By Edie Schmierbach
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — Clarence F. Johnson of North Mankato is one of those guys who’ll bend your ear with stories about his trips to all 50 states, the farm he operated near Lake Crystal, what it’s been like to be a Shriner, and his upcoming 91st birthday in December.
And he’s one of those guys who needs a little coaxing to get him to tell you about his military service.
Johnson joined up in 1943 and served until 1946. His modesty can get in the way when he starts his story — he’ll tell you his career in the Navy wasn’t hard work.
“I was in Panama for a year. I worked for the Port Directors when they needed help,” Johnson said recently, while reminiscing at his home.
“Navy ships would dock overnight and the sailors would come ashore,” said Johnson, who was in his early 20s at that time. “Then we would put on badges.”
Let’s just say his shore patrol duty story got a little salty when he described the women he was to keep sailors away from.
Johnson was in Panama when the U.S. presence was at its greatest in the canal zone, a location vital to the movement of troops to the Pacific war areas, according to information from the Panama Canal Museum.
After serving in Central America, Johnson went back to the States, where he got aboard “a brand new ship in Mississippi” — the USS Griggs, an APA-110 transport.
“We took troops out and brought back wounded for two years,” Johnson said.
His shipmates and he were in a port near Okinawa the evening before a treaty was signed with the Japanese.
“Four Jap suicide planes flew in,” Johnson said. They were shot down, but not before two ships were hit. “One was right beside us.”
Johnson and his crewmates worked through the night to pull the wounded and bodies out of the sea.
“Then, after the treaty was signed, we took the first load of occupying troops into Japan,” Johnson said. He remembers Japanese people who bowed and seemed glad at the sailors’ arrival. “They just wanted to get this thing settled,” he said.
After the War, Johnson returned to Minnesota, where his wife, Ardyce, and he raised two sons.
Johnson’s life as a widowed and retired farmer/trucker was pleasantly interrupted in 2010, when he was invited to participate in an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.
“It was for World War II vets only,” Johnson said as he showed off photographs of himself aboard a plane traveling to the East Coast.
During their visit, participants went sight-seeing to view national monuments and veterans memorials.
“All of us had guys pushing us along in wheelchairs. I had the best, he wheeled me right out in front of the Capitol, then took a picture,” Johnson said.
When those who defended our country during the 1940s in the European and Pacific Theaters pass away, their untold stories can go with them.
“We are losing the World War II vets,” said John Barness, membership director for Lorentz American Legion Post 11.
Johnson is a card-carrying member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Legion. He’s among the veterans who’ve been members of Post 11 for 65-plus years.
He has advice for soldiers who are just returning from service overseas.
“I think they should work with their VFW and the new VA Center in town. They are really helping me.”
Barness and other Post 11 members are organizing ways to honor their longtime members, but Johnson is comfortable with the recognition he’s had from its bartenders.
“For a couple of weeks there, I would walk in the place and I would get a free drink.”
Johnson plans to celebrate his military service by attending an appreciation lunch Tuesday hosted by Northview-North Mankato Mortuary. After that, he will go back to making snowbird plans for the winter — something he really enjoys talking about.
Other veterans may join him at the free meal Tuesday by calling 388-2288 to make reservations.