Originally published in November 2014, we thought this incredible story of American heroism would be appropriate to reshare with our readers as we celebrate Independence Day.
An interview with Maurice Johnson
Photography by Tina Sargeant
Through a lens ever darkening with the passage of time, the touchstones of our shared history speak to us. It’s on the written page, within the artifact, or embossed on the preserved image that we seek the fuller truth of who we are as a people. Yet, when the embodiment of that history still walks among us, the fog between our present and our past dissolves.
World War II was perhaps the watershed of our nation’s history. Young men, many of whom had never before left home, boldly joined the armed forces to push back the tides of tyranny inherent in Nazism and Imperial Japanese expansion in Asia. Many would never return to tell their stories, and many who did come home would never disclose the full measure of the life-altering experiences they had. It’s a sacred obligation of those generations that come after to listen carefully, for there remain those who can clear the lens, remove the obscurity, and tell us what it was like to live through that time.
That is why, as we observe Veterans Day this November, we are so fortunate to have Maurice Johnson, a Tampa-born Lakelander of nearly five decades, tell his story.
The Lakelander: You entered the Army at age 19. Tell us about your early life.
Maurice Johnson: Yes, let’s go back a little. Had I been able to enlist, I probably would have enlisted in the Navy because I had been a Sea Scout in Tampa. But, because I was too young and had dental problems, I couldn’t enlist. The war came along near the end of the Depression, and my father didn’t make enough money to pay for the orthodontist and the dentist to correct the narrow arch I had in my gums. So when I graduated from high school, I went to work myself. I always say that I didn’t buy a car; I bought teeth. Just about
everything I made went to the orthodontist. I had a real good dentist who told me, “Look, you gotta pay the orthodontist, and we’ll put what I do on the cuff.”
I worked for the Victory Theater out of high school, then labor help became critical so I worked two jobs. I worked for the Atlantic Coastline Railroad at the Uceta Shop in east Tampa. I’d work there from 8:00 to 4:00 or 5:00 and then I’d go home, shower, and go to the theater and work until 10:30 or 11:00 at night.
When they lowered the draft age from 21 to 18, I was 19 and just the right age and size, and I called up my dentist and orthodontist and they said that I was far enough along that “we’ll just wind you up and you can go [to war].”
I was doing railroad-car repair at Uceta. I’m sure that it was my experience working on air brakes that got me into the combat engineers of the Army. A general asked me, “You say you’re working on air brakes — what’s a triple valve?” So I told him what it was. And since each company of combat engineers has an air compressor mounted on the back of a 6×6 truck, that’s what I was in to start with, and I hated it. What I really wanted to do was become an air cadet. I filled out an application and sent it in, but I never got any further than battalion.
When we left the States, we were headed for Burma. When we got to Oran, on the coast of Algeria, though, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin decided that the next summer would be the invasion of France, so they didn’t send us any further east. They put us on a boat and sent us to England with a whole bunch of other combat engineers. In fact, the vessel HMS Andes — in the box of photos I brought — there are pictures of the vessels I made ocean trips on. We had invasion maneuvers on the South Devon coast, and I had the honor and glory of being attached to the fourth infantry division that stormed ashore at Utah Beach.
TL: When did you find out about Operation Overlord, what did you know about it beforehand, and how soon did you know before you had to go ashore?
MJ: We knew that we were going because the training we received indicated that we were going soon, but we had no idea what soon was. It could have been six months. When we went to England we were stationed at the village of Hursley Park, which was near Winchester. So, after our maneuvers, we came back to Torquay, which was on the coast. We kept getting more detailed information about what we were going to be doing, but we didn’t know where it would take place. We did know it was going to be on a beach, and that the beach would carry certain loads of vehicles — even tanks. But it wasn’t until we were onboard the landing craft and we noticed that the combat engineer platoon had transportation corps trucks and drivers carrying the extra stuff we expected we might need (like road repair materials) that we knew exactly what we would be doing. Our first job in Normandy was to clear mines and make sure the roads were passable so that we had no trouble advancing with our vehicles — tanks, trucks, whatever. People ask, “What about the beach?” And I say, “Hey, I don’t know! I saw the beach for about 15 minutes and then never saw it again!” [Laughs].
[Side note: Maurice mentions that his daughter has visited the remains of an old castle at Hursley Park. The general public is not allowed there; she was granted access only because her father served there.]
TL: But you did come ashore in one of those vessels we see in the dramatizations.
MJ: I was in a LCT — a Landing Craft Tank — and this landing craft had room for our platoon, the platoon equipment, loaded dump trucks, cargo trucks…
TL: …so this was a huge craft.
MJ: Yes. These trucks were 6×6, two-and-a-half ton trucks. Our scheduled time to land on Normandy was H plus 40, or 40 minutes. There were not many Allied troops in France before I got there. Of course, the Airborne started first. Although the skies belonged to the Allies during the day, during the first few nights Bed-check Charlie would come around.
TL: How did you actually come ashore — in one of the vehicles, or did you wade through the water onto the beach?
MJ: The landing-craft captain could have gone a little closer to shore, but he was afraid he was going to get caught by the outgoing tide. The Landing Craft Tank was like a motored barge — it had a flat bow that opened up and became a ramp for the equipment to drive over. As I remember, the LCT got into about waist-high water, just shallow enough for the waterproofing of the vehicles to hold. The beach was somewhat similar to the beaches of Pinellas County’s Gulf Coast; it was marshy and there was a bit of an island. In our case, there was a waterway like the intercoastal waterway. In France, the Germans would open the locks of the dike when the tide was coming in and let this marshland fill up with water from the channel. At Normandy, there was an island and this marshy space — a couple of single-lane causeways — that we used.
We kept going. We knew what we were fighting for.
TL: Your unit built the first bridge in Normandy. A tank went over a mine in this culvert and blew it up [Maurice shows a picture of the bridge in a book he brought].
MJ: But they didn’t completely blow it up. Then we put a section of a floating bridge without the pontoons on it so that tanks could go across it. For the first week, every vehicle that landed had to go across that bridge. Of course, one bridge that I want to talk about is the Beer Bridge. Do you know about that?
TL: I don’t.
MJ: General Collins bet somebody that we could not build a bridge across the Rhine River at Bonn in less than 10.5 hours. Well, he lost his bet, so he bought beer for everybody after the war was over. [We all get a good chuckle over this.]
TL: You mentioned that you spent about 15 minutes on the beach and were among the first to come ashore, but did you come under heavy fire on the beach?
MJ: There was minimal gunfire when I came ashore. There was more artillery than anything else. We landed, and we went immediately inland because we were just trying to take land; we were trying to get as far inland as we could. And we did. The first town of any size we came to was Carrington. The Douve River went through Carrington, and it didn’t lend itself well to attacking forces. We laid mines and constructed barbed-wire entanglements. But then we were ordered to cut off the Normandy Peninsula so that there would be a narrow land mass of roads right through the German lines. While we were constructing the barbed-wire fencing, the Germans started firing at us. The 101st Airborne saw the Germans coming at us and started firing, but the 101st came too close to us, and we were saying, “Don’t shoot us; shoot them!” [Laughs]. We did finally get them to fire just at the Germans so that we could finish the barbed-wire entanglements. But that was one of the times that it seemed like American bullets were coming faster than German bullets, so we were getting it from both sides! We built several more bridges that are in this book [points to a book he brought by Lieutenant Colonel John B. Wong — Battle Bridges. Flips through the book.] I swear some of these pictures are of me and my squad — sometimes it’s hard to remember because it’s been 70 years. There was one place where we built an assault bridge, then tore it down and built a wooden floating bridge. Then we tore that down and ended up building four or five bridges at that site. We finally built a semi permanent bridge with steel I-beams from the area.
TL: Before I started the recording [of this interview], you told me about the items you brought with you, but please tell us again about this ammunition clip you brought. It — and the
story around it — is remarkable.
MJ: This is a clip that goes into an M1 Garand rifle. It holds eight rounds, and when the bolt is back and the chamber is empty, you take one of these clips and slide it into the gun, chamber the first round, and then you can shoot the rounds as fast as you can pull the trigger. I really like the M1. These happened to be the black-tipped rounds — they were all black-tipped at one time but the paint has worn off of them — and these black-tipped rounds were armor-piercing; they would go through a quarter inch of armor plate. This clip was in the bandolier and the bandolier was full of clips.
One evening – I have no idea how many of us – when a German with a burp gun sprayed bullets from the other side of the hedgerow. When the bullet hit me, it felt like a hard-pitched baseball in the chest. I dropped to the ground and, as I gathered my thoughts, I realized that I didn’t really hurt. But I thought I might be in shock because when you’re in shock you sometimes don’t feel pain. So I felt under my shirt and — no blood. Anyhow, I jumped back up and started firing my M1, and I have no idea how many rounds I fired that night. But the German that fired that burp gun did not live but moments after he sprayed the back of the hedgerow. When Colonel Johnson saw the flash of the German’s gunfire, he pointed his cannon in that direction and fired, killing the shooter. This is my favorite souvenir because I was a quarter inch from being killed. If it had gone above the steel of the clip, it would have penetrated me instead of the crackers. [Sometime later, having opened his rations that were slung under the bandolier, Maurice found the projectile in the ration’s saltine crackers.]
TL: But you didn’t receive the Purple Heart for this incident. Tell the story of your Purple Heart.
MJ: I was shot, hit, and not hurt that night. I ask people how many others they know like me who have been shot, hit, and not hurt! But I got my Purple Heart crossing the Rhine River. The 9th Armored Division captured a railroad bridge that was damaged. They started sending people across it; they were sending engineers and bridge – building materials. I was in the 238th Engineer Combat Battalion. We were in a house on the east side of the Rhine when the Germans started shelling us with 88mm cannons. My helmet got knocked off, and I got some scars in my head, and the Purple Heart. I also got a Bronze Star for building a Bailey bridge across the Rhine.[Maurice shows some pictures of bridges from the book. The first time he saw a jet plane, it had swastikas on them. He points to a boat in a picture and says, “I saw that sink!”]
When the bullet hit me, it felt like a hard-pitched baseball in the chest. I dropped to the ground and, as I gathered my thoughts, I realized that I didn’t really hurt.
TL: What are some of your other favorite stories?
MJ: There’s one story I like to tell about Normandy. If we weren’t doing engineering work, they allowed us to just wander around to pick up any stray Germans [laughs]. But we’d also go to the farms to get butter or eggs. One day, we went to see a farmer, but we couldn’t speak French and the farmer couldn’t speak English. So this young soldier was trying to tell the farmer what he wanted and was struggling to communicate; he finally squatted down and clucked like a chicken! And the farmer said, “des oeufs!” and the young
fellow got his eggs.
When we got into Germany, the first city to fall was Aachen. This is when the supply lines had been stretched to the breaking point and we ran out of cigarettes. We were being used as infantry at the time because we weren’t moving and there weren’t any traffic problems for the engineers to clear up, so on a patrol into no man’s land we noticed a house with a bunch of three-inch cigars — several boxes. Later, we made a raid of this house and brought all the cigars we could get back with us. Fortunately, we didn’t run into any Germans. Can you imagine how stupid we were to risk our lives for cigars? I quit smoking in 1949, before it was the thing to do.
On a couple of occasions, something like this happened – it happened to John B. Wong [author of Battle Bridges, which depicts many of the World War II bridges Maurice built] — where soldiers were about to go around the corner of a building, and someone said, “Wait, it’s my turn to go first,” and the man that went first was killed. You can just imagined how John Wong felt when the soldier was killed. Also, John Wong said that once he found the sleeve and rib area of the jacket he was wearing had been shredded by bullets, but he had no idea when it happened.
When we broke out of France — broke out of Normandy — we went up south of Paris and then to Mons, Belgium. There we got mixed up in our convoys with German convoys at night. A military policeman noticed the silhouette of a German tank and he spread the word, but the Germans weren’t aware they were mixed up with us. We must have taken hundreds of prisoners as well as equipment that night.
TL: How long were you in Europe?
MJ: I was in the Army two years, 10 months, and 21 days. I was in combat from D-Day to VE Day, for the most part. There were times when we were behind the lines a little bit. Combat engineers were versatile; if there was engineering work that needed to be done, we did that. We built bridges; we laid mines; we maintained roads. [As Maurice described earlier, when there was no engineering work to be done, combat engineers would serve as infantrymen.] I was discharged on the 15th day of November, 1945, and I married that young lady [Bessie] there [points to a series of black-and-white photos] on the first day of December. I met her on Memorial Day on a blind date on Plattsburgh Beach on Lake Champlain. We decided we would get married on June 20th, but we weren’t in the same place at any time when we could get a marriage license.
TL: How many days after meeting Bessie did you have to leave?
MJ: As I said, I met her on Memorial Day 1942. We decided we would get married on the 20th of June. On July 24th or so, I was shipped out for maneuvers to West Virginia. After maneuvers we went to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to re-equip and pack to go overseas. Bessie had a teaching job out of Teachers’ College on the tip of Long Island in a place called Sag Harbor. Sag Harbor was big enough that it had one school, K through 12. When school started, Bessie went there to teach. The principal of the school was named Raymond Schneible, and Bessie would write to me and tell me about him. Finally, in the third or fourth letter (she wrote to me every day, which I was not able to reciprocate completely), one of her letters said “Mr. Raymond Schneible,” so I got the pen going and asked her to see if Mr. Schneible’s mother taught third grade in a parochial school in Ybor City. It turned out his mother had been my teacher!
TL: Tell us a little bit about your life after the war. You were still so young.
MJ: After the war, I didn’t go back to the railroad. I became a policeman with the City of Tampa. But, my wife, being a teacher, kept twisting my arm to go to college. So, after almost four years, I turned in my resignation at the police department and went to Champlain College in Plattsburgh, New York, and majored in chemistry. Afterward, I went to New York City for interviews with a number of companies, one of them being the American Agricultural Chemical Company which made phosphorus chemicals including fertilizers. We used to make a food-grade phosphoric acid which went into every bottle of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola especially. (We used to do a lot of business with Pepsi.) After being transferred to Cleveland, then to Detroit, then to New Jersey, I was transferred to the South Pierce plant in Mulberry, and I was there until I retired. In 1961, I built a house here in Lakeland that I still live in.
TL: And you and Bessie raised a family.
MJ: When Bessie and I got married in 1945 what we wanted was a family. We were married on December 1, 1945, and our first daughter was born on November 20, 1946. Then, I went to college, and our daughter got to be about three years old, and Bessie thought that if we were going to have any more children we better do it so they weren’t too far apart. Anne was born on November 9, 1950. We decided we wanted even more family, but it just wasn’t to be. We tried again when we got back down here, but we never had more than the two girls. [Bessie passed in 2000.]
MJ: After the war, I had people come to work with me who had been to Korea and Vietnam, and one thing I noticed in contrast was that in World War II, we knew what we were fighting for. They let us do what we had to do to get rid of the enemy, and we knew what the enemy looked like: they weren’t French or Belgian or Dutch. They were German. We knew who we were fighting. But these poor guys that fought in Korea and in Vietnam, they didn’t know what they were fighting for, for one thing, and they didn’t have the freedom to fight to win. They could only go up to the line with North Vietnam and they had to stop. With us, we didn’t stop. We kept going. We knew we were fighting to get rid of Hitler and the Nazis.