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
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
From this time
on, two tank
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."
Vernon continued to fight the Japanese until April 9, 1942. 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."
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 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
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 Cabanatuan.
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
was terribly rough. We had
typhoons." Since 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 hit."
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 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.