MARION — Joe W. Johnson’s life started on an autumn day in 1920 in rural Newton County, Mississippi, and could have easily ended 24 years later on a beach in Normandy, France.
But it didn’t.
Johnson, now 98, not only survived the D-Day Invasion, but fought in several more campaigns across Europe. Three of his brothers – Ed, Alvis and Henry – also fought during World War II. Henry, the youngest, was killed in November 1944 near Nancy, France.
Joe Johnson is the only living brother.
Johnson, who grew up in the Beulah Hubbard community in Newton County, was drafted a few months after graduating from high school. He was inducted into the U.S Army at Camp Shelby in September of 1942.
After Camp Shelby, Johnson, who was assigned to the 81st Chemical Mortar Battalion – (whose weapon was the 4.2 inch mortar, known as “stove pipe artillery”), was sent to Marfa, Texas for basic training, then to Camp Polk, Louisiana.
In the fall of 1943, Johnson’s battalion was shipped to England aboard the Capetown Castale, a British ship that was part of a large convoy of destroyers and cruisers.
The ship docked in Liverpool on Nov. 2, 1943, where Johnson and his squad would spend the winter conducting amphibious and assault exercises.
‘Big flashes of lightning’
On May 12, 1944, the battalion was alerted that an invasion of Europe was imminent.
“We learned later that Eisenhower was going to have us land on the fifth, instead of the sixth,” Johnson recalled during an interview at Bedford Care Center of Marion on Tuesday. “But because of the bad, stormy waters in the English Channel, he put it off a day.”
“On the morning of June 6, they got us out of our beds on the ship and said ‘put on your regular clothes, and you’re going to go to the mess hall for breakfast.’
After a quick meal, Johnson was told ‘put on your regular combat clothes, get your rifle ready…and go to the top deck of the ship.’
“That morning, before it got good daylight, we were up there on that top deck,” Johnson recalled. “We could look right, we could look left, and all we could see was Allied and Navy vessels shooting big projectiles inland…big flashes of lightning. And I thought, ‘Man, there won’t be nobody living over there when all this is over with.’ ”
From there on the top deck, the men were ordered to climb down a net on the ship’s side to a waiting LCVP – a landing craft vehicle personnel known as the Higgins boat – that would ferry them to the Normandy landing.
“Omaha was the one my outfit was supposed to land on,” Johnson said. “Well, we got close enough to hear the German gunfire. When we got about 20 or 30 feet to the shore, our boat hit a sandbar, and they let the endgate down. That’s where we had to pull our mortars. Our mortars were mounted on a cart….so we had to unload our mortar in the water, but we had it waterized.”
“About the time we were getting to the edge near the beach, the German machine gun fire got the one in the middle. There were three of us pulling that mortar out, and the one in the middle – machine gun fire.”
Johnson paused and took a deep breath as his eyes welled up with tears.
“Boy from Mississippi, by the way,” he said, remembering his fallen friend. “He used to show his girlfriend’s picture and say ‘I’m gonna marry her when I get home.’ He didn’t ever get home.”
On the beach
“The Navy Seabees had searched the beach for landmines,” Johnson continued. “We went to the incline of the overlook of the water; that’s where we set up our mortar, and that’s where we stayed all day. We finally set our mortars up and shot some shells, but we never was more than 400 or 500 yards off of the beach, and the German machine gunfire and artillery was still coming in.”
“We stayed there all day long under the German fire of artillery and machine guns. Finally, by nightfall, some of our infantry finally pushed the German infantry back enough, where, about dark, we went up on top of the incline, and that’s where we spent the night.”
As a flight nurse during World War II, 1st Lt. Madeline “Del” D’Eletto, saw some of her fir…
“The next morning, when it got daylight, I looked around and all I could see was dead American soldiers, laying here and laying there. Sometimes, I’ll still cry about that scene…so much American blood laying right there, in addition to what we’d already seen on the beach.”
“As long as I live, I’ll never outlive that scene," he said. "It was such a terrible, bloody scene.”
The fight continues
After D-Day, the war continued to rage across Europe, and Johnson’s battalion kept fighting.
“We were online, or in combat, for 313 days,” Johnson said. “If you read the history, there were four major campaigns in the European battle. We were involved in all four of those campaigns in that 313 days.”
Johnson was near the Enns River when the war in Europe ended on May 7, 1945.
“We were happy as we could be that the shooting was supposed to be over,” he said. “We were tired, wore out, hungry and dirty, but inside, we were glad that the European war was apparently over.”
Johnson eventually returned to East Mississippi, took a job in the transportation industry and settled into a quiet family life.
Now, looking back on the fateful events of June 6, 1944, Johnson reflected without a moment of doubt.
“I guess…we had to win,” he said. “We couldn’t afford to let tyranny win the game, and we knew that. As sad as it was, I guess it had to be worth it.”