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.  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 the Filipinos as tankers.

    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.S. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27th, as part of a three ship convoy. 
During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP.  They arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2nd and had a two day layover.  The soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island. 
    On Wednesday, November 5th, the ships sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. 
During this part of the voyage, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon.  The cruiser that was escorting the two transports revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it took off in the direction of the smoke.  It turned out that the unknown ship was from a friendly country.    
When they arrived at Guam, 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.  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.  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. the soldiers disembarked and most were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. 
    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.
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."
    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.
    On December 25th, the tanks of the battalion 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 an off engagement that lasted three days.  During the fight, five Japanese tanks were knocked out.  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.  The company returned to the 192nd on January 8, 1942.
    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.  They also took part in the Battle of the Pockets and the Battle of the Points. 

    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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