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home : community : features August 27, 2015

2/27/2014 5:04:00 PM
Forrest Johnson: The early years of an enviable life
From World War II to 40-year teaching career, Johnson has seen it all
Forrest Johnson sits in the living room of his home.Jamie Taylor photograph 

Forrest Johnson sits in the living room of his home.

Jamie Taylor photograph 

Forrest Johnson, 1945, at age 20.Contributed photograph 

Forrest Johnson, 1945, at age 20.

Contributed photograph 

Jamie Taylor

First of two parts

When Forrest Johnson spoke at the Manitowish Waters Lions Club meeting last month about his service on a destroyer during World War II – an account that was published in The Lakeland Times – it generated much attention for the man who went on to be one of the first teachers hired at Lakeland Union High School.

“I’ve had veterans come up, students I had a long time ago, the calls from friends from all over,” Johnson said. “The Times must be widely read because the reaction was quick and I’m still getting stopped.”

More importantly, it revealed the importance of this man who saw some of the fiercest battles of the Pacific Theater and opened the window on a small portion of his varied and interesting life.

Johnson is proud to be “one of the last few” surviving members of The Greatest Generation who answered Pearl Harbors’s sudden destruction at the hands of the Japanese. Even at nearly 89 years, he can still vividly remember.

“I was just fresh out of high school. I graduated in 1943, and I had already enlisted,” Johnson said. “Pearl Harbor had been bombed and we were struggling to get a military force large enough to respond. We were all eager and excited to go.”

Johnson said of his class from Kingsford High School in Iron Mountain, Mich., everyone that could, enlisted. 

“I immediately went for the Navy, and was accepted. I would say 60 to 70 percent of my graduating class of 1943, the young men, went in voluntarily. We didn’t wait to be drafted,” he said.

After basic training, Johnson was assigned to the USS Rooks, DD 804 a brand new 21,000-ton Fletcher Class destroyer put into commission in Seattle, Wash.

“It was a brand new, beautiful destroyer and we took it on a shakedown cruise, came back and went through some more training, and out to sea we went,” Johnson said. “That was that, I was there until the end of the war out in the South Pacific.”

Though the ship would occasionally stop for supplies and repairs, giving the men much-needed time off the ship, shore leave was a rare occurrence.

“We had tenders that would come alongside fuel us and throw food and ammo to us. Once in a while, a bag of mail would come, but we were at sea all that while,” he said.

Arriving in the Pacific Theater of the war in late 1943, Johnson and his shipmates went right from the stepping stone battles of Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the Philippine Islands. 

“We were escorting, doing fire support and shore bombardment. On Iwo Jima, we were firing around the clock in support of the Marine attack,” Johnson said.

Asked how one could sleep when the guns were firing so much they had to be replaced because the linings were burned out, and Johnson said, “As a young boy, you know you feel invincible?

“I was just 18-19 years old when I was on that ship and I didn’t even find fear as a large thing except excitement, more than anything. But those two battles especially, Okinawa and Iwo Jima, I remember vividly. The carnage in that was unbelievable. We thought Iwo Jima was going to be a walk-in. And when those Marines landed, we were escorting Marines with our destroyer right in tight, covering landing craft that were going in. It was all quiet until they hit the beach, and then Mount Suribachi, the famous mountain, the Japanese opened up from there. For the next 39 days, 24/7 we were in Hell.”

The destroyer had five, five-inch 38 turrets and as a gun captain, Johnson was in charge of one of them. 

“We fired so many rounds in fire support and anti-aircraft fire taking care of Japanese aircraft that were attacking, we burned out the linings of the barrels,” he said. “We had to have a destroyer tender come alongside, unscrew the barrels and put new ones in, just like a shotgun barrel. We gave fire support to the landing troops because the destroyers could get in closer.”

Johnson recounted the times his ship would come alongside an aircraft carrier.

“They were floating cities, almost,” he said. “They would have a crew of 3 to 5,000 on one of them. We would be escorting some of those big carriers and battleships and we would come alongside, it was like looking up five stories from the deck of my ship. We’d holler up to them, ‘how do you guys like shore duty up there?’”

The first battle he was involved in was reclaiming the Philippine Islands, which Johnson said was mostly a sea battle. 

“We were doing a lot of anti-submarine patrols and firing on Japanese aircraft,” Johnson said. “They had a fleet in there so we were battling at sea. The Battle of Leyte Gulf was another famous one in American history, we were in on that sweep. Then we reclaimed and liberated the Philippines.”

Johnson said his ship went from the Battle of the Philippines directly into the Battle of Iwo Jima and these were all stepping stones going to Japan. 

“Nothing but direct combat all the way, with submarines and kamikaze aircraft was part of what my tour of duty in the Navy was about. Fortunately I’m alive to tell you this story,” he said.

The hardest part of fighting on a ship was the problem of what to do with casualties.

“We did lose men on my ship at Iwo Jima. The most sobering thing was seeing a burial at sea. We had to bury our shipmates who were killed at sea because we didn’t have anyway of preserving them or sending them home with honors like they do now,” he said.

From Iwo Jima they went to the Battle of Okinawa, which Johnson called 65 to 70 days of constant, 24/7 fighting.

“It was the worst battle of the war because the suicide planes were in there 24/7 and we were shooting, shooting, shooting at them,” Johnson said. “We were also escorting the bigger ships on anti-submarine patrols dropping depth charges – just a constant busy, busy, like a destroyer is meant to do – it’s a warship.”

When Okinawa was secured, the next step was heading for Japan for the last final assault on the Japanese homeland.

“By this time, we had B-29s (large bombers) parked on Okinawa, and we fried Tokyo with fire bombs and incendiaries. The Japanese were brave, they would not quit. But finally I think President [Harry] Truman gave them an ultimatum, we have a weapon that’s laying at wait, if you don’t surrender and give up, we’ll have to use it. They didn’t tell them just what it was, nor did we know,” he said. 

“And sometime in August 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki – boom, bang – and they capitulated, that was the end of the Japanese. They saw that there was nothing left of those cities.”

Johnson said that the Rooks was on its  way in a Task Force 50, a huge flotilla of ships steaming for Japan.

“By this time we had generated a power that shook the earth with our Navy. We had ships full of Marines and 10th Army soldiers ready to invade the mainland. We were two days out of Okinawa heading that way when on Aug. 14 the ship stopped and I’ll never forget it. The captain turned on the P.A. system and he said, ‘gentlemen, the war is over.’ I will never forget that day because it was my happiest ever.”

The Rooks went all the way to Japan for the surrender at Tokyo Bay with a huge fleet of Navy vessels all there waiting for the surrender ceremony when Mother Nature added a twist to the closing of the war.

“We were about a week getting all the preparations for all these officers to come in for the surrender. And the God-awfullest storm struck, it was the perfect storm that they wrote books about. A typhoon roared in toward Japan and we were ordered out to sea to fight it out. And honest to God I honestly thought I wasn’t going to get home,” Johnson said. 

“We battled that storm for three days and nights and I saw sailors who had been in 20 years throwing up their stomaches because it was so rough. That destroyer just rolled and pitched as we fought that storm. Wherever you were at the time it hit, you had to stay there, we had guys in their bunks who strapped themselves in. 

A ship as small as a destroyer, was pummeled, but survived.

“I remember thinking, I went through the war, am I going to die out here now in a storm? We were getting radio messages from smaller ships, like destroyer escorts that were capsizing and going down, it was that bad of a storm,” Johnson said.

When it finally subsided, the fleet went back to Japan for the surrender ceremony and they began the processing of sending people back home.

“I still remember the feeling I had as we went steaming under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge on our destroyer. I thought ‘thank God, I’m back home,’” he said.

They immediately started the process of putting the ship in mothballs for storage.

“I was on board when it was commissioned and I was onboard when they decommissioned her and put her in mothballs,” he said..

The Rooks was eventually put back into service as a donation to the South Korean Navy before eventually being scrapped.

“I heard they must have made razor blades or something out of her. You get so fond of a ship when you live on it for all those years.”

Though getting home to his family was an incentive, Johnson volunteered to help mothball the ship.

“They kind of held onto me because I was a gunner’s mate and they had to preserve and protect all those weapons. I had more than enough points to go home right away because I served more than my share,” Johnson said. “They had a bunch of civilian workers come on board to help. You know how they shrink wrap boats? Well they had to do this to these big guns. I was in there putting lubricant in the barrels and working breeches because I knew how to deal with weapons like that.

Johnson said one of the saddest things he ever saw was an island base where damaged ships went for either repair or stripped for parts to save other ships.

“This base was set up just to handle ships damaged by the kamikazes. They took a toll like you wouldn’t believe and they loved destroyers because one hit between the stacks and it would break in half. Over 300 men and millions of dollars of hardware would go down to the bottom. They called it The Graveyard because the ships that could struggle back in there and if they were worth saving, they’d fix them up and send them back.”

But for Johnson, the two years he spent in the Pacific is just a small part of a rich and diverse life.

“War is such a small part of my life. I would say, if there was a summary statement, that I have been blessed with a most varied and excellent life that a man could ever hope for. My career in the service was a stepping stone to everything else that followed afterward. When I think of all the experiences I’ve had just in my career and family life, it has been an amazing life,” he said.

Like most people who have been through combat, Johnson had to adjust to the quiet civilian life again.

“It took me a while to adjust. I had enough combat memories and dreams would stir me up for about a year before I began to look at it as surreal, saying was that really me? I would wake up, startled, and feeling like I was still on the ship instead of home. Even when I first met my wife, she can remember me being startled. Bright lights would bother me and fireworks? I have not cared much for Fourth of July celebrations,” Johnson said. 

“When you see a task force out to sea and kamikazes are coming in from every direction and all our ships opening up with anti-aircraft fire, with tracers and shells flying, that was fireworks enough for me, let me tell you.” 

When Johnson came home from the war, he enrolled in Northern Michigan University using the G.I. Bill where he majored in English and science and sought teaching credentials. 

It is there that the story will take up in the next installment.

Jamie Taylor may be reached at jtaylor@lakelandtimes.com.

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