Pvt. Vernon Alton Johnson
| Pvt. Vernon
Alton Johnson was born on August 17, 1919, to John
C. Johnson & Anna Lockert-Johnson in
Grantsburg, Wisconsin. With his four
brothers and sister, he grew up in Fish Lake,
Wisconsin, where he attended Fish Lake
In 1937, Vernon joined the Civilian Conservation Corps at the age of seventeen and later worked for Seagar's Refrigeration. On April 4, 1941, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Vernon was inducted into the U. S. Army and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training. There, he was assigned to A Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. This tank company was originally a Wisconsin National Guard tank company from Janesville. The reason he was assigned to the company was that the army was attempting to fill-out the rosters of the companies of the 192nd with men from home states of each of the companies.
After training at Ft. Knox, the 192nd took part
in maneuvers in Louisiana from September 1st
through 30th. After the maneuvers the
battalion was sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana, and
on the side of a hill, the 192nd learned that
they were being sent overseas. Most of the
men received furloughs home to say their
On December 1st, the tankers were ordered to the
perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard against
Japanese paratroopers. From this time on,
two tank crew members remained with each tank at
Around 12:25 in the afternoon, Vernon recalled
seeing planes Clark Field, "They looked so beautiful
flying in. We thought they were ours."
It was only when bombs began exploding that the
tankers knew that the planes were
caught us sleeping. We were in the dark and
lost a lot of planes."
The battalion was also involved in another
engagement at Cabanatuan, where the tanks were
involved in an on and off engagement that lasted
three days. During the fight, five
Japanese tanks were knocked out.
On January 28th, the tank battalions were given
the job of protecting the beaches. The
192nd was assigned the coast line from Paden
Point to Limay along Bataan's east coast.
The Japanese later admitted that the tanks
guarding the beaches prevented them from
The company's last bivouac area was about twelve
kilometers north of Marivales and looking out on
the China Sea. By this point, the tankers
knew that there was no help on the way.
Many had listened to Secretary of War Harry L.
Stimson on short wave. When asked about
the Philippines, he said, "There are times when men
must die." The
soldiers cursed in response because they knew
that the Philippines had already been lost.
At Mariveles, Vernon and the other Prisoners of War were searched. The Japanese took whatever they wanted from the POWs. After being searched, Vernon started what he and other prisoners called, "The Big Walk."
"I don't know how far we walked. You'd get on Cloud Nine and so you wouldn't notice anything. I guess we walked about 70 miles. The heat was unbearable. We were already starving when we started out. They didn't feed us, not one bit. They were the dirtiest rottenest people in the world."
Vernon recalled what happened to a friend on the march. "I had a little buddy who tried to get water out of a puddle. The Japanese soldier stuck him in the back - bayoneted him. Then he washed the blood off in the water."
Vernon made his way to Capas. There, he and the other POWs were packed into small boxcars that could hold eight horses or forty men. Once 100 men were put into each car and the Japanese shut the doors. The prisoners rode the cars to San Fernando and were packed in so tightly that the dead could not fall to the floors. There, the living climbed out of the cars, and the bodies of the dead fell to the floors of the cars. Vernon walked the last ten miles to Camp O'Donnell. When he reached the camp, it had taken seven days to complete the march.
Camp O'Donnell in Vernon's own words was, "The dirtiest camp in the
world. I stayed there three days. It was
crowded, filthy, and everybody was sick with
dysentery." To get
out of the camp, Vernon went out on a work
detail, but it is not known which detail he was
on at this time.
Vernon was next held as a POW at Cabanatuan after he returned from the work detail. He was selected to be sent to Bilibid Prison. He recalled. "They packed 80 of us guys in a car. We rode for 70 miles. Guys died left and right." It is not known how long he remained at Bilibid, but it is known that from Bilibid Vernon was selected for a work detail at Lipa, Batangas.
On the detail, Vernon and the other POWs used hand tools to build runways at an airfield. It was at this time that the Japanese imposed the "blood brother" rule. The POWs also worked in groups pushing carts full of rocks. "For three days I worked there on my hands and knees with no food or water. I just figured I was going to be shot. You had to be careful. We worked in ten-man squads and if one man took off, we all got shot." Recalling the rule, Vernon said, "I saw it happen once."
After this detail, Vernon was sent to
Cabanatuan. While in the camp, he was put
to work farming for several months.
Recalling his work, "They got the good vegetables.
They threw us fish heads and rice."
Vernon was next sent out on a work detail to
Clark Field where the POWs were housed in
barracks at the airfield. Their job was to
extend runways and build revetments. Men
who tried to talk to their friends were beaten.
On four occasions, Vernon was sent to the
hospital ward at Bilibid Prison. Medical
records kept at the prison show that was
hospitalized with gastritis on July 6,
1943. No date of discharge is known, but
when he was released, he was sent to Ward 1 at
the prison. He was readmitted to the
hospital on October 12th, for gastritis, and
discharged on October 21st and sent to
In recalling his time on the hell ship, Vernon
were 500 of us in the hold. You
couldn't move for 28 days. And you didn't
sleep. Some of our guys were thirsty.
They were delirious from hunger and
thirst. They'd cut your throat and
drink your blood."
In the South China Sea the ship encountered
bad weather. "It
was terribly rough. We had
the Japanese refused to mark the ships with "red
crosses" which indicated that the ships were
carrying POWs, the POWs also had to worry about
being attacked by American submarines. "They, the Americans, did
not know we were down there. During
the trip though, we were praying to get
Vernon was held at Narumi Camp where the POWs were used as slave labor in a locomotive factory. Each night, he and the other POWs were required to dig. "Two hours a night we carry sand out of a hole we were digging into a hill. It was about fourteen feet high by fourteen feet wide and went pretty far back. We found out later it was going to be our grave in case the Americans attacked. They were going to put us in there and cover us up." At the time, he and the other POWs had no idea that they were digging a mass grave that would be used by them if American forces landed in Japan.
Vernon's time in this camp was better than it had been at other camps because he had a skill that the Japanese commander admired. "I use to play the fiddle for him. He didn't know music for crap, but I'd get four or five cigarettes doing it, and I traded those for rice." The regular diet for the POWs was rice and fish.
On August 6, 1945, Vernon recalled a hazy stillness settled over the camp. This was the day that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki. He recalled that a few days later, "The Japanese cleared out of there in a hurry."
When the POWs learned that the war was over, they wanted to go home. "We just wanted to get the hell out of there, but we couldn't because of MacArthur. If you did, he said you would be court marshaled. When the going got tough, he left. He was such a phoney." When the POWs were evacuated, they were sent to Guam for ten days before being sent to the Philippines.
Vernon returned to the Philippines before returning to the United States on the U.S.S. Yarmouth, at San Francisco, on October 8, 1945. In the at U. S., he was hospitalized at Hines Hospital which was located next to Maywood, Illinois, the hometown of B Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. Of his time at Hines, he recalled, "Our diet included steak anytime, three cans of beer, and a lot of vitamins. It didn't take long to put on weight." While at the hospital, his right ring finger was removed three fourths of the way down. As a POW he had injured it on a trunk while working and it had hung on his hand for three years. He was discharged on June 28, 1946, with the rank of Staff Sergeant.
Amazingly when Vernon returned home, he found that no one believed what he had experienced as a POW. His own brothers said that he had been on a picnic. This resulted in his refusing to talk about his experiences as a POW for forty years.
Vernon married Helen Grace Wicklund on February 2, 1949. The couple became the parents of three children. Vernon started his own welding and marine company in the Duluth, Minnesota, and the Superior, Wisconsin area. He retired from the company in 1978, and after his retirement, he and Helen returned to Grantsburg.
Vernon Alton Johnson passed away on September 29, 1999, in Grantsburg, Wisconsin. He was buried at Ansgarius Cemetery in Alpha, Burnett County, Wisconsin.