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 School.   

    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 goodbyes.
    The company traveled by train to San Francisco, California, and they were ferried to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island.  On the island, they received inoculations and physicals, and those members of the battalion who were found to have treatable medical conditions remained behind on the island.  They were scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date.  Other men were simply replaced.
    The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27th.  During this part of the trip, many of the tankers suffered from seasickness.  Once they recovered, they spent their time breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP.  The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2nd and had a two day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island. 
    On Wednesday, November 5th, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes.  It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S. S. Calvin Coolidge.  Sunday night, November 9th, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11th.  During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Date Line.  On Saturday, November 15th, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon.  The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke.  It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country.
    When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16th, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day.  At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout.  This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm's way.  The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20th, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning.  At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg.  Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
    At the fort, they were greeted by Colonel Edward P. King, who apologized that they had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field.  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.
    The members of the battalion pitched the tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg.  The tents were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent.  There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents.  
    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.

    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 all times.
    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."
    When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield.  Since the battalion's bivouac was near the main road between the fort and airfield, the soldiers watched as the dead, dying, and wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks and trucks.  Anything that could carry the wounded was in use.  When the hospital filled, they watched the medics place the wounded under the building.  Many of these men had their arms and legs missing.
    That night the soldiers had slept their last night in a bed.  For protection, they slept under their tanks or in them.
    Four days after the attack, on December 12th, the company was sent to the Barrio of Dau to protect a highway and railroad from sabotage.  From there, the company was sent to join the other companies of the 192nd just south of the Agno River.  There, the battalion, with A Company, 194th held the position so other units could withdraw from the area.
    On December 23rd and 24th, the company was in the area of Urdaneta, where that the tankers lost the company commander, Capt. Walter Write.  After he was buried, the tankers made an end run to get south of Agno River.  As they did this, they ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening but successfully crossed at the river in the Bayambang Province.
    From there, the company was sent to join the other companies of the 192nd just south of the Agno River.  There, the tanks, with A Company, 194th, held the position.  On December 25th, the 192nd held the southern bank of the Agno River from Carmen to Tayung, with the tanks of the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road.  The tanks held the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27th.

    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.
    The 192nd and part of the 194th fell back to form a new defensive line the night of December 27th and 28th.  From there they fell back to the south bank of the BamBan River which they were suppose to hold for as long as possible.  The tanks were at Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 28th and 29th serving as a rear guard against the Japanese.
    A Company was sent, in support of the 194th, to an area east of Pampanga.  It was there that they lost a tank platoon commander, Lt. William Read.  That night, on a road east of Zaragoza, on December 30th, the company was bivouacked for the night and posted sentries.  The sentries heard a noise on the road and woke the other tankers who grabbed Tommy-guns and manned the tanks' machine guns.  As they watched, a Japanese bicycle battalion rode into their bivouac.  When the last bicycle passed the tanks, the tankers opened up on them.  When they stopped firing, they had completely wiped out the bicycle battalion.  To leave the area, the tankers drove their tanks over the bodies.
   As the Filipino and American forces fell back toward Bataan, A Company took up a position near the south bank of the Gumain River the night of December 31st and January 1st.  Believing that the Filipino Army was in front of them allowed the tankers to get some sleep.  It was that night that the Japanese lunched an attack to cross the river.
    As the Japanese attempted to advance they were cut down by the tankers.  The tankers created gaping holes in their ranks.  To lower their losses, the Japanese tried to cover their advance with a smoke screen.  Since the wind was blowing against them, the smoke blew into the Japanese line.  When the Japanese broke off the attack, they had lost about half their men.
    From January 2nd to 4th, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the southern forces could escape.  It was also in January 1942, that the food ration was cut in half.  It was not too long after this was done that malaria, dysentery, and dengue fever began hitting the soldiers.
    On January 5th, while attached to the 194th Tank Battalion, A Company withdrew from the line.  Lt. Kenneth Bloomfield received orders to launch a counter-attack against the Japanese on a tail picked by Provisional Tank Group command. Bloomfield, while attempting to attack, radioed the tank group that the trail did not exist.
   It was evening and the tankers believed they were in a relatively safe place near Lubao along a dried up creek bed.  Bloomfield told his men to get some sleep.  Their sleep was interrupted by the sound of a gun shot at about 1:50 A.M.  The tankers had no idea that they were about to engage the Japanese who had lunched a major offensive across an open field wearing white shirts which made them easy targets.  There was a great deal of confusion and the battle lasted until 3:00 A.M., when the Japanese broke off the attack.  Within days of this action, the company returned to the command of the 192nd. 
    A Company, was sent in support of the 194th, to an area east of Pampanga.  At Guagua,  A Company with the 11th Infantry Division, Philippine Army, attempted to make a counterattack against the Japanese.  Somehow, the Filipinos mistook the tanks as Japanese and accurately used mortars on them knocking out three tanks.  A Company rejoined the 194th east of Guagua.
ta    The night of January 7th, A Company was awaiting orders to cross the last bridge into Bataan over the Culis Creek.  The engineers were ready to blow up the bridge, but the battalion's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Ted Wickord, ordered the engineers to wait until he had looked to see if they were anywhere in sight.  He found the company, asleep in their tanks, because they had not received the order to withdraw across the bridge.  After they had crossed, the bridge was destroyed.   
    The next day the tanks received maintenance.  It was the first rest that the two tank battalions had since December 24th.
    While American and Filipino forces were withdrawing from Pilar-Bigac Line, the battalion prevented the Japanese from overrunning the position and cutting off the withdrawing troops.  The morning of January 27th, a new battle line had been formed and all units were suppose to be beyond it.  That morning, the tanks were still holding their position six hours after they were suppose to have withdrawn.  While holding the position, the tanks, with self-propelled mounts, ambushed, at point blank range, three Japanese units causing 50 percent casualties.

    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 attempting landings.
    The company also took part in the Battle of the Pockets.  The Japanese offensive had been stopped and two groups of Japanese soldiers were trapped behind the main line of defense.  The tanks were sent in to help eliminate the pockets.   The tanks would enter the pocket one at a time to replace a tank in the pocket.  Another tank did not enter the pocket until the tank, which had been relieved, had left the pocket.    
    To wipe out the Japanese two methods were employed.  The first method was to have three Filipino soldiers sit on the back of the tanks with sacks of hand grenades.  When the Japanese dove back into their foxholes, the tank would go over it and the soldiers would drop three hand grenades into the foxhole.  Since the ordnance was from World War I, one out of three hand grenades would usually explode.
    The second method was simple.  The tank was parked with one track across the foxhole.  The driver gave power to the opposite track and spun the tank dragging the other track.  The tank dug into the dirt until the Japanese soldiers were dead.
    The soldiers were hungry and began to eat everything they could get their hands on to eat.  The Carabao were tough but if they were cooked long enough they could be eaten.  They also began to eat horse meat provided by the 26th U. S. Cavalry.  To make things worse, the soldiers' rations were cut in half again on March 1, 1942.  This meant that they only ate two meals a day.   
    The Japanese also were dropping surrender leaflets with a scantly clad blond on them.  The Japanese would have been more successful at getting the Americans to surrender if the picture had been hamburger, since the men were so hungry that they most likely would have surrendered for a good meal.
    During the Battle of the Points, on March 2nd and 3rd, the tanks were sent in to wipe out Japanese troops that had broken through the main defensive line and than trapped behind the line after the Filipino and American troops pushed the Japanese back toward the sea and wiped them out.   

   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.
    On April 4, 1942, the Japanese launched a attack supported by artillery and aircraft.  A large force of Japanese troops came over Mount Samat and descended down the south face of the volcano.  This attack wiped out two divisions of defenders and left a large area of the defensive line open to the Japanese.  When General King saw that the situation was hopeless, he initiated surrender talks with the Japanese.    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 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 vegetablesThey 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.
    The Japanese guards encouraged the POWs to take their time when digging.  The guards didn't care how much dirt the POWs moved all they had to do is look busy.  The reason the guards did this was because they liked the detail and wanted to stretch it out as long as possible.  The only time the POWs were expected to work hard was when big shots came around to inspect the work.  

    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 Cabanatuan. 
    After returning to Cabanatuan, Vernon was returned to Clark Field to work.  On June 1, 1944, Vernon was again 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 and 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 Nissyo Maru.  The POWs boarded the ship on July 17, 1944, and were not fed until 9:00 P.M.  The next morning the ship moved to a point off the breakwater and dropped anchor.  It sat there for a week until other ships from a convoy designated HI 68 arrived.  As part of a 21 ship convoy the Nissyo Maru sailed for Formosa  on July 24th.

    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 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." 
    The morning of July 25th, the ships were attacked by three American submarines.  The first attack on the ship failed and the ships escaped.  One of the subs, the U.S.S. Flasher, made contact with the ships again and radioed the other two subs. The Flasher attacked hitting two ships with torpedoes.  Another ship, the Otoriyama Maru, which was a tanker, went up in flames sending the flames over the open hatch on the Nissyo Maru.
    The POWs panicked and attempted to climb out of the holds.  The Japanese guards aimed their machine guns into the holds.  Father Cummings, a Catholic priest, led the POWs in prayer to calm them down.  The subs broke off the attack after nearly 30 hours having sunk three ships and damaging another.  The ships made it to Takao, Formosa, on July 27th, docking at 1:00 P.M.  The ships sailed the next day and arrived at Moji, Japan, on August 3rd.

    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.


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