|9/28/2021 1:27:00 PM|
World War II Veteran, Norm Johnson,
Reflects on His Time in the Service
By Blake McCoy
World War II veteran, Norm Johnson, was born in 1926 in Dodgeville, WI. When he was 11 years old, his family moved to Mineral Point. "You couldn't hardly walk on Main Street. It looked like a carnival on weekend nights. Every tavern was full and people were doing great business," said Johnson. "It was fantastic."
At age 15, Johnson began working at Purity Dairy, where he hauled ten gallon milk cans. "They were almost as heavy as I was," said Johnson. For Johnson, life as a kid in Mineral Point was pretty good. "Us kids were just free as anybody could be," said Johnson. "You were on the go. You were hunting or fishing or playing outside. Come supper time, mom or dad would yell to come home."
Johnson is the son of Fred and Vera Johnson. He had nine siblings and is the oldest of the Johnson children. Johnson started driving milk truck for the dairy, which he did until he was drafted into the United States military at 18 years old. Johnson was drafted at the same time as his uncle, and they trained in the same platoon in Texas. When Johnson was offered the chance to choose which branch of the military to enter, he picked the infantry. "I was an outdoor person, I always was," said Johnson.
At basic training, Johnson was already ahead of the game."When I got to the service, I was in really good physical shape." He said that he had hauling milk cans to thank for that. "It's not easy, but I was strong enough," said Johnson. "Some men had a lot of problems getting used to that kind of life." Johnson was selected to qualify for Officer's Candidate School. "I'd only been in there a few weeks," said Johnson. While in basic training, Johnson picked up a few other skills as well. "I learned how to smoke before basic training was over," said Johnson. "If you took a break alongside the road someplace, most of the guys yanked out a cigarette and they offered you one."
"The training was rugged," said Johnson. "There wasn't anything I disliked about it, but sometimes it was dangerous. It was nasty." Johnson said that the men learned how to fire different weapons and use different techniques.
After completing his basic training, Johnson returned home for a brief time in April and May of 1945. The unit was scheduled to deploy to Germany following an eleven day furlough. However, while on furlough, the war in Germany ended. Johnson traveled to Fort Meade, as originally planned, but was quickly sent to Texas for more training. After that, Johnson was stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey County, California. From there he boarded a ship and set sail into the Pacific Ocean, heading for the Philippines.
When arriving, Johnson's unit joined Company F, 186th Infantry Regiment of the 41st Division. Although the war in Germany had ended, Johnson said that the fighting wasn't over in the Pacific Islands. "There was still danger, but it wasn't the same as when you're going in under fire," said Johnson. While in the Philippines, there weren't many reminders of home. As a special treat, the men were given two cans of beer and two packs of cigarettes. "Before I went to service, I don't think I ever had a can of beer," said Johnson. "I would trade my two cans of beer for somebody's cigarettes."
From there, the unit headed to Japan. "There was a terrible hurricane," said Johnson. According to Johnson, the typhoon created 30 to 40 feet high, and the U.S Military lost over 100 ships in the storm. "The ship would go so high on the waves, you could look over the side and see ships down below. Then we'd go down so low, you couldn't see anything but water on both sides of you," said Johnson. "People were throwing up. It was a mess."
Despite the treacherous conditions, Johnson's ship and unit remained intact. As the storm cleared, they sailed toward the Japanese islands of Okinawa. "The sun was shining there. It looked like such a beautiful green island," said Johnson.
"We did a lot of thinking about going up to Japan to invade it," said Johnson. "We knew what had happened in the other invasions. We knew what had happened at Okinawa and Iwo Jima. We lost a lot of people, and there were a lot more people wounded," said Johnson.
The unit docked in the southern part of Japan. "We landed over the side of the ship and down the ropes, and into the boats," said Johnson. The men then traveled by train into the surrounding areas of Hiroshima, one of the two Japanese cities (Nagasaki being the other) largely destroyed by the dropping of atomic bombs by the U.S. Military in August, 1945.
By the time Johnson's unit arrived in Japan, the nuclear weapons had already been used on the cities. The unit set up camp outside of Hiroshima where there was minor destruction and they traveled into the city when necessary.
The bombing had killed between 70,000 and 80,000 Japanese people and wounded another 70,000 at Hiroshima alone. Much of the city had been demolished. "In the actual area of where all the damage was, you looked up and down the streets, and it looked like a cemetery," said Johnson. "There were just black boxes, where every house was." Johnson and his unit later learned that the black boxes they had seen were safes that had once been inside of the houses that stood in the city, prior to the explosion. "That was all that was left of the homes," said Johnson.
On the outskirts of the city, the military camp was a makeshift home for Johnson and his unit. The men dug latrines into the soil, played cards and checkers, and ate meals made by the cook. On rare occasions, the unit would be given a treat that reminded them of home. Once, they even had steak for dinner. "We hadn't had anything like that ever since we left home," said Johnson.
"I don't know where they kept that steak or where they found it, but you could chew on it all day and then spit it out. It was just as tough as a rock." Nonetheless, it was a luxury for Johnson.
The unit was instructed to spend time with the locals. The men attended dinners at the houses of Japanese families and worked alongside many Japanese men. "They were strong," said Johnson. "The people were just as nice as they could be." Some of the men in Johnson's unit learned to speak Japanese well, some got to know the people and the culture, and some men in Johnson's unit even opened a beer parlor which was run by U.S. soldiers and Japanese citizens. "You had to buy a six-pack," said Johnson. They wouldn't let you buy a can of beer. So you'd learn how to drink beer pretty good."
Although the men were able to enjoy themselves at times, the reality of the environment was ever present. "Some of those guys that had been there a long time, were rag-tag, made into tough people," said Johnson. "They'd seen hell."
World War II was the deadliest recorded military conflict in history. An estimated 70 to 85 million people lost their lives as result of the war. 50 to 56 million deaths are estimated to be civilian and military fatalities as a direct result of conflict.
Johnson's unit was at Hiroshima for about two months, until they were transferred to Nagoya, Japan. The men that had been in the service for several years were then sent home, while the young men who were newer to the military, like Johnson, stayed in Japan. Johnson was then transferred into the 7th Major Port, where he was made quartermaster. Because Johnson had experience driving large vehicles from before the war, he was given a military truck.
"My job at that time was to go to ships, merchant marine ships, and talk to the steward, get their orders, and go back to our warehouses, and deliver them," said Johnson. "I had an assistant driver and three Japanese people that worked to load and unload the truck." In Japan, Johnson became a Technician Fourth Grade, or T/4, which is a United States Army Sergeant ranking.
When he wasn't busy transporting orders, Johnson's duties included disposing of the ammunition and bombs left behind by the Japanese and United States militaries. "They would load them on the truck and we'd drive onto a barge. They'd take us out into the ocean. We backed up to the edge of the barge, and then we'd open up the tailgate. Everything went into the ocean."
While overseas, Johnson wrote letters to his mother, family, and friends, staying as in touch as he could with life in Mineral Point. Sometimes the men would go weeks on end without receiving a mail delivery. At the beginning of his service, Johnson would write two or three letters a week, and at least one letter every two weeks later on in his time abroad.
Johnson and his unit left Japan in late September of 1946. The unit had no advance information about when their time in Japan would come to an end. "We were really on our own," said Johnson. "My buddy and I went someplace, and when we came back it was late afternoon. I didn't see anybody I knew. There were some different people down at the motorpool." While he had been away, Johnson's unit had packed up and another company had taken their place. His unit was set to leave on the train shortly. "All of our stuff was all packed in duffle bags and sitting right there at the motorpool. We put them on a truck and hoped to God we could catch that train," said Johnson. "We got up there, and the train hadn't left. But there was no warning about that. If there was one, I didn't hear about it." Johnson's service officially ended in October of that year.
When he returned home to Mineral Point, Johnson went right back to work. "I didn't have nine hours off," said Johnson. On the morning after his arrival home, the owner of Purity Dairy made a trip to the Johnson house. One of the milk truck drivers had called in sick, and they needed somebody to drive the route. "Art (the owner of the Purity Dairy) came up and shook me in my bed," said Johnson. He asked Johnson to drive his old route again that day to fill in for the sick driver. "I got home at one o'clock in the morning, and here it's six o'clock in the morning," said Johnson.
Although he had only been back for a short time, Johnson agreed and went to work that morning. "I was driving the truck with my fatigues on," Johnson laughed. From that day, he continued to work at Purity Dairy. "I was back on the job right then."
In 1948, Johnson married Marilyn Thompson. The couple made their home in Mineral Point, and raised eight children together: Dale (who was a Vietnam Veteran), Dallas, Dan, Sandra, Shari, Mary, Marshall, and Marsha. Johnson has 15 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and one great-great grandchild. Johnson also kept lifelong friends from his time in the service who were fellow Wisconsinites.
After Purity Dairy closed, Johnson worked for Bancroft Dairy where he was later transferred to Madison to work as a supervisor. From there, he took a job working at PET Dairy in Lake Geneva, and later transitioned into working for Wisconsin Power and Light. "My first 25 years of work was, in some way, in the dairy business, and my last 30 were with Wisconsin Power and Light."
Johnson is an American Legion Veteran and VFW Veteran. For many years he was very involved in the organizations. He enjoyed walking in parades and working with his fellow veterans. "Our drill squad of 35 or 36 men were an interesting, beyond a doubt, group of people," said Johnson. Johnson fondly recalls the many enjoyable times he shared with his drill squad. "They were a fun bunch of guys. They liked to work and they liked to play."
Today, Johnson lives in his home in Mineral Point. Every morning, Johnson starts his day by listening to a podcast of a sermon on his smartphone. "To me, if I didn't believe, it's like living in a dark hole. I know Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior," said Johnson. At 95 years old, he enjoys spending time with his family, carpentry, and gardening. He tends to several plants and he keeps a daily journal. Johnson said that his time in the military taught him several things about life. "Sometimes you have to do things you don't want to do," said Johnson. "I'm a very, very fortunate man." He also finds great joy in making connections with others. "I try to understand people. I love people. I like to make them feel good if I can."
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