Johnson completed his first three years of formal education in Portsmouth, attended the one-room school at Frost, near South Shore, Ky., for three years, and went from there into the freshman class at McKell High School.
Martha Wells was his homeroom teacher and Rosco Stevens and Jesse Stuart served the school as principals while he was there. He wasn’t yet 16 when he graduated in 1938 as valedictorian of his class.
The kid was smart, but pursuit of a college education was not something he considered. He was content helping his father, Robert Henry Johnson, on the 420-acre family farm, located where Johnson Lane is today, four miles upriver from Grant Bridge. “He let me drive the tractor. I liked what I was doing. I was happy,” he said.
He was also wealthy. “Dad would give me a dollar Bill on Friday for working on the farm. He would drive me and Russ Jackson, who also worked on the farm and whose family lived on the farm, down to the end of Grant Bridge. We would walk across and out Chillicothe Street to the Garden Theater. It cost 15 cents to get into the movies, 5 cents for a hamburger, 5 cents for a coke, and 5 cents for a candy bar. We’d stay and see two shows and then we’d walk the four to five miles back home.”
He was playing for the Fullerton Merchants fast-pitch softball team when he got his letter from the draft board. He wasn’t real keen on putting away his first baseman’s mitt and going off to the war, but he wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. At the Army induction center in Huntington, W.Va., they asked him what he wanted to do, what he wanted to be.
“I told them I wanted to go where the shooting was,” he said.
He trained for more than a year in the states on the machine gun, the M-1 rifle, and the artillery piece.
It was July 1944, a month after the D-Day invasion at Normandy on the coast of France, before he shipped out of Boston for Great Britain.Vernon Ensor was the only soldier he saw from “back home,” and they were soon separated.
At Dover, England, Johnson remembers firing the antiaircraft guns up at the V-2 Rockets Hitler was sending across the channel to fall on London.
His first ground action came late that year when he joined up with the 134th Field Artillery in Belgium as the so-called Battle of the Bulge was raging.
The Battle of the Bulge, a counterattack by Hitler’s forces in an attempt to win some concessions from Allied forces and free him to fight the advancing Russian Army on the east, was the bloodiest battle of Europe during World War II. It began Dec. 16 and lasted until the end of January 1945.
There were 20,876 Allied soldiers killed, 42,876 wounded, and 23,554 captured or missing in action.
On the other side, Germany had 15,652 killed, 41,600 wounded and 27,592 captured or missing.
Johnson, manning a machine gun post on the front, added only slightly to those statistics.
“There were five of us on the gun. Most of the time it was just lonely and cold, with snow on the ground. Sometimes you were wishing something would happen. One night we killed two German soldiers and captured another,” he said. “But don’t get me wrong. I saw a lot of action, but I didn’t do much to win no war. I was as scared as anybody, but I didn’t want to show it.
“Every man I served with was my buddy. I would give my life, if necessary, for them, and they would do the same for me.”
Finally the Germans were on the run, and Johnson remembers crossing the Rhine River on a train.
“In order to slow the Allied advance, the Germans had tried to blow all the river bridges up as they retreated, but somehow they didn’t get to that one railroad bridge,” he said.
Johnson was about 25 miles from Berlin when Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945.
His mother, Doris, wrote him often while he was away with the Army, and in each letter she enclosed a dollar bill.
“I saved them, and found that I had $232 in my pack,” he said.
He remained in Germany for a time as part of the occupation forces. He used most of the letter money from home on visits to Switzerland, which he remembers as “the most beautiful spot on earth.”
But he said the Johnson farm was beautiful, too, as he was discharged in time to arrive back home on Christmas Day 1945.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.