TUSCON, Ariz., — Ninety-four-year-old Malcolm “Mickey” Johnson sits in his wheelchair wearing a maroon baseball cap with the words “Survivors of Wake Guam-Cavite” written in light blue letters. Johnson’s step-son and daughter-in-law sit attentively while he talks about his experience as a civilian prisoner of war.
In April of 1941, Johnson was 19 years old when he traveled from his hometown of Spokane, Washington to Wake Island as a civilian contractor. Later that year in December, Johnson volunteered to fight alongside U.S. Marines against heavy Japanese forces during the Battle of Wake Island.
“The final battle (lasted) nine hours,” said Johnson. “Wake Island had been bombed for 16 days already and about 300 civilians with different jobs volunteered to fight with the Marines. Then about 1,155 of us got captured. We were from all trades, civilians, enlisted, officers…everything.”
Although his memory is fuzzy about his capture, Johnson remembered being wounded by bayonet and gunfire.
Johnson was in Japan for a short time before being sent to an internment camp in Shanghai. He would spend the next 44 months in Japanese controlled camps throughout China and Japan.
For the first two years of his captivity, Johnson was limited to light labor such as floor sweeping due to the severity of his wounds. Once Johnson recovered, he was able to move on to more physically demanding work.
Though they worked long hours, the prisoners found ways to enjoy themselves. Johnson recalls playing softball games, card games, and even gambling.
Johnson was able to write his first letter home May 30, 1942, five months after being captured.
“It took about six months for a message to get home,” Johnson said. “At one point, we were (only) allowed to write 25 words. I got to write about 20 messages and I received about the same, but some men never got the chance to send messages.”
The prisoners also faced challenges while trying to acquire their mail.
“If you went to get your mail from the interpreter, we called him ‘Beast of the East’ because he was so mean, you had to salute him or else you wouldn’t get your mail,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t even a Japanese Army officer, he was a civilian.”
For some of those imprisoned, there was only one way to end the maltreatment from their captors.
“I knew men that escaped,” Johnson said. “(There were) maybe about four or five of them.
Several of them tried, both servicemen and civilians, (but) they got caught, and of course, we didn’t see them anymore.”
To Johnson, it seemed like the escapes ended in failure more often than not.
“One of the camps in China had an electric fence around it and two men were trying to escape but got tangled up in it,” Johnson said. “One of them was killed and the other had his shoes burned off. That put an end to (the escape attempts).”
Amid all of their hardships, malnutrition was just another to add to the list.
“We walked through Chinese villages to get to work, (and the villagers there) used human waste to make their crops grow,” Johnson said. “Some of our guys would jump out of the line and grab a head of cabbage and eat it. They didn’t care if it was dirty or not, you’d eat anything.”
Johnson said food was so high value that the other prisoners would gamble using their rations.
Due to the living conditions, including the scarce amount of meat distributed to prisoners, and his previous injuries, Johnson’s weight was at an unhealthy level.
“I got down to 107 pounds at one time,” Johnson said. “It seemed like after the first couple of months, I was losing pounds, but after that, I started gaining a little bit (back). I was in good shape when the war ended. I may have weighed 145 pounds.”
Nearly four years after his capture, Johnson was finally released. He reflected on his long journey back to the U.S., making stops in places like Tokyo, Okinawa and Canada before finally arriving to his hometown.
“Spokane felt like a whole new world,” Johnson said.
On January 29, 1947, Johnson received a Bronze Star medal with Valor from the commanding officer of the Spokane Naval Supply Depot.
Now a grandfather of 15, the civilian Bronze Star recipient resides in Kearny, Arizona.