplane factories and ammunition factories and built all our war machines ... Most of them had a brother, father or husband in the war ... This world doesn't know what a great blessing (they were) and the sacrifice American women made for World War II ... "
His extraordinary experiences didn't end with the war. He met Olivia, now his wife of 60-plus years, and eventually found himself part of another phase of history. While working at Brookley Air Force Base in Mobile, Alabama, he received a brown envelope one day and was told not to open it until he was about 50 miles out of Mobile.
"When I opened the envelope it said to report to Huntsville. We were being sent there to train on a Jupiter missile," Johnson said. The missile would be used to launch the first American satellite.
Johnson and his crew trained to load the 45,000 pound missile into a C-124 aircraft. With only about 6 inches clearance on all sides, it was much like threading a needle. The project, one he couldn't even tell his wife about, brought him in contact with Wernher von Braun, the brilliant aerospace engineer who defected from Germany to the United States and worked with NASA.
Johnson's military and civilian service to the country spanned 42 years and brought him to Columbus. He was awarded the French Legion of Honour Medal in 2013 and is the recipient of four bronze stars. Retired now, he is concerned that the country's history be preserved. It's why he participated in the book.
"They're goin' fast, lady," he said of the World War II vets still living. "And I'll be 90 next week. This is history. ... I really felt like I was a good soldier. I did my best. It was a great honor to be in the service. I would do it again in a minute."
Editor's note: "Last Eyewitnesses: World War II Memories" is available at amazon.com and unknowntruths.com.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.