On what would have been his 100th birthday – August 14, 2021 – Carroll Johnson’s life was celebrated by the Clinton County Historical Society at its museum on the second floor of Old Stoney.
Speaking about Johnson at the Celebration of Life event were retired US Army Colonel Dr. Mark Griffith, Nancy Hart, Joe Root, State Senator Brian Buchanan, Frankfort Mayor Judy Sheets, and Lt. Col. Travis Kelley (USMC, retired). Excerpts from Johnson’s memoirs were then read by Julia Newhouse, Jim Moyer and Julia Hadinger.
Johnson wrote about his memories of his younger years – from his time as a schoolboy through his experiences as a soldier in World War II. His writings provide a glimpse of what life was like in the early years of the 20th century, especially the three-year-period during his time serving in World War II.
Johnson started school in 1927.
“I was living on a farm just north of Frankfort and was close enough to the courthouse to hear its clock ring out the hours,” Johnson wrote. “Frankfort was divided into four grade school areas. The railroads divided the town from north to south and east to west. A grade school was built in each section so that most students didn’t have to cross any railroads getting to school.”
When Johnson was a student, school lunches were whatever the student brought to school form home.
“About all of the students that rode the school bus carried their dinner bucket,” he wrote. “The boys and the girls each had a room in the basement of our school as a lunchroom. Usually, some of our teachers would eat lunch with us.
“We had lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sometimes dried beef sandwiches,” he added. “If we had fried chicken for dinner on Sunday at home, we would put some aside for our lunch buckets on Monday. Sometimes we had a hard-boiled egg, an apple, peach or maybe a piece of pie.”
Johnson recalled when he was in the sixth grade, the janitor at First Ward School was injured in an auto accident resulting in a broken arm. The man offered Johnson a job helping clean after school. Johnson’s job was to keep the coal hopper to the furnace filled in the morning and once again before he went home in the evening. He would also help sweep the classrooms. He earned enough to buy a new Montgomery Ward bicycle for $22.88.
“Sure beat walking,” Johnson wrote.
He started high school in 1935 at Old Stoney. His father told him that if he didn’t smoke or drink through his high school days that he would give him a gold pocket watch for graduation.
“I got the watch, and it still runs today,” Johnson wrote in 2015. He chose agriculture as his major study. During planting and harvest seasons, he was permitted to go home and help his father on the farm.
Johnson wrote that his teacher always said he could learn more by doing it rather than just listening to him talk about it. After graduating high school in 1939, Johnson took a correspondence course on Farm Engineering and Farm Management.
His life as a farmer was temporarily halted when he received a letter in July 1942 from the draft board.
“At that time, I was farming with my father near Frankfort,” Johnson wrote. “All of my crops were growing in the field waiting for a fall harvest. I went and talked to the draft board about getting a delay of induction until November 1.”
Johnson’s request was granted. He reported to the Frankfort Armory on November 9, 1942, to go to Indianapolis for his physical and to swear into the military.
“Upon returning to Frankfort that evening, I went to see Mary Lou, my girlfriend of about three years, to tell her I was now in the Army,” he wrote, adding that “after a little serious discussion,” he proposed, and she accepted. They were married four days later, on Nov. 13, 1942. On Nov. 23, Johnson left home and would not return for three years. Before he left, his father-in-law, who served in WWI, advised him, “Do not volunteer for anything.” That paid off when a corporal asked for volunteers to drive trucks. Johnson stayed quiet. He later found out that they men who volunteered to drive trucks were instead pushing wheelbarrows.
Johnson wrote that basic training lasted for eight weeks.
“If you passed, you got a five-dollar-a-month pay raise to $55 a month, and you were promoted to Private First Class,” he wrote. “I sent most of my money home to save for another start in farming later.”
Johnson was assigned to the Radio Section of Headquarters Battery of the 141st Field Artillery Battalion. After several months of training, Johnson’s battalion was finally ready to join the war.
“We put the final touches on our training,” he wrote. “There they decided that we were ready to take a boat ride to Africa. We went to New York City by train, got on a ferry for a boat ride to Staten Island. I got to see the Statue of Liberty as we left.”
He explained that there were 9,000 troops on his ship, which was part of a large convoy of troop ships and warships. There was always a threat of enemy submarines along the way, but his convoy luckily never encountered any. By the time they arrived in Oran in Africa, the Germans had already been defeated. After a couple of months in North Africa, his battalion loaded up and sailed across the Mediterranean to Italy.
Johnson didn’t write about the brutality of war in his memoirs, but instead vaguely mentioned the encounters.
“On Nov. 23, 1943, we shot our first fire mission in combat,” he wrote. “Once we started using our guns, the Germans started shooting back, and the German bombers gave us a noisy welcome the first night. Lucky for us their aim was not good. They missed doing us any damage. We got baptized to combat in a hurry.”
He recalled a luxury while in the field in Italy.
“In the Pantanna area (Sicily), we got to use a shower for the first and only time,” Johnson wrote. “We also got clean clothes. Snow on the ground and taking a bath outdoors in December.”
Johnson described the next advancement into Italy.
“Around January 1944, we were relieved from the battlefront in the Italian mountains and returned to the Naples area,” he wrote. “Then we boarded LSTs, (Landing Ship, Tank) and landed on the Anzio Beachhead in Italy at night. When we got there, the Germans were shelling and bombing the harbor.
“Anzio was one hot place, and the sun didn’t cause it,” Johnson continued. “We would shoot at the enemy, and they would shoot back. We shot over three thousand (artillery) rounds a day several times. We had 12 guns, but one time we only had four working.”
Things intensified at Anzio to the point that Johnson said the officers thought they might be driven back to the sea by the Germans.
“All truck drivers were (given) TNT to be used to destroy our trucks and radios and anything else the Germans could use,” he wrote. “We never had to use it! On the Anzio Beachhead, everything was dug in. The longer you were in a position the deeper you got. Being in one position too long was bad business as the Germans would spot you and get you zeroed in with their guns. That was bad for your health!”
At times, the German bombers would drop propaganda leaflets trying to convince the U.S. troops to quit fighting.
“All of Axis Sally’s sweet talk on the radio and the propaganda didn’t work,” Johnson wrote. “We still chased them off the Anzio Beachhead.”
After four months on the beachhead, a move was made to break out. In a five-and-a-half-day period, Johnson’s battalion fired nearly 15,000 artillery rounds. The attack worked, and they were off to Rome.
Once in Rome, Johnson said the people filled the streets to greet the U.S. troops.
“They threw flowers to us and if our convoy stopped, they wanted to kiss us,” he wrote. “It gave you a good feeling that you helped, in a small way, to free them.”
Johnson wrote about a daring mission in Rome to pick up some New York dressed chickens (chickens with their heads still on), for the unit.
“Our First Sergeant told me to get my truck, Betsy, and take him to Rome to pick up the chickens,” Johnson wrote. Once in Rome, they passed a pub and the sergeant suddenly got thirsty and told Johnson to drop him off and come back at 4 p.m. to pick him up.
“Betsy, my truck, and I saw a lot of Rome that day,” Johnson wrote. “The Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, and the Coliseum.” Johnson returned at 4 p.m. to pick up his sergeant who was in bad shape after four hours in the pub.
After about 20 days in Rome, the battalion headed to the harbor in Naples and then joined a ship convoy headed to Southern France. He described the trip as, “another moonlight cruise for three nights and four days.”
They only met light resistance when landed on the shore. Later, his radio section was set up in an abandoned two room schoolhouse. The Germans spotted them and opened fire and had a direct hit on one side of the schoolhouse, killing an officer and one GI. His radio section was saved by a heavy brick wall.
“We were not hurt, but we sure had a ringing in our ears for a while,” Johnson wrote.
By April 1945, they crossed the Rhine River. The war in Europe was nearing the end. Johnson, along with 49 other GIs, was assigned to be guards for 5,000 German prisoners heading to the U.S.
“This was my fifth boat ride on the Mediterranean,” he wrote. “The weather was great, the water calm, the war in Europe was over, and I was on my way back to the states. What more could you ask for?”
Johnson wrote that, as they were coming into New York Harbor to dock, he saw the Statue of Liberty again.
“It was still standing where I had left her 22 months earlier,” he wrote. “When I left her in August 1942, I wondered if and when I would see her again.”
Johnson was discharged from the Army in September 1945. He went back to his life as a farmer in Frankfort. His wife of 23 years, Mary Lou, passed away in 1965. In 1967, he remarried Norma Harland, and she passed away in 2006.
“I farmed all my working life except for three years when I was in the Army during WWII. I still live on the farm today,” he wrote in 2015.
“In the Army or just in everyday living, there is no end of memories or events that stay with you as you go through life,” Johnson wrote. “Why do you remember them? Maybe they could have affected what you did at the time or what you did or could do later. Some memories make you laugh while others bring a tear to your eye. Your life is made of a long list of events or memories that come back into view. What would your life be without them?”
Carroll Johnson provided copies of his memoirs to the Clinton County Historical Society. He passed away June 29, 2021, just over a month before his 100th birthday.