DESA Oral History Project
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|Oral History Interview
of Augustus P. Johnston
Military Service: United States Navy, 1942-1946
Date of Interview: November 29th 2002
Location of Interview: Waretown, NJ
This Oral History of Augustus P. Johnson is taking place on November 29th, 2002, at his house in Waretown, New Jersey, 08758. This interview is for the Oral History Project, HS-298-01, World History, at Monmouth University. I am Thomas Minton, a student at Monmouth University. I will be conducting the interview.
Augustus Johnson served in the United
States Navy during World War 2, and was discharged with the Rank of Bos'uns
Mate, 2nd Class in January of 1948. Mr. Johnson served in both the Atlantic
and Pacific Theaters of the War.
Mr. Johnson lives on a small canal just a few miles from the Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Plant in New Jersey his home, from the outside, is a display of all manner of nautical items. "Welcome" is spelled out in naval signal flags in his front yard. He has a "Destroyer Escort Vet" license plate insert placed in his car so that those behind him may read it through his rear-windshield. His house is a mirror image of the front yard; the living room alone is a small museum of model ships, blocks, tackles, and rigging. One room is dedicated to the Orient, and another to the Old West and Native Americans. Upstairs is his massive train set and his wife's doll collection. A "Happy 80th Birthday Party" poster, signed by well wishers hangs on the banister. Gus comes from a small fishing village in Maine. Saltwater, not blood, flows through his veins. He is as comfortable in his land-based environment as he would be on the deck of any ship.
Question: What was your child like, growing up in Maine, and what kind of family did you have?
Answer: Well, I came from a my father was a fisherman it was a nice place some islands We had a ferry that used to run back and forth
Q: Did you have any brothers or sisters?
A: I had a sister, 4 years old.
Q: What was your education like?
A: Just grammar school, we had no high school. I eventually went 9 grades, just junior high, that was the last grade I ever went to I spent some time in a school in Portland, when we were fishing down in Portland, when I was 10. That's all I had - was grammar school.
Q: Any favorite hobbies, sports, movies, when you were growing up?
A: Well, I was a great cowboy and western fan. (Chuckles) But I loved stories of the sea, and my chief sport was gunning - duck hunting, which we did every fall.
Q: Before you entered military service, what was your occupation?
A: I was working on a dairy farm, I got that job when the fishing was not good, and I worked the dairy farm for about a year and a half. In fact, my job was hauling milk. (Chuckles) Very good education, though. I had board and room, and I got six dollars a week.
Q: What did you think of the rise of fascism, in Europe, with the news that was coming in, like Adolph Hitler coming to power, Benito Mussolini coming to power, what was your opinion on all of that?
A: Well, I was very young, but we would talk about it, and the fishermen- the older men- would say "Well, you're just gonna be old enough for the next one." It was always -it went around- there would be another war. It was a probability all the time. Everybody always assumed there would be a war between us. That was the older people though. No, we didn't - we thought that we didn't pay enough attention Lindbergh, I remember when Lindbergh went to Germany, and he told them that they were building an air force, and everybody said, "Oh Well, he's just a German sympathizer, and he is just making out that there's - no one seemed to realize that he was building a war machine. Even - Lindbergh was the first sign that ever really ever talked about it even they would just say "Well, he's just saying that to make the Germans sound like they are way out ahead of everybody else - While we were practicing with wooden guns. (Laughs) We couldn't afford any better. (Laughs harder) But the attitude towards them in the early days, they were very sympathetic towards blacks much more than - there was and there wasn't, some did and some didn't it was the same way with the Germans, nobody kind of an attitude toward them Back to the Revolutionary War, we had Tories on the island, and sympathizers with England And it was kind of indifferent actually; the fisherman's life was a very hard life and it wasn't sympathy they just assumed there was going to be another war. (Chuckles)
Q: What was your opinion of FDR?
A: Oh! My father was a very, very loyal democrat and he was worshipped very highly Hoover wasn't (Chuckles) good administrator, but very limited in followers and people No, he [Roosevelt] was thought very highly of. They'd make fun of his wife I don't know, fishermen are a very independent group, and they were having it very hard and, when the fishing was not good, prices started going down; I'll give you an example of fishing when my father went fishing, their skipper was lost, the ship that they were on you know, fishing was tough, and when you are out in a dory, a hundred miles out, with snowstorms, and North Easters, and men get left out, and anyway, the price of haddock was 3 cents a pound, (Chuckles) and you would share maybe my father went out, and they were out two weeks, and they would come in with a load of fish - sometimes they weren't loaded, they would try and get a full load of fish, and they'd share ten or 15 dollars between them, after everything was paid for, so that was fishing.
Q: When did you hear about Pearl Harbor, and what was your reaction?
A: My father had rented a cottage up on the North End of the island, and I was hauling up Lobster traps - And I remember hearing it everybody was really upset and surprised. We heard that they were supposed to be on a war alert, but they weren't I do remember they blamed the fleet commander; everyone blamed him for being so lax, for ignoring the warnings. I'll tell you how poor we were: I was in San Diego, and I had a few cousins who had joined the Navy in 1938. We went aboard the old New Mexico [a battleship], and they used to throw pennies at her, because they didn't have enough money to fire her up to take her out for maneuvers for a week they could do it once a year. But when Pearl Harbor happened, they sent her out to Pearl right away.
Q: Can you compare the reaction then to the September 11th attacks of 2001?
A: Then it was patriotic, but subdued, because we only had the radio, everybody was worked up, but I'm sure the reaction - I'm from New England, we're not excitable people, and I don't get worked up like that. Subdued, I suppose. But everyone was concerned. The West Coast, they were really stirred up. I wouldn't say people got too excited.
A: What was the reaction in New Jersey during September 11th?
A: My friend came over, and I was sitting here in the living room, and he called up and he said "Do you know what's going on?" and I said "No." He said, "A plane just flew into the World Trade Center, so turn your TV on!" and I watched the second plane fly in. But as far as Patriotism is concerned, it as just as much, just of a slower magnitude. I'm not sure about young people, they don't seem as eager but I'd say the excitement was about the same.
Q: when did you decide to join the Navy?
A: My cousin had married a sailor, and the navy intrigued me. And I had a little sailor suit when I was a kid. I was just always intrigued by it.
Q: When did you join up?
A: I joined up in the spring of '42. My mother wasn't too excited about it. My parents finally signed the letters of release - before Pearl Harbor they wouldn't.
Q: How old were you when you went in?
A: I was just about 18 and a half.
Q: Having grown up as a fisherman in Maine, what was it like being sent away from home for the first time, to boot camp, and duty assignments?
A: Well, I wasn't too enthralled with it. Growing up in Maine, I was rather independent, and I didn't adjust too well. Taking orders, things like that. Fishermen are independent, you say what you feel, and the rigid part was rough. The first time I went aboard ship, a young smart ass like me, told me to clean up a fire extinguisher that had just gone off. I said "Yeah? How about you clean it up," and we had a tussle. The captain was watching from the bridge, and we both got reprimanded, but his mother was from Maine, so I suppose he understood. (Laughs)
Q: After you went into the Navy, what was your first assignment?
A: Well, it was a converted fishing vessel, actually- a Highliner. She was a two masted schooner, and the Navy took her over, and put her out on patrol. Our first assignment was clearing mines. Then we had an experimental torpedo and we'd take that out with the technicians in Boston harbor, and they were perfecting the equipment at the time, and I thought it was unbelievable, it was $3000.00! That was a heck of a lot of money. And finally it sunk, and we lost it. Then we trolled up and down the coast, and we cleared some more mines. We were in Washington DC for a while, working with steam catapults, then to Cape Hatteras. And boy the subs were active, people never knew.
When we put into Cape Hatteras, and at midnight the captain says to me, "Let me know when you see a lot of poles sticking up out of the water." This was off South Carolina, in the regular freight channels. So the Germans would wait at the buoys, about 60 miles off Shore. They'd be sitting ducks. So, we're 65 miles off shore, so around midnight, I see these big poles sticking up out of the water. Boy it's eerie, when you see something like that. They were all the masts of the ships that they had sunk. I think from Cape Hatteras down, there were 67 merchant ships sunk in that area. And in the daylight, it got worse. We saw ship after ship as we went down, some awash, others just stacks showing, some with 3 or 4 feet of freeboard the skippers would try to run for shore, and beach them. The ones with the masts sticking out of the water, they didn't make it. From Sandy Hook sout5h, I think there were 167 merchant ships sunk; and nobody knew that they were crucifying us out there.
Q: What was the name of your schooner?
A: YP 375. Her original name was Rimonda, out of Gloucester, and I went aboard her at Boston. I was very dejected, I thought, "Here I am a fisherman who joined the Navy, and now I'm on a fishing boat again." (Laughs) But that's what they wanted. M2 Reserve fishing experience, so we got our ratings really quick.
Q: When were you shipped to the Pacific?
A: I applied for a transfer, because I didn't get along with our cook, and the skipper reluctantly gave me the transfer, and I was sent to USS Leone DE 361, in the Charleston Navy Yard. She was commissioned two months after I got there, and we went on a shakedown to Bermuda, and we had 85 percent of the crew, and most of them were from the Great Lakes, [straight from boot camp] and the cooks weren't all that good. Then an officer finally put the chief cook down and ordered him to make a good a meal for us. He was mad as Hell. And then we finally got a good meal. We left for Norfolk, we picked up a communications ship with another DE, and off we went to the Pacific.
Q: When you got to the Pacific, what was the fist location you were assigned to?
A: When we got to San Francisco, we almost had one guy die of seasickness, so he had to be taken off the ship on a stretcher. He only weighed 85 pounds, and I don't think that if we hadn't got there when we did, he would have died. Then they sent us to Pearl to join the invasion of the Gilbert Islands. And from there it was the Marshals. We were assigned to escorting for a short time. What we were doing was, we didn't have enough ships to make Task Forces. So, what they would do, to fool the Japs, they would make a 1000 mile run in one direction as fats as we could, and make sure that the Japs identified us, and knew that we had a task force there, then we'd steam 6 or 7 hundred miles in the opposite direction, and change all of our codes and signals, and a few ships, and make out that you were another Task Force. And it worked for a while; they assumed that we had more ships than we did. This was at the end of '42.
Then we separated, we had the duty of escorting oil tankers. And they wouldn't move without an escort, and we'd take one to Pearl, and pick up more on the way back. Then we had a strut break on one of the screws. It was 500 miles from Christmas Island, and we were trying to make Pearl Harbor, and it was so rough, we could only make 7 knots we couldn't put a guy down in the sea and work over it. The other engine was speeded up, and it took us a week or more to get there, almost like a sailing ship. They couldn't repair us there, so they sent us to the states, and they repaired the engine. They were General Motor's engines and we always made fun of them, because they always skimped on everything. They were V-16 diesels, and they'd turn up about 2000 revolutions a minute, and you couldn't hear yourself think in that engine room. They'd always have to shut an engine down to replace the head bolts, which were always cracking. That was the headache we had.
Q: When you were on convoy escort duty, were any of the ships you were escorting attacked?
A: When we were off the Marshalls, we saw a Jap reconnaissance plane go over. We fired at him, but he took off. We had a Heavy Cruiser with us, I don't remember her name, three carriers, and such. Then one day, someone hollered "Man Overboard!" If we had been in convoy, the man would have been lost, but the skipper turned the ship around, and took it upon himself, ran the signal, and swung around, and it happened to be one of these two twins we had a board. And he had been climbing up the ladder on the bridge to go to his watch. The ship rolled, and he lost his footing, but he was lucky, because the quartermaster saw him, and threw him a life ring. We threw lines to him, and got him back aboard.
Q: Did you ever lose any of your friends?
A: We lost one guy on my other ship,
off of Cape Hatteras. Makes you sick. We were in action, but we never got it.
When we were with the cruiser Birmingham, we had been loading to her, an this
was when I was on an attack transport, and 8 Japanese planes came in out of
the west, and they started picking up ships. The DE with us knocked three of
them down. We thought that we had been using drones to draw enemy fire, but
one came overhead, at 900 feet, and we sounded General Quarters. Couldn't hardly
see the plane for all the flack going up. And Birmingham was next to us, the
Tennessee was near by too, and this Jap plane came right down on the Birmingham's
bridge. We were watching, and the whole thing went off. Just fire, and debris
and then about two seconds later the magazine went up - they hadn't secured
it yet - I can see it today - that whole turret went up - lifted up into the
air, blue green flames, must have gone up about 50 feet into the air, and it
killed about three hundred guys. Killed every officer aboard, 65 men on the
That was as close as we came. We heard them come overhead at night, but we weren't allowed to shoot at night.
Q: How many kamikaze attacks did you go through when you were off Okinawa?
A: We were there for three days, so everyday. They never got that close to us. The destroyers were taking the beating. We just missed being in a hurricane, too. We'd watch B-29s go over 2 engines gone, wings shot off. But no, we never got hit. We also joked about how long we'd wait before we jumped.
Q: What was the significance of the name of your DE?
A: They were named after officers that had been killed. After awhile, they named them after enlisted men. (Leone) was an officer, and he had been killed in action.
In an attempt to find Leone, he flips through a book. It is a list of DE sailors in the now famous series "Trim But Deadly" This is Vol. 3. His whole individual service is listed, along with hundreds of other young men who answered the nation's call.
Q: As far as daily life goes, what was it like aboard a Destroyer Escort?
A: Well, it wasn't like it was on the bigger ships, you didn't have to salute officers as much, and regulations weren't much, and it got boring, and I never knew there was so much water in the Pacific, and the Pacific is so big, and you are only going 15 knots, and you just see water everyday. It was just routine, though, you kept busy. It was tough on the seamen, but I was a rating, so it was easier for me. I'd get the other guys to do the work. Chipping paint, rust and there were times I'd instruct sailors in reading or writing. Pennsylvania coal miners and what not, I'd help them take tests. Nice guys. We Bos'uns mates would practice our whistle blowing, to the horror of the seamen. Only two guys are allowed to blow whistles in the Navy, Bos'uns Mate, and someone who doesn't know any better. (Laughs)
Q: What was the relation between officers and the crew and the crew amongst each other?
A: Well, it was hard, because there was quite a barrier between officers and enlisted men. You couldn't go into officers' territory. I couldn't, it was impossible for a seamen to go and knock on an officers quarters, and he'd have to see us to go to that. The only ones that could were the orderlies. They had messmates, and they were the blacks, and they were not in the regular category of the Navy at that time. They would take care of the food. The few Chiefs we had, they ate separately, and better. They had their own place, their own food, and their own messmate. There was a great barrier. You slept two feet apart, yet you had to give them orders. You wanted to be friends with them, but you couldn't. I was more friendly than some guys. I could go ashore with them, but being a Bos'uns mate, you aren't liked that much. We were told that if you wanted men to work for you, they have to hate you. If they hate you, they will work for you. Bos'uns mates would get beat up, but some would deserve it. If you saw one in a bar, 9 chances out of ten, he'd been in a fight. There was definitely a barrier.
Q: What was your assignment aboard a Destroyer Escort?
A: I was in charge of the Deck Division, in Second Division. Lay out the work, get the tools together, and put the men to work. I'd have to keep checking them. The Gunner's Mate would have them cleaning weapons, and the whole are Wash the decks down, polish this, or polish that. 1st Division was from amidships forward, and the officers' quarters. I'd make Bos'uns lanyards to stay occupied.
He still has his lanyards, for his Bos'uns Whistle in a variety of fashions, knots and braids. They look as good today as they did then. "I knew 50 knots at one time," he says. And then, he blows his Bos'uns Whistle. His uniform may be long gone, and he may no longer be in the Navy, but your back arches and your heart jumps at the sound.
Q: What other ships did you serve on, aside from a DE?
A: I was an Attack Transport, APA 205.
Q: When you were on the attack transport, where did you go, what was the ships mission?
A: We carried landing troops. We Carried 20 LCVPs for carrying troops, and two LCMs, big steel jobs that could carry a tank. We had a thirty-five ton boom, and three divisions on board. I was in charge of the boom. We got good, because we would practice. I believe our record was 9 minutes, and that was no mean job, I'll tell you. Thos boats weren't light.
Q: Did you or your ship participate in any amphibious landings?
A: Only the Philippines. The troops we had had already made several landings. The most sickly looking bunch you've ever seen, boy, but these guys were rugged. They had turned yellow from malaria pills, and they were skinny. But a great, great bunch. We took some to Okinawa, that was like the Fourth of July all the time. Troops on shore wouldn't come aboard because we'd make them help unload equipment, and the troops on board didn't want to go ashore because it was a nightmare, with the smoke, and explosions all over. I was in a boat crew. Some guys shook so bad they'd drop their weapons, or not even be able to get out of the boat.
Q: Where were you hen you had heard that the A-Bomb had been dropped.
A: We were in Subic Bay loading tanks and jeeps. I was standing Bos'uns watch on the bridge, to take charge in an emergency or what not. The radioman and I were talking, as we often did, because he was the guy who handed out liberty cards, a very nice fella, and he says to me "Did you ever hear of the Atomic Bomb?" And I says "Are you kiddin'? You believin' that shit?" And he says that he has a message here about the atom bomb. I remember that, because it was highly secret.
Q: What was the reaction when the war was over?
A: Joyous, very happy. If the Japs kept up what we were keeping up, putting our ships out of action, it was terrible, nobody really knew it, we lost over 200 I saw some of them at Tinian and Saipan, and they were towing them back, from Okinawa, and the worst one I saw, she had taken a kamikaze in the bow, had a huge hole in the bow 10 feet wide, took one in the bridge, only part of the bridge was left, and from the torpedo tubes aft, there was nothing but ragged steel. And they were towing her back to Saipan. That was the worst I saw, they were bringing them in everyday. 265 ships they had knocked out, I'm not sure how long we could have kept it up, well, we had a lot of ships, though, but they were really going for the carriers, the tin cans were protecting us, but they [Japanese] were knocking hell out of us.
Q: So you believe the atomic bomb was necessary??
A: OH! I wouldn't be here! Believe me, I wouldn't be here. No, we were attack transports; we were the first to go. When we went to Japan to start a Naval Base in Kure, on Kyushu, it's in-between two mountains, and you look at that coast, and you're like "God, there's no place to land." The only place that was good was Yokohama, that was flat, but most of Japan is they had figures of 675,000 casualties just to set a beachhead. This is just setting a beachhead. This is just getting on the land. Brutal. I was very happy. And you know, these people don't give up. And I understand now that they gave the civilians clubs, they were all ready to die for their Emperor. I can't stand these guys now who ask why we used it. There wasn't any other way. They didn't even give up after the first one.
Q: After VJ day, what was it like coming home to a grateful nation?
A: Everyone was joyous, and we were assigned to Operation Magic Carpet, taking troops home. We made three trips.
Q: When you got home, when and where did you leave the Navy?
A: Seattle, Washington. It was cold. They came in and they shut the ship down, and I looked up, and saw the mountains all covered in snow. The ship was like an icebox. I couldn't wait to get on the train. I sat on my suitcase, as there were no seats. I'll never forget a guy who offered to send a telegram to my girl, to have her meet me at Grand Central Station. He never mailed it, and I even gave him a tip.
Q: When you got home, did you get married>?
A: I got home in November, got married in January.
A: 2 boys.
Q: What occupation did you enter when you were discharged?
A: I went into the shipyards, and I worked as a rigger, second class. And my friend worked in a brewery, delegating a union, and tried to get me in. I worked in the shipyards until May, and then I went to the brewery.
Q: What is your Role in DESA?
A: I've never taken any role; I just go to get togethers and such.
Q: With all of the war movies that have been made over the years, and there are thousands of them now, which ones do you feel more accurately portray the bravery of the men who were there and fought the battles, as compared to the newer ones being made now, and that are revisionist history, and don't concentrate on the historical aspect?
A: The best one I've seen was Das Boot. That was the most accurate of the way it was during the war.
Q: What do you think of the U.S. Navy today, as compared to the Navy you served in?
A: Well we never would have won the war with women, I'll tell you. They'd never win, not with the guys we had. Especially, we used to joke about the WACs, and in the Gulf War, women were getting pregnant, and when you are in those close quarters, men have a desire for the female that is just there. We only had one guy get locked up for attempted rape. I don't know how we ever would have had them on DE's; you've seen them. And I couldn't take orders from a woman anyway. I was brought up different than that. I was raised to be polite and helping them; and you find yourself doing that, and you find yourself helping them do things you aren't supposed to do. I don't think it work.
Q: What do you feel the world should gain from your military experiences??
A: Well, it will teach you to keep calm, and don't do anything impulsively. Not much time to think . Maybe I'm not that intelligent, I got excited, but I can't say that I was ever frightened. I never can say I was frightened. I'm honest, I'm telling you the truth, I never suffered from fright. I got excited. When that guy fell over board, and they said he was gone, and I got sick to my stomach, you know that's one of your shipmates and that really affects you when it's over. I was in Bethesda Naval Hospital and I've seen guys in bad shape. We had so many attack transports and one time, in Manila, we had a guys so frightened he jumped over board, even though we had already taken the island clubbed the pharmacists mate, downed some pills and jumped over. A destroyer picked him up. I've seen these guys, they become like little children, little kids, they completely lose it. I guess I was fortunate, never got frightened I got apprehensive, but never frightened in that sense. In the war, they couldn't test you, but we had guys who went berserk. We had guys who would wake up screaming, and they'd be sweating and we had a guy who freaked out and tore the whole barracks up one night... we had another who was shell shocked in the chow line, he'd lose in, and start screaming. We laughed, but it was sad.
Conclusion of the Interview.
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