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
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 vegetables. They 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.
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. In the U. S., he was hospitalized at Hines Hospital which was located in 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.