Bill Johnson was born July 11, 1926 in the town of Selma, North Carolina. Mr. Johnson’s father was an auto mechanic, and his mother worked in a cotton mill. Taken care of by their grandmother, Bill and his younger brother were put to work in the house often. At sixteen Bill worked in the cotton mill with his mother, and two years later he enlisted in the Navy upon graduating high school. Mr. Johnson served on a destroyer in the Pacific, and after the war, he attended art school. Shortly after art school, he began working as an artist for the FBI—a job he loved. Bill, now 92, lives in Centreville with his wife, Kathy.
In this interview, Mr. Johnson shares his experiences on the Home Front and the war front. Bill remembers growing up in a small town and not having much, but he says that “It was a ball!” His Home Front memories range from descriptions of work in the cotton mill to home life after the Great Depression. When reflecting on his Navy service, he remembers his time in Japan and the relief he felt when the War was over. Bill also observed Hiroshima after the bombs were dropped, and spoke about being an escort for the USS Missouri when the Japanese formally surrendered.
Air Raid and Kamikaze Attack
From there we went up through the Philippines to Mindoro. Mindoro was an island south of Luzon, Luzon being the Northernmost Island in the Philippines. We pulled into a little cove or bay there. There were about five other ships. One of them was a tanker that had been burning for two days. Another was a merchant ship, another tanker. Thus came and put the anchor down. The old man had gone over to a meeting. Word came to get out of there. So we pulled the anchor up and just got underway, and three planes came over, and the middle one dropped out and hit the merchant ship which happened to be an ammunitions ship. Of course that wiped it and all hands out. The other tanker was between us and the explosion, and they’d lost some of their rigging and lifeboats and so forth. I didn’t see all of this; I was on the other side of the ship, but I felt it. I thought we had run aground [unintelligible] the concussion. So we went out to another little island and hid overnight.
Naval Rank and a Proud Mother
What rank? Oh boy! I’m glad you asked that question. I got out of bootcamp, and when you get out of bootcamp you automatically become Seaman First Class. So I wrote my Mother and said, “Well I’ve done something right, I am now Seaman First Class.” Mom didn’t get the joke and she went around the neighborhood saying “My son is now Seaman First Class.” I mean she would just proud as she could be, but I was the low man on the totem pole.
Confidence in Roosevelt and Truman’s Decision to Drop the Bombs
I had an awful lot of confidence. I was born and raised a Republican, but everybody liked Roosevelt. They never showed anything degrading about Roosevelt. Everybody knew he was paralyzed, but you never saw a picture of him leaning on his crutches. He was behind the podium or sitting down or such. Everybody liked Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt [inaudible]. And when he died, I just thought I’m never going to get home, you know. I thought that Old Harry Truman was a weak sister and but God bless him, [laughs] he made the decision and as far as I’m concerned the right one. It would’ve been a forever bloodbath if we had tried to go in and tried to occupy. As far as I’m concerned, World War II is the last war we won.
AO-79 Auxiliary Oiler, “Cowanesque”
AO-79, Auxiliary Oiler; the name was Cowanesque. And if you look him up under World War II United States Navy ships, you can find the history of— we got credit for two or three Jap planes depending who you ask. But if you got a whole bunch of planes overhead and a whole bunch of ships shooting at it, everybody wants credit for it. [laughs]
Yeah, there were several of them around. There was one between here and Bridgeville, the next town north. Many of them worked for Parsons Milling, Parsons Lumber Yard. He made a lot of money on them. I forget what the going rate was that you paid for prisoner labor. Maria Heisel, a friend of mine, is from Missouri, and they had a German Prisoner of War camp there, and they had them at Church a couple of times. They had a choir in the prison camp, and the choir would go out and perform for people. I don’t think there was a resentment of the German population like there was of the Japanese. I don’t know why. Well, I guess I do know why. We weren’t directly attacked like by the Japanese.
Gasoline, of course, was the first thing that was rationed. Everybody had stamps from the Ration Board: A, B and C stamps. I forget now which was which but for ordinary family use, agricultural use, resale. And if you went to a service station, you had to give them stamps. When we went to fill up at a service station or a farm, they had to give us stamps. These stamps were put on sheets and deposited in the bank so when you ordered a truckload of gasoline or a barge boat of gasoline, the bank had to write a check or a certificate or whatever for those, for that amount of gallons. That was quite a chore.
The Homefront Threat
Blackouts. Headlights were taped up so that there was only a little slit. If you were away from home, and there was a blackout, you stayed there. You couldn’t come home. You had Air Raid Wardens spotted out through the countryside. If you saw an airplane, you were supposed to report it: one engine, two engines, which direction it was going. Air Raid Wardens also patrolled at night. If you could see any light at all shining from a house. All this was because of submarines being offshore. Ships were silhouetted against the light sky reflected, and for a period they averaged one tanker a day being lost off the East Coast here by submarines. For several years after World War II, if you went to the beach you carried your little cotton balls and nail polish remover or something like that to take the tar off your feet, little balls of this black oil that washed up.