Most 14-year-old boys are starting high school and concerned with meeting girls or playing sports, but not so for retired Staff Sgt. Joseph Johnson, who at that tender age enlisted in the Army in 1940. He became a Japanese prisoner of war for more than three years and was the youngest member to participate in the infamous Bataan Death March.
He was the guest speaker at the National POW/MIA Recognition Day Sept. 21 at Luke Air Force Base. The event also featured remarks by Brig. Gen. Michael Rothstein, 56th Fighter Wing commander.
Johnson, a Ruston, La., native, had quite an adventurous life before joining the Army and a remarkable journey in the military, which featured tragedy, injuries and triumph. His young life was not an ideal upbringing. His parents parted ways when he was 6, and young Joseph went with his mom and siblings to live in Memphis, Tenn.
His dad was a horse trainer in San Antonio, and at the age of 12, Joseph hopped a freight train to be with him.
“After joining my dad, I started working on the horse ranch, and I loved the horses and knew their names,” he said. “My dad said I was a natural. I also had a lot of other animals. It was a great time that I fondly remember.”
However, his dad left for California to start a public stable in Santa Anita. He and his dad trained horses for famous people such as actors George Raft, Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck. At the time, Joseph wasn’t going to school, and having him hanging around the stables was so much of a problem that his dad was told he could lose the stables. Johnson made an unusual move in January 1941 that changed his life forever.
“My dad suggested I go back to Texas, but instead, I went to a post office in the Los Angeles area to talk to an Army recruiter about enlisting,” he said. “I convinced the recruiter I was 18 and was sent to Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, Calif., where an Army captain offered us a deal to go to the Philippines. Only two of us stepped up, and we were shipped to Fort McDowell on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. Three weeks later we shipped out on the USS Republic. I was one of 2,000 people on the ship,” he said. “It took us three weeks and a lot of sea sickness to get there.”
While on board, Johnson had a coming-of-age experience he still remembers in detail.
“I met Dewey, a crew member of the ship,” he said. “He had been a sailor for nearly 30 years and was near retirement. I couldn’t find him one day and was told he had gone overboard. At the time I didn’t realize that he had killed himself.”
Johnson became part of the 31st U.S. Infantry Regiment stationed in Manila. After completing basic training, he was assigned to Company D, heavy weapons, as a machine gunner, and although he had no musical experience, he became the bugler.
“I had to learn all the bugle calls and worked with a band to help me learn. It was a great job, and my pay increased by six dollars. I named my bugle Maxine Manners.”
Everything changed in the Philippines when Pearl Harbor was attacked Dec. 7, 1941. Manila fell to the Japanese in late December, and American forces withdrew into the Bataan Peninsula. The 31st Infantry Regiment was a profound part of the principal line of resistance in the defense of Bataan. Johnson celebrated his 15th birthday while involved in the fighting on Bataan. The newspapers in his hometown named him the ‘Baby of Bataan.’ Bataan fell April 9, 1942, and young Joseph escaped to Corregidor and joined the fight with the 4th Marine Regiment in defending the beaches there. The island fell May 6, 1942, and Johnson became a Japanese POW for more than three years, quickly growing up.
“When I lost my best friend at Bataan, I was no longer the ah-shucks kid,” he said.
As a POW, Johnson recalled one his first tasks was burning dead bodies and working in grueling conditions building and expanding runways.
He was freed at 19 while working in an abandoned coal mine near Nagasaki, Japan, after the Japanese surrendered. Yet, he wasn’t through with the military.
“I flew home on a C-54 hospital airplane and was in a hospital in Memphis, Tenn., for four months,” he said. “I was offered the choice of taking a partial disability or re-enlisting in the Army Air Corps. I chose to re-enlist and was given the choice of a duty station and raised one grade. I went to Brooks Field in San Antonio to be an aircraft mechanic, but there were already too many. I was assigned to the guard house, which turned out to be a great job.”
But, again a big change occurred. The Army Air Corps became the Air Force Sept. 18, 1947.
Johnson was told that he would be reassigned in Virginia, but didn’t want to go. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, Fourth Army commander, who was a Japanese POW and Medal of Honor recipient was known for having an open door. Johnson’s duty agreement was guaranteed for three years, so he went to see Wainwright. The general told Johnson that since he was in the Air Force, it would be difficult for Wainwright to intervene in Air Force matters since he was an Army general, but he helped to work it out. Johnson completed his three-year agreement, and left the service to play baseball, a move that led him to the Marine Corps.
“I was a pitcher and was signed by the St. Louis Browns (who later became the Baltimore Orioles) for $75 a month,” he said. “Unfortunately, I messed up my arm, and my professional baseball career ended. I started working for Prudential Insurance and playing baseball with a Marine Corps Reserve unit. I ended up joining the unit and was told I didn’t have to go to meetings, which was bad information.
The Korean War started, and I was sent to San Diego for boot camp as a private. I had lost my previous rank, and after three days I was told because of my previous training, I didn’t have to go through basic training, but I decided to stay. It got me back in shape.”
Johnson was sent to Korea and suffered a gunshot wound to the abdomen. It took him two months to recover and was assigned as a drill instructor. He left the Marine Corps with a medical retirement in 1962.