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.  He and his siblings attended Fish Lake School.   

    In 1937, Vernon joined the Civilian Conservation Corps at the age of seventeen.  He later worked for Seagar's Refrigeration.  On April 4, 1941, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Vernon was inducted into the U. S. Army.  He was 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.  After the maneuvers, on the side of a hill, the 192nd learned that they were being sent overseas.  The reason for this was that they were
going to train other soldiers as tankers.

    The battalion traveled by train to San Francisco.  By ferry, they were taken to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island.  On the island, they received inoculations and physicals.  Those members of the battalion who were found to have treatable medical conditions remained behind on the island.  They were scheduled to join the battalion at a later date.
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.S. Hugh L. Scott and sailed from San Francisco on Monday, October 27th, for Hawaii as part of a three ship convoy.  They arrived at Honolulu on Sunday, November 2nd.  The soldiers were given leaves so they could see the island.  On November 5th, the ships sailed for Guam.   At one point, the ships passed an island at night.  While they passed the island, they did so in total blackout.  This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm's way.  When they arrived at Guam, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables.  The ships sailed the same day for Manila and entered Manila Bay on Thursday, November 20th.  They docked at Pier 7 and the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. 
    At the fort, they were greeted by Gen. Edward King.  The general apologized that the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield.  He made sure that they all received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own. 
Ironically, November 20th was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
For the next seventeen days the tankers worked to remove cosmoline from their weapons.  The grease was put on the weapons to protect them from rust while at sea.  They also loaded ammunition belts and did tank maintenance as they readied their tanks to take part in maneuvers.

    The morning of December 8, 1941, December 7th on the other side of the International Date Line, Vernon and the other A Company members were called together by Capt. Walter Write.  Write told the men that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor just ten hours earlier.  Being a member of a tank crew, Vernon and his crew were ordered to the perimeter of the airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers.

    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 Japanese.  "They caught us sleeping. We were in the dark and lost a lot of planes."

    For the next month, Vernon fought the Japanese.  In January, he and the other tankers were the last American unit to enter the Bataan Peninsula.  Vernon continued to fight the Japanese until April 9, 1942.  That morning, Capt. Fred Bruni told the tankers that the Filipino and American forces on Bataan were surrendered to the Japanese.  The tankers destroyed their tanks and made their way to Mariveles at the southern tip of Bataan.

    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 four horses or forty men.  Once 100 men were in a car, the Japanese shut the doors.  The prisoners rode the cars to San Fernando.  There, they climbed out of the cars.  As they did this, the bodies of the dead fell to the floor or out of the cars.  Vernon walked the last ten miles to Camp O'Donnell.  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."

    Vernon was next held as a POW at Cabanatuan.  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.  

    Vernon and the other POWs used hand tools to build runways at an airport.  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 vegetablesThey threw us fish heads and rice."

    It is known that on June 1, 1944, Vernon was sent to Bilibid with a contusion on his left knee.   He was treated, discharged the next day, and returned to the airfield.  Medical records show that he readmitted to the hospital on June 17, 1944, with serum sickness.  He was discharged on June 20th.
    At some point, Vernon was returned to Bilibid Prison.  This time he received a physical and selected for shipment to Japan.  He was marched to the Port Area of Manila and loaded onto the Hokusen Maru.  The ship was also known as the Haro Maru. The detachment of POWs he was in was originally scheduled to sail on the Arisan Maru.  The detachment that was scheduled to sail on the Hokusen Maru had not completely arrived and the ship was ready to sail.  Since Vernon's detachment had arrived, the Japanese swapped ships and boarded Vernon's detachment on the ship.

    The ship sailed from Manila on October 3, 1944.  To avoid American submarines and because of bad weather, it took the ship eight days to reach Hong Kong.  The ship remained in port until it sailed on October 21st.  It did not reach Takao, Formosa, until November 11th.  The POWs were disembarked after it arrived.  It should be mentioned that the Vernon's original ship, the Arisan Maru was sunk by an American submarine.  Only nine of the POWs on it survived the sinking.  Most drowned when the Japanese refused to rescue them.

    In recalling his time on the hell ship, Vernon said, "There 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 typhoons."  Since the 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 hit."  

    Vernon arrived in Japan and was held at Narumi Camp.  He and the other 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 near 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.  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.


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