“The War Department has informed me that your son, Technical Sergeant Donald H. Johnson, has given his life in the performance of his duty.” C.H. Danielson, Major General, U.S. Army.
Siblings Dick Johnson, Donald Johnson (namesake), and Mary Ann (Johnson) Snyder Carrier met at the Rushford Lutheran Cemetery on a windy afternoon this month to reminisce about their uncle, Donald Herbert Johnson. Carrier has compiled his letters, history, and photos for the family in memory of Johnson. A copy of the manuscript is available for the public to peruse at the Fillmore County Historical Center.
Johnson did not realize at the time he wrote the letters that they would not only bring comfort to his family, but would also cause family, friends, and strangers to stop and pause as they reflect on the life of a local Fillmore County hero.
Carrier explains that, “Donald’s letters were submerged in the 2007 Rush Creek flood in Rushford. As we cleaned out my mother’s home, we found the letters and Amber Rae Snyder Meisch, great-niece of Donald’s peeled them apart, and hung each letter up to dry to save them.”
Donald Johnson was born September 13, 1916, at the family home in Rushford, Minn., and the third child of Mandius and Olga (Hatling) Johnson. Johnson had two sisters, Marion and Beulah; and two brothers, Jerome (father of Dick, Donald, and Mary Ann) and Stanley. All the siblings were good students and good athletes.
Johnson is described as a man with light brown hair, blue eyes, slender, right-handed, above average intelligence, with a moody personality but fun-loving. He was good at remembering dates and names. He was known as a “picky eater” and a good dancer. He also liked hunting, fishing, hiking, and sports.
Johnson’s high school friend, Norm Ebner (now deceased), earlier shared some stories about his friend. Johnson’s nickname was “Donuts.” Ebner shared that Johnson was a dedicated and hard-working employee at George Blanchfield’s Chick Hatchery and emphasized that he was dedicated and hard-working at everything he did. His girlfriend during high school was Martha Parish (her father ran the local post office). Both were much fun and would sit in the back row of the Royal Theatre in Rushford. Johnson was very good at sports, especially basketball (they also played basketball in the old theatre).Ebner remembers driving to Winona one day to a tavern and to go dancing. Johnson owned a 1933 Ford (mentioned numerous times in his letters). He also recalled another road trip they took to Lake City. They ran off the road and had to fix a farmer’s fence.
Johnson was living in North Dakota at the time he was drafted. The family believes he moved there for a job with relatives. He became a member of Company A of the 164th Infantry from North Dakota.
Johnson was inducted into the Army on April 25, 1941. He attended basic training at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. His next stop was at Camp Pendleton, Oregon, and then to Fort Ord, California. At the beginning of 1942, the 164th Infantry sailed to Australia and then New Caledonia for more training. From there, they were shipped to Guadalcanal and landed there on October 13, 1942, to help the 1st Marine Division. They came under attack almost immediately after unloading their ship. On October 25, 1942, they were assigned to an area thought to be a “quiet sector,” and it turned out to be the brunt of a difficult and bloody attack. Their action with the Marines earned them the nickname “The 164th Marines” and they were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation. There they also battled malaria, putrid smells, insects, mud and heavy rains (bailing water out of their foxholes with their helmets), heat during the day and cold at night, “jungle rot” fungal infections, and fatigue, in addition to attacks from the Japanese. Their daily routine described as “a mixture of long hours of tedium punctuated by brief moments of terror.” It was difficult to see because of the jungle vines, and they were knee-deep in mud most of the time, so they were seldom clean unless they bathed in the rivers, but then had to guard against crocodiles and Japanese snipers. They arrived in Fiji March 5, 1943, to assume the defense of the main island of Viti Levu.
Next, the troops were sent to Bougainville, New Guinea, on December 19, 1943, to hold and extend the perimeter around an airfield. In one letter, he described living in a 3’x5’x6’ foxhole, weeks without washing or shaving, and living on c-rations, with about three hours of sleep a night and the Japs about 50 yards away. On June 13, 1944, his mother (Olga Hatling Johnson) died. On January 21, 1945, they moved to Leyte, Philippines. Johnson was seriously wounded on February 21, 1945, near Palompon, Leyte, Philippines, while he was in combat with his unit Company A of the 164th Infantry. He was transferred to Biak Island, New Guinea, for medical care but died there of complications on April 14, 1945.
The headline in the Winona, Minn., Herald on Saturday, June 2, 1945, “Rushford Sergeant Leads Platoon in Series of Assaults on Leyte.” The article explains how Johnson took over command of a platoon and led the platoon in a “long series of successful assaults.”
Johnson earned the Asiatic-Pacific Theater Ribbon, Combat Infantryman Badge, and Purple Heart during his service to his country.
All three of the Johnson brothers served in WWII. Donald H. served in the South Pacific, the oldest brother (Jerome) in North Africa and Italy, and the youngest brother (Stanley) was a pilot in England. Carrier mentioned that Donald had it the worst of the three brothers. Both of his brothers came home safe.
During this time, he became engaged to Martha Parish, whom he dated while in high school and after. While he was in the South Pacific, he sent money to his sister Marion and asked that she buy an engagement ring for Martha.
April 1, 1945, Easter Sunday – last letter from Johnson. “It’s about time to quit now. God be with you. Love from your son, Don.”