|Cassette recorded oral history interview with George Johnson by Gordon Doule. He discusses his experiences in the 38th Division during World War II.
Interview with George Johnson, Col., Retired U.S Army
Conducted by Gordon Doule
D: This is an interview that is taking place on March 18, 1994. I'm Gordon Doule and with me is George Johnson. George is going to give a little background - age and things of that nature for posterity. Please go right ahead George.
J: Alright. Good. Thank you. I, I live in Oshkosh now and I moved here in ah, 1968. After a long time in the army. A little bit of background here; actually I was born in Minnesota and ah, I went to West Point and while I was there I met Ruth Keyes from Oshkosh and she was attending a Jr. College in Washington, D.C. And it was actually at the fourth inaugural parade of Franklin Delano Roosevelt . My particular battalion from West Point was selected to march in that parade. And that evening, having nothing better to do, I was invited to a dinner dance at her college. And I went there and ah, the minute I laid eyes on her, I knew that she was going to be mine. And six months later, after I had graduated, we ah, were married.
Well, this was in 1941, so ah, our married life at first it was pretty short. Because in December of '41 of course Pearl Harbor occurred. And ah she ah, came back to Oshkosh and lived here for three and a half years while I spent the next time over in the Philippines. And New Guinea and the Philippines. And whilst there I served in the 38th Infantry Division. I started out as a platoon commander of Field Artillery, and then ah, was Battery Commander.
My particular Division had the particular mission of retaking Bataan in the Philippines. And also the island of Corregidor. And it was really a long period of combat.
I think one recollection that I have of this was that ah, the battle of Zig Zag Pass was written up as one of the toughest ah, battles against the Japanese. I at that time was just a Battery Commander actually. After the battle was over - the battle lasted about three days. Three days and three nights. And the Japanese of course, never gave up. They ah, fought to the last man. Literally. You simply couldn't take any prisoners because they fought until they were dead.
About two or three days after that, I had the mission, another officer and myself and a driver, of going through this battlefield and we were on a reconnaissance for [ ] artillery positions and one thought, one recollection I have was the sight of that battlefield. Now you remember this is in the, in jungle area, and there was simply not a leaf or branch or anything left of the trees. Everything had been beaten down with artillery fire.
But the one that re.. that I think of that seeing all the dead enemy soldiers; they still hadn't been collected or taken away and ah, the stench was so terrible that I could still recall the sight of all these dead bodies on this battlefield and the terrible stench.
So, ah, that battle was over with and we went on and finally the war was ended. After that of course I was very eager to come back to the U.S. And then Ruth and I enjoyed a long wonderful life in the army. Ah, we served in many places. I served in the Pentagon and she and I, by this time we had a couple of kids - we had three altogether.
We had a diplomatic tour in Cairo, Egypt. And we used to refer to that as the "Golden Age of the Johnson's." This, this was just the most fabulous tour you could possibly imagine. Ah, lots of hard work and long hours and so on but it was just a wonderful tour.
Then, then ah, we came back for some more tours in the U.S. and the army did send me to Syracuse University for an MBA degree which I appreciated very much. And ah, after I served a tour in the Pentagon, in the office of the Controller of the Army, we got an assignment to Munich, Germany. And again I ah, enjoyed the military service so much and Ruth did too. We had a marvelous tour in Germany and we decided that Munich would be one of our favorite cities in all the world.
Well, now we're getting along in my service. We've skipped over quite a bit but I've hit a couple of highlights.
Then, in 1968, ah, the decision must be made. Are we going to ah…am I going to retire now or are we going to spend more time in the army. Ah, we'd had a nice long tour and ah the service had been very, very enjoyable. And I decided then I would retire. So where to go. Where to retire. We liked Auburn, Alabama very much. I, another tour I had was on the faculty at Auburn. I was the commandant of the cadets at that place. And we made a lot of friends there even though we were a couple of Yankees who had moved down to a southern town. We made friends very ,very easily. And kept a lot of friends all the time. We liked that. But ah, we decided that Oshkosh would be a good place to try.
So we moved back here and bought a house on Washington Avenue, and ah, enjoyed life very much and ah, at first I used to grouse about the cold winters here even though I did come from Minnesota originally. And Ruth would always say, "Well, let's go, let's take a trip down to Auburn and take a look there. So we did, year after year. But ah, as time went on, we both liked the people in Oshkosh. It was so easy to get along with people here and ah, likeable, and we made some good friends here. And ah, as time went on, Auburn faded into the background and we no longer cared about going down there.
As we went along and lived here and enjoyed our life very much, I took a test to be a stock broker, and ah, spent ten years as a stock broker down town. And ah, then I had an opportunity to teach a night course in stocks and bonds at the Fox Valley Technical College, which I did. And actually I continued that up until last year. And, ah, so I guess you could say I'm retired, retired, retired now. And ah, enjoying a lot of bridge and living here.
One of the things that I would like to state here is that what experience was so important in my military life, and I'll have to say that ah, that my working for and getting an appointment to West Point was a, probably the greatest influence in my life. I enjoyed the four years there. They were four rigorous years but ah, physically and mentally it has stood me in good stead all my adult life.
Well, unfortunately, a couple of years ago my wonderful wife got the 'big C' and ah, a few months later she died of cancer. And ah, this has been a great blow to me. And ah, so now I must ah, carry on and ah, enjoy playing bridge and enjoy some other activities. O.K Gordon.
D: O.K. George. Ah, let's back up just a little bit now, back to your dealings in the southwest Pacific. During World War II. Specifically in the retaking of the Bataan Peninsula. Can you give me any ah, ah, interesting stories about the involvement of your artillery - it was artillery brigade.
J: Artillery battalion.
D: Can you give us a little about the Zig Zag deal? Elaborate on that, just how…
J: Yes. Well, my particular division started out at a training area in New Guinea.
D: That division was?
J: The 38th Infantry Division. We left the Port of New Orleans and we stopped at Hawaii for a couple of months of jungle training. And then ah, we boarded the ship and went all the way to New Guinea. Now I have ah, at one time I sat down and calculated the amount of time that I had spent aboard ship. All the way from New Orleans to New Guinea and on up to the Philippines and it came out to be eleven weeks of time. These were just troop ships of course and most of the time I was the junior troop commander. But ah, we did land in New Guinea and we had further jungle training. And continued to train at the time and then the time came to board ship again and go right up to the Philippines.
D: You never did make a stop in Australia then like a lot…
J: No. We didn't make a stop in Australia but ah, we did stop at the island of Leyte which is the first place that MacArthur landed when he retook the Philippines. And there's a rather dramatic picture, movie, showing his wading ashore. And ah, 'course, and ah, through the water and of course everything was pretty well planned for that. The Japanese had been pretty well beaten back by the time he did that but it was really dramatic and ah, spectacular.
D: George, do you remember the signs along the way when you got there that said, "I shall return."
J: "I shall return."
D: The G.I.'s put down, "We'll be there too, Mac."
J: That's ah, that's alright. And but ah, he was one of the great military leaders of all times. Then the next stop, actually at that time we were only aboard ship. I never got off the ship at the island of Leyte. We were in the reserves so to speak, floating reserve I guess you could call it. And the next stop was back to Bataan and of course Bataan is the famous historical place that where finally our troops in 1942 had to surrender. And we landed at Subic Bay. Subic Bay of course ah, it now, well it bec…it became after the war a great naval base. And only in the last couple of years it's been turned back to the Philippines. Which was quite a surprise to me.
We landed at ah, and fought our way to the island of Bataan. And there was one other aspect of it and one of the things was to retake the island of Corregidor. And Corregidor was actually the last bastion, the last place that U.S. troops were in, in 1942 before they surrendered. General MacArthur had left by submarine and so on and so forth, a speed boat and ah, had gone to Australia. General Wainwright was the commander who was ah, stayed there at the island of Corregidor before they finally surrendered.
J: Yeah. And ah, and so we invaded then the island of Corregidor after a great deal of bombardment. Of course my job was an artillery commander. And we had about a regiment of paratroopers. Now the paratroopers were not, did not have a great deal of experience in those days. It was really the beginning of it and we didn't have all the sophisticated equipment then. And after a bombardment, this regiment ah, landed on Corregidor. But ah, the wind was not calculated too carefully and a great number of troops landed right up against the mountainous territory and ah, landed right into some tremendous small arms fire from the Japanese who were still there. The Japanese had a way of digging into caves and no matter how much artillery you put on 'em, they would simply get back into the cave and they were untouched. So we did have quite a few casualties from the paratroopers who landed.
D: And the year of that?
J: That was of course in 1945. In 1945, then the, after the Philippines had been taken again, my division, and by this time I was a captain, we were waiting in the Philippines to invade Japan. And my understanding is that the 38th Division was going to be one of the spearhead troops to land in Japan. And I had read since that time that it was calculated that we would have 500,000 casualties in this invasion of Japan but it was necessary, it appeared to be necessary that this was going to be done.
And ah, while waiting there for that thing and training each and every day, keeping our troops in good shape, the word came down that there was some kind of unusual thing going to happen, some bomb of some kind that ah, had never been seen or heard of before. And ah, well you can imagine a captain of artillery sitting there and, "What kind of nonsense is that? Let's go down to the club and…''"
D: Belt a Scotch…
J: Yeah. And enjoy , enjoy a little bit of life here. So, and so in August of 1945 the news came down that ah, an atomic bomb… I had no idea what an atomic bomb was then and ah, nobody did. But I'll have to say that this was one of the great things that happened for me personally because if they had not developed that atomic bomb, ah, most of my outfit would probably not have survived and I would be lucky if I had survived too. So the atomic bomb without question saved many, many, many American lives.
So then ah, that changed everything because it was not very long after that that MacArthur met the Japanese generals aboard a ship and signed the surrender. The papers were signed for the surrender. One great day, one great day of celebration. And I think I enjoyed celebrating that for many, many months.
D: Battleship Missouri.
J: Battleship Missouri. That's true. It was another great picture of that too. So that's about the story of my life.
D: Well for posterity's sake, for which these tapes are being made, I'd like to add the fact that ah, ah in 1994-95, a lot of people may question the use of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But as George points out, we figured on at least a half a million and by some estimates, a million casualties of American troops trying to invade that island. And we felt, we were grateful as George points out, that at the cost of maybe 500,000 Japanese lives, we saved from 500,000 to a million of ours. And we hope that you will remember who it was that started the war.
J: That sounds very good. A very good ending.
D: O.K. We'll stop there George, and we just might take this up again if you think of anything else ah, that we can plug into this story. And I'm sure you will because has, "Why didn't I say that, why didn't I remember that?" So we'll proceed from there George and I want to thank you very much and I'm sure that posterity wills thank you also
|Oral History Interview with George Johnson
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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