Valor Friday

| November 27, 2020

Thomas Johnson USMC enlistment photo

Late last week the KoB sent in the story about a recently recovered Marine returning home to rest. Private First Class Thomas Johnson was lost on Tarawa 22 November, 1943. He was brought home almost 77 years later to the day.

The Marine Corps sent an honor guard and conducted a flyover at the funeral. They don’t do such things for every Marine and certainly not for many privates, even if they are of the first class variety.

Thomas Johnson was born in Hollister, CA 30 December, 1924. His father, also Thomas Johnson, had served in the Great War. He was a private first class with the 13th Balloon Company of the US Army Air Service. The 13th had been sent to France as part of the American Expeditionary Force.

Arriving in France in January 1918, the 13th Balloon Company with the elder Thomas Johnson was sent to the front as part of the Second Army later that year. The Second Army saw heavy action in the waning days of the war, fighting up to the minute before the Armistice came into effect at 1100 hours on 11 Nov, 1918. The Second Army had launched a massive assault on 10 Nov, recovering about 25 miles in the fighting over the final day of the war.

Thomas Johnson the younger was the middle of three sons and the third of four children. His older sister, the oldest in the family, Marjorie would like to age 86, passing in 2006. She was survived by three children, seven grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren.

The children lost their mother in 1933 when she died unepectedly. Their father remarried a few years later.

Thomas’s older brother Hugh enlisted with the US Marine Corps in the ostensibly peacetime service in 1940. With the Second World War raging in Europe and the Far East, it was only a matter of time before we were involved.

Hugh initially guarded an ammunition depot in Nevada, but after the attack at Pearl Harbor he was eventually deployed to the war. By the end of 1942 he was headed to defend Samoa.

Younger brother Thomas meanwhile itched to serve, as many young men at the time did. Turning 17 he was of age (with parental consent) to service. Consent was granted after the school year ended and Thomas entered the US Marines in July 1942.

Attending basic training in San Diego, Thomas was assigned to the regimental headquarters of the 6th Marines. One day after arriving at his new unit they all boarded the SS Matsonia headed to the South Pacific.

Hugh, with the 8th Marines, saw heavy action in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Struck in the hand by shrapnel in November 1942, he was able to return to his unit in a couple of days.

Thomas was assigned to Company B, 1/6 Marines when they landed on Guadalcanal on 4 January, 1943. The two men’s units would fight side-by-side on the ‘Canal for a few days on the island’s north side, but the two Marine brothers likely never saw each other before the 8th Marines, battered and severely beaten, were pulled back to New Zealand. Thomas and the 6th Marines would continue the battle on Guadalcandal until mid-February before also being pulled back to New Zealand. Thomas was also wounded, not critically, during the fighting here.

Hugh (left) and Thomas (right) Johnson

According to a hometown newspaper, the two Johnson brothers reunited in New Zealand while both in hospital. It’s not known for sure that that is how events played out, but it is known that the two crossed paths. They likely spent some time on pass in Wellington. During this time Hugh had been promoted to sergeant and Thomas to private first class. Both men would soon fight again in the same battle.

Hugh’s 1/8 Marines would come ashore on the beaches at Betio in the Tarawa Atoll on 21 November. Their landing was complicated by reefs which forced them to wade ashore over several hundred feet of open water. Caught in a heavy crossfire, the Marines were easily mowed down. By sheer force of will, they made it ashore and clung to a small scrap of land near Red Beach 2.

Unfortunately in the fight to come ashore, or to hold the beachhead, Sergeant Hugh Johnson would be killed in action. His father would later accept the Purple Heart and two Presidential Unit Citations his eldest son earned.

Not knowing his brother’s fate, Thomas landed at Betio as well, but on Green Beach on the island’s west side, on the same day. Coming ashore and spending a night under intense enemy fire the Marines moved out to press the attack on the morning of 22 November.

The day was unbearably hot. After initially surprising the defending Japanese, the enemy recovered. As night fell the Marines of Company B 1/6 Marines were ordered to dig in and prepare for a Japanese counterattack. They would weather not one but three of these counterattacks.

In the earliest of these counterattacks that night, the Japanese found a gap in the line between Company B and Company A. About fifty of the enemy found their way into the American lines, closing with them, and engaging in a close quarters battle with the defenders.

As the fighting threatened to devolve into hand-to-hand fighting, the Marines were rapidly running low on ammunition. Nearly exhausting their supplies, the ammo cache was only 40 yards away. Between the embattled Marines and the fresh supplies were 40 yards of fanatical enemy armed with machine guns and a retinue of small arms.

Despite the danger of moving through this gauntlet of death, Pfc. Thomas Johnson volunteered to try. He set out, staying low. As he crawled through the dense jungle floor he braved concentrated enemy machine gun and small arms fire.

Thomas loaded up with as much ammunition as he could carry and returned across the 40 yards of hell to resupply his comrades. While running back he was struck by an enemy bullet or shrapnel to his chest. Despite this fatal wound, he continued forward. With his dying breaths he got the supplies to his brothers in arms. He was a month away from his 19th birthday.

Thomas would posthumously receive the Silver Star for his actions that night. As his award citation ends, “By his daring initiative, dauntless perseverance and cool courage in the face of grave danger, Private First Class Johnson contributed materially to the success of the engagement, and his unwavering devotion to duty throughout was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”

Both Johnson brothers dying on Tarawa in combat, hours apart, over the Thanksgiving week back home meant that the news wouldn’t reach the family for weeks. The Johnson brother’s father received word just before Christmas. A telegram arrived 23 December, 1943 that his sons had both died.

The Johnson brothers were among some 1,000 American deaths during the battle for Betio. The 4,000 Japanese defenders were so determined that only 17 (one officer and 16 enlisted) of them survived the fight by surrendering.

Hugh and Thomas, and all the other Marine casualties of the battle, were buried in hastily constructed cemeteries. The temporary markers of the graves were quickly destroyed, leaving their resting places unknown. Both boys were declared non-recoverable in the late 1940s by the Graves Registration Service.

In 2019 a private group discovered the mass grave that Thomas and thirty other Marines were buried in. As the island had been repopulated after the war, a house was built atop the grave site. It only was discovered after the house blew over in a particularly bad storm.

After recovering the men from their wartime grave, Thomas was identified from familial DNA on 6 May 2020.

Thomas Johnson, the father, would receive his son’s Silver Star on his behalf at the local VFW post, which had already been named after the younger Thomas.

Thomas Johnson (the father) and Kenneth receiving Thomas Johnson’s posthumous Silver Star – Note the VFW banner’s name

At the ceremony was Thomas and Hugh’s youngest sibling, Kenneth. Kenneth by now had followed in his brothers’ footsteps and also enlisted with the Marines.

I’d like to speak for a moment on Kenneth’s enlistment. He obviously knew the dangers of joining. He was 17 when he enlisted, so he was obviously eager to do his part. He chose the Corps like his older brothers. I take that to show that he had immense respect for his older siblings and wanted to honor their memories by also wearing the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor on olive drabs.

As mentioned earlier, at that time age 18 was the point where one could enlist or be drafted (before 1942 that age was 21, and any younger than that required parental consent). Those aged 17 could enlist with parental consent. Ken’s father, having seen the horrors of the Western Front during the First World War, knew what he was signing his boys up for. It’s amazing that he signed again for Kenneth not even two years after he had for Thomas, having lost his two oldest sons. It takes an incredible man to be willing to send all three of his sons off to war, especially after having lost two.

Since Kenneth was the last surviving male child in the family, he was prohibited from serving overseas after he’d enlisted in 1945. He would serve off and on for the next several years in stateside assignments, including service during the Korean War.

Thomas, the family patriarch, lived to age 60, passing in 1960. Kenneth would die at age 85 in 2013. He was preceded in death by his wife of 56 years and was survived by three children, five grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

Kenneth’s daughter, on the return of her uncle’s remains, said “All I can say is I wish my dad had been here. It would have meant everything to him, so much, because he just talked about him all the time.”

Thomas is now at rest back home after all these many years. He’s been placed in a veteran’s cemetery grave right beside his brother Kenneth. Next to them both is an empty grave reserved for the return of Hugh. Hugh is one of about 300 American servicemen who are still missing at Tarawa.

Welcome home, Private First Class Thomas Johnson.

Category: Guest Link, Historical, Marines, No Longer Missing, Silver Star, Valor, We Remember

Comments (19)

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  1. guest blog posting | December 16, 2020
  1. Lawrence E Todd says:

    What a family! I wish I knew more about what my father and uncles did during the war but it was not passed along. My time to serve would have been in Vietnam but I was a DoD civilian and was exempt and then got lucky in the lottery.

    • 5th/77th FA says:

      LET, put in a request for their records thru the Records Center in St. Louis. Takes a little while, ‘specially for WWII since there was a number of those that got burned in “The Fire.” And that whole Chinese Communist Bug thing going on. Knowing what units they were in will at least let you know where they were. Them not talking about what the did is a good indication that they wanted to forget what they had seen and done. Our Papa never discussed his WWII Action at all, and he was killed in an accident while we were very young. When we got copies of his records, back in the ’90s, many of the copies had the scorch marks, others showed water damage, and others were indicated “records from other sources”. We used his unit records to track down what few survivors were left, made contact with those guys and they opened up to tell of things they had never mentioned to their own families. We also found a book that 2 of the members had written in the ’60s of their Battery’s War Service. Good Luck.

      BZ PFC Thomas Johnson, USMC and Welcome Home. We Salute your Service and Pay Honors to your Sacrifice. We hope that Hugh will be recovered and returned Home too.

      Battery Gun Salute…Fire by the Piece, from right to left…COMMENCE FIRING!

      Thanks Mason, Outstanding write up on this Warrior.

  2. USAFRetired says:

    Wow.

    “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.”

    ― George S. Patton Jr.

    Beg to disagree. We should do both.

  3. Hack Stone says:

    Are you sure that 17 year olds could not be drafted? Pappa Stone turned 17 in December 1944 while still in High School, and within a month (January 1945) he was drafted and in the Army, serving in the Philippines through 1947. Pappa Stone said that everyone he went to basic training with was either extremely young or extremely old, because by that time they were running out of potential recruits.

    One time in the 1980’s, Hack was looking through Pappa Stone’s weapons training book from basic training. Hack asked him if he still remembered his rifle serial number (written in the book). Sure as shit, he still had it memorized.

    • inbredredneck says:

      Can’t remember my M14 from basic or the 16 with the 9thInfDiv, but it was 1128744 for the 14 I was issued on Okinawa. Turned that in on or about 16 October, ’69.
      As for PFC Johnson, this was well covered by local media here in NorCal.
      Hopefully his heroism will still be an inspiration to youngsters here in rural areas.

  4. Thunderstixx says:

    Holy crap it got dusty in this house this morning.
    If that doesn’t set your heart aflutter, you don’t
    have one.
    I doubt that Thomas even shaved before he was lost on that God-forsaken Hellhole of Betio and Tarawa.
    BZ to all of that family for giving so much to our country when she needed them most.

    • UpNorth says:

      Dust seems to in the air in many places this morning. Welcome home, Thomas Johnson.
      Hopefully, your elder brother will soon be found and reunited with you and your brother.

      My wife’s uncle was a Lieutenant in the 2nd Amtrak Battalion at Tarawa, he got a Purple Heart there. He wouldn’t talk about that, or Okinawa.

  5. AW1Ed says:

    Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

    Thanks again, Mason.

  6. Hondo says:

    Pfc Johnson’s accounting was announced by DPAA on 8 May 2020 and was noted in an article here at TAH on 10 May 2020.

    https://valorguardians.com/blog/?p=99340

    Welcome home, elder brother-in-arms. Rest well.

    • Mason says:

      Mea culpa. I had intended to link to your post on his accounting. Then I get sidetracked by something shiny or a giant golden bird in the oven.

      • Hondo says:

        De nada, Mason. Just didn’t want anyone to get the idea that DPAA had missed accounting for the guy.

        They have their issues, but DPAA IMO does a helluva job given their monumentally huge mission.

  7. Green Thumb says:

    Hardcore.

    Welcome home, PFC Johnson.

    Rest well.

    Hopefully your brother will join you soon.

  8. Poetrooper says:

    Thanks Mason. My parents had a similar worry in 1966 when both my younger brother and I were engaged in ongoing combat operations in Vietnam–him in the 173d Airborne, and young Poe in the 101st Airborne.

    They had to sweat it out for almost a year but we both made it although somewhat worse for the wear.

    RIP young Johnson…

  9. HMCS(FMF) ret says:

    Thanks, Mason for the moving story… it’s a little dusty here at the BAS

  10. Sparks says:

    Welcome home PFC Johnson. Rest in peace now Sir.

  11. 26Limabeans says:

    Always tough to read Valor Friday.

  12. Mike B USAF Retired says:

    Damn my allergies are acting up.

    It never ceases to amaze me the heroics done by “Kids” like this.

    Maybe it’s time someone writes a book documenting as many of these heroes, in one place, for future generations.

  13. Roh-Dog says:

    Nothing but gratitude and respect for the Johnson family.
    Thank God Almighty for such Men as they.