Saturday, November 11, 2006

Meet Doc Johnson

"All great things are simple, and many can be expressed in single words: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope." ~ Sir Winston Churchill

Meet Robert P (Doc) Johnson, USN CPO Ret. "Doc" is my wife's father. Last week he celebrated his 84th birthday. He has no hearing in his left ear and only 5% hearing in his right ear. His wife, Virginia, died a little over a year ago of breast cancer, ending a marriage of 58 years. His depression was so severe that he rarely talked to anyone until recently.

Recently he began talking about his experiences in World War II. I have had the privilege of being the one to whom he chose to break his silence. He is hard to understand and oftentimes his mind wanders off topic, but his memory is sharp as a tack. The following is part of what I have been able to piece together from our conversation, which is usually one sided because he has difficulty hearing my questions, with the help of some research on the internet:

Doc joined the Navy sometime around 1939 at the age of 17. He had 10 brothers, and he was one of eight who served in America's armed forces at the same time during WWII. Incredibly, at least to me, all but one survived the war.

Doc served on several ships in different capacities, including the USS Colhoun, a 1060-ton Wickes class destroyer, in the Pacific theatre during World War II.

The Colhoun was built in 1919 at the close of World War I, as a destroyer. When the expansion of World War II in Europe and growing tension with Japan required enlarging the active fleet, Colhoun was taken to the Norfolk Navy Yard in June 1940 and converted to a high-speed transport. With the new hull number APD-2, she recommissioned in December 1940 for operations and training in the Atlantic and Caribbean in connection with the development of an enhanced amphibious warfare capability.

U.S.S. Colhoun

Colhoun arrived in the south Pacific in July 1942 and helped land U.S. Marines on Tulagi on 7-8 August, at the opening of the long and bloody Guadalcanal Campaign. She continued on transport and patrol service during the first weeks of that operation. On 30 August 1942, while off Guadalcanal, she was targeted by Japanese bombers. Hit several times, USS Colhoun soon sank off Lunga Point with the loss of 51 crewmembers. 18 were wounded, (out of approximately 149 crewmen) including Robert "Doc" Johnson. Doc was blown completely off the ship and into the water.

Doc's memory is unclear of how long he was actually in the water, (he was, after all, in shock at the time) but he remembers that his clothes were blown off of him and when he and a few shipmates were rescued, and except for his undershorts, he was totally naked. He received some severe powder burns on his hands and arms, (the scars are still visible) but otherwise was unharmed physically.

He went on to serve the United States until his retirement. His daughter, my wife, never knew Doc received the purple heart for his injuries until I asked him specifically about any decorations he received for his service. If he received any other medals, he didn't say. The purple heart was the only one he admits to earning. He may have more. He won't say.

I talk about Doc Johnson and his service to our country not because anything he did was particularly special. At least to the most Americans. No one in my family ever served in the service with any distinction.

I, myself, was judged physically unfit for military service when I enlisted and was given the draft deferment known as 4-F. I was not allowed to serve.

So Robert Johnson is the first actual combat veteran I have ever personally gotten "up close and personal" with, to borrow a phrase. The singular thing that strikes me about Doc is his humbleness regarding his role.

He says, "I don't see anything special about what we did in the war, we were just doing our jobs".

And that attitude is perhaps what makes Doc Johnson and hundreds of other veterans special, and why we honor them on this day. Without the unquestioning willingness to do their duty, and the understanding of his responsibility, in spite of danger and overwhelming odds, The United States of America might not exist as the most powerful nation on earth.

And the fact that this country is the most powerful nation of Earth is a testament to the courage and the diligence of the humble American servicemen and women who we honor on this day, Veterans day.

I don't think we can say thank you nearly enough to all of them, but once again, Thank you, Veterans.


BB-Idaho said...

It has been observed that WWII was fought by the 'greatest generation'. At my age, I knew a
number of them..and their personal stories; Ken-Battle of the Bulge, Bob-Guadalcanal, Dave-Philipines,
Kenny-New Guinea, all Army. Neighbor Ray-tincan at Ironbottom
Sound, Pete-airborne, Manilla...
They were proud and battered, but
not one thought themself special, nor wanted anything but a chance to get back to a normal life. These old friends are all gone, I hope in the chow line with their
buddies they left behind 65 years ago. Thanks, guys...

lilfeathers2000 said...

Remembering All Our Vets
God Bless our Vets
One and All

Lone Ranger said...

The males in my family (who weren't too young or too old) all fought in WWII in every branch of the service, in every theatre. An uncle named Goehring caught a lot of flak in Europe -- and I'm not talking about the metal kind.

I could never get any of them to talk about their experiences. What a barbaric world this would be without America.

Goat said...

Moving story, Mark, my uncles did not want to talk about the war, Normandy and Anzio survivors and their medals were known to few until they passed. The stories they did tell around the fireplace held us kids in rapt attention as we poked at the coals. The mood was very somber, very sober, and the stories chilling to the bone. I knew the Marine Corps manual inside and out and so hated war that I stupidly rejected service and regret it to this day.
We contribute by getting up each day and proudly going to work no matter what it is we are doing and doing it right. We contribute by voting and having blog dialogues, we contribute to making a country great in many, many ways and thanks to our vets we have that chance and opportunity.I hate to think what the world would be like without them. Semper Fi

Little Miss Chatterbox said...

Wonderful post!! How neat that he decided to share with you his memories. I am extremely thankful for Doc and the many others like him. And I so agree with your last line that we can never really convey our gratitude.

I looove that Churchill quote. You are the best quote man, I always love your quotes.

Jason H. Bowden said...

All talk of the vets aside, is the greatest generation really that great?

Looking back, it seemed to make the same mistake fuzzy headed people are making today. Hirohito was walking all over China, people thought we could give peace a chance with people like Mussolini and Hitler, and in their desire to avoid another Vietnam, ahem, Verdun, they ended up creating the mother of all wars. Hell, not only did the Greatest Generation let dictators in ruined countries arm themselves to the teeth for ten years, the Greatest Generation even let our #1 ally in the UK face the Nazis alone after the war began for over two years. America First!

I give the current crop of Americans a lot of credit for sorting out scumbags like Hussein before they consildate too much power, though the number of fuzzy-headed peaceniks in this country is starting to reach critical mass.

Poison Pero said...

Very nice, Mark......Ditto the feelings.

Great grandfather served in WWI, and died in France (Army).......My other great grandfather served in WWI and died in Belgium, but he did so under the army of the Kaiser.......Doh!!

I had one grandfather at Pearl on Dec. 7, 1941, and he fought all over the Pacific (Army Air Force)......Still alive.

My other grandfather played a minor roll in the Manhattan Project, and had an intelligence clearance so he couldn't be drafted........I consider him a vet for his role in the war, and also because it broke his heart that he couldn't have enlisted if he wanted. He's always kept his non-draft status notification as a way to prove he didn't dodge the war. It's kind of sad, but I think it's cool that he worked with Oppenheimer and Grove.

Father (dirt-bag that he is) served in Vietnam (Navy).

And my sorry ass served 14 years in the Air Force........Saw minor action throughout the globe in the pseudo-battles we fought in the late 80's-90's.

Jim said...

Jason, I believe you confuse the fathers of our WWII veterans with the veterans themselves. I think most will agree that "the greatest generation" refers to the soldiers, sailors, marines and army and navy airmmen who fought the war. Most were in their late teens and early twenties and were not decision makers for US foreign policy.

Foreign policy was decided by the "liberal" bogeyman FDR who as much as anyone was responsible for getting the US to take up the fight against the Japanese, Germans, and Italians.

My father, a 20+ year career man, was a Pearl Harbor survivor and served under Patton in Europe. He didn't talk much about the war except a couple of funny or ironic experiences. Like most others, he did what needed to be done and didn't talk much about it.

tugboatcapn said...

Sounds like your chick comes from good stock, Mark...

Both of my Grandfathers fought in WWII.

My Grandfather on my Mother's side was a ship's Pilot on an LST, and was a Bataan, Iwo Jima, and was in Tokyo Bay the day Japan signed the Surrender Agreement.

My Grandfather on my Father's side fought on Okinawa on the clean-up crews at the end of the War.

He wouldn't even talk about the things he saw and did. AT ALL.

When he returned from the War,he had a two year old Son that he had never seen, and he burned several shoe-boxes full of photographs he had taken over there.

They were, and are both great men.

They are my heros and roll models.