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.

140825110604Maurice 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].

140825115927[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.

140825105849One 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.

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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.

140825121442MJ: 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.]

TL: What is your perspective on what was accomplished in the war and your role as a soldier?

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.