The close he's come to dyingBy CHARLIE SMITH,
The closest he’s ever come to dying, Henry O. Johnson says, was during a typhoon in Okinawa in 1945. Navy records report 92 mph winds sending 35-foot waves that battered ships, sinking 12 and grounding 222. The human toll was 36 sailors killed, 100 seriously injured.
That’s what history says, but Johnson lived it, gripping the wheel of a sea-going tugboat as it fought against the gale. He was just 21, a country boy from Marion County, serving as the helmsman, responsible for safely steering the ship through the angry waters.
It was Oct. 4, 1945, just over a month after World War II had ended. As the storm approached the Japanese island that had been the site of some of the war’s most intensive fighting, big ships had been ordered out to sea, where it was safer, but the tugs remained in the harbor, Johnson said.
The captain ordered a four-ton anchor to be thrown out, and the ship’s motors were going full speed ahead against the storm. Yet it wasn’t enough to keep the vessel from being driven back onto the beach.
“You couldn’t stand up the wind was blowing so hard,” Johnson recalls. “Like to blew me over the side of the ship.”
A report, written in 1946 by the Navy admiral in charge of the Pacific, describes the details: “The bay was now in almost total darkness, and was a scene of utter confusion as ships suddenly loomed in the darkness, collided or barely escaped colliding by skillful use of engines, and were as quickly separated by the heavy seas. Not all ships were lucky; hundreds were blown ashore, and frequently several were cast on the beach in one general mass of wreckage, while the crews worked desperately to maintain watertight integrity and to fasten a line to anything at hand in order to stop pounding. Many ships had to be abandoned. Sometimes the crews were taken aboard by other ships; more often they made their way ashore, where they spent a miserable night huddled in caves and fields. A few were lost.”
Through it all, Petty Officer 3rd Class Johnson held to the helm, doing his best to keep the crew alive as the squall mercilessly blew their ship toward land. Lt. L.J. Hanan, one of the tug’s officers, commended Johnson for “loyalty, devotion and extreme courage for saving ship in typhoon.”
Those words are written on Johnson’s discharge papers, which the now-93-year-old pulls from an envelope inside his home off Columbia-Purvis Road. Tall and lean, he still has a full head of gray hair and speaks with a deep voice. He lives by himself, tending to a garden where he grows tomatoes and cucumbers and keeping his lawn immaculate.
“You’re always welcome,” he tells a visitor, “at this house.”
He was born not far from there on May 31, 1926, in Marion County’s Brushy Creek community and grew up on a farm, hoeing and picking cotton. He attended Columbia High School through 11th grade, playing end on the football team.
He was 18 in 1944 and thus subject to being drafted into the Army. His grandfather lived at Carnes in southern Forrest County, and young Johnson witnessed Army soldiers at nearby Camp Shelby.
“Those guys were out there on maneuvers, sleeping in the woods. I just couldn’t comprehend that,” he said. “So I joined the Navy.”
He admits to not really liking the service.
“I never did like to take a lot of orders,” he says.
But it wasn’t a matter of choice in those days. His first stop was Camp Peary, Virginia, for boot camp. From there he went to Miami for signal school and then he saw he’d been assigned to a ship in Camden, Maine.
The USS ATR-75 was a 165-foot-long, sea-going tugboat that carried about 65 crew members, including five officers. It was commissioned on Sept. 11, 1944, with LT. E.A. McCammond as captain and assigned to the Pacific theater.
Johnson served as a coxswain who would drive the ship’s smaller boat and worked as a deckhand, painting and doing other chores.
“I think we went through the Panama Canal three times, pulling tows across to the Pacific. Then we headed for Pearl Harbor,” he said.
He recalls a memorable experience in the idyllic Marshall Islands.
“All the coconuts you ever saw. Coconuts laying everywhere. That was unusual for an old country boy, where you had to go to the A&P to buy a coconut,” he said. “I found out you could get a green coconut and cut it, it’s all juice.”
Even during that time, Johnson maintained contact with Marion County. His mother mailed him The Columbian-Progress, which somehow got to him aboard the ship, although he would sometimes get six or seven of the weekly papers at once.
Eventually the crew wound up at Okinawa, where the typhoon hit. That’s the last Johnson saw of his boat.
“I was one of the last crew members who left it, and I understand that drug it out to the ocean and sunk it,” Johnson said. “I didn’t see it; I just heard that.”
Navy records list the fate of the USS ATR-75 as unknown, and what Johnson heard is likely true because with the war over, the Navy decided to sink many of the ships damaged in the typhoon rather than repair them.
Johnson was reassigned to a cargo ship and put in a sail locker, where they made canvas covers for hatches and guns. From there he was honorably discharged at New Orleans on June 11, 1946, after two years of active duty.
He returned to what is now the University of Southern Mississippi and got his GED and worked for Morgan-Lindesey Co., a 5-and-10-cent store in downtown Columbia.
“You can’t imagine: Back in those days, there’d be all the country people in Columbia on Saturdays,” he says. “There was no TV back in those days, and you had three theaters in Columbia: You had the Marion and the Ritz and the Columbian. The big deal in those days was you went to the midnight show on Saturday night.”
He met his future wife, Susie Mae Malone, who was a union organizer who was here to organize Reliance Manufacturing Co.
“I didn’t belong to any church at that time, and she was Catholic. So now I are a Catholic,” Johnson says with a laugh.
Nicknamed “Chick,” he worked for 35 years for the Air Force as a civilian, starting at Alabama’s Brookley Air Force Base in 1950 and transferring to McClellan Air Force Base in California in 1968. He retired in 1985 as distribution facilities manager and was given the Air Force Award for Meritorious Civilian Service, one of the nation’s highest awards presented to a civil service employee.
During that time the Johnsons, who had four children, lived in Citrus Heights, Calif., a suburb of Sacramento. They were married 50 years and 4 months (Johnson notes the exact time when asked) before his wife died in 2001, and Johnson returned to Marion County after that on property his parents passed to him, building a brick home on the rural land surrounded by pine trees.
His three surviving children live in California and Arizona, and his family plans to visit at Easter, which he is looking forward to.
He frequently mentions that he lives alone, admitting eventually what is implied, that it can be hard to do so. But he drives the nine miles into town several times a week, attending services every Sunday at Holy Trinity Catholic Church and also having a “lady friend” he calls upon.
And Johnson makes it clear that he’s happy to be in Marion County and proud to be a Mississippian.
“I’ve been many places, but I have always said I’m from Mississippi,” he said. “I’m proud of Mississippi.”