Groundwork for victory

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 7, 2001

NATCHEZ – At 16, Freddie Johnson had to scramble for the books to find the location of Pearl Harbor when he heard about the Japanese attack in December 1941.

&uot;We didn’t have that much geography in school back then,&uot; said Johnson, who would get an up-close look at the famous site only a few years later.

During the next two years, as the United States became increasingly involved in the war, Johnson began to expect he, too, would become involved.

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Attending school in Jefferson County, where he lived with his grandmother, he watched friends and neighbors respond to the draft. In his senior year, one by one the boys in his class left as they reached age 18. &uot;I was the only boy left in my class,&uot; he said. &uot;My birthday was in March, but I was allowed to finish school. I graduated on a Friday and was drafted on a Monday.&uot;

He looked at his prospects in the U.S. Army Air Forces as an adventure. &uot;I was ready to go, but I didn’t know what I was getting into. We were quiet, church-going people,&uot; he said, describing his life in rural Jefferson County. &uot;I had never even crossed the Mississippi River on the ferry.&uot;

He traveled to Missouri, Virginia, Florida and then South Carolina. Trained in Army basics and then in runway construction at the stateside bases, Johnson joined thousands of other troops on a huge transport that headed for the Pacific Ocean.

In 1944, he saw Pearl Harbor. He was stationed for a while at Hickam Air Field, one site of great devastation in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack.

From Hawaii, Johnson went further west in the Pacific Ocean, helping to construct runways on the strategic islands as they were captured by U.S. forces.

In the Marianas Islands, he was stationed at Saipan. There, the adventure turned to terror as for the first time he experienced Japanese bombing atacks.

&uot;We built runways for the B-29s going into Japan,&uot; Johnson said. The islands were coral. They dug it, crushed it and made a gravel of it. &uot;We would pack it and make it the base of the runway,&uot; he said. &uot;Then machines would sort big rocks that we’d mix with asphalt to a certain consistency to pour on the runway.&uot;

&uot;We were there on Saipan when they decided to take Iwo Jima, which was just a little ash pile but was in a strategic position for an air field for planes going to Japan.&uot;

On the big transports taking him between islands, he had made many friends. He met Marines who already had won two and three purple hearts but were going back to fight again.

&uot;I had many friends in the Marines who never came back,&uot; he said That included those who helped to take Iwo Jima, where many thousands made the supreme sacrifice.

&uot;We next went to Okinawa to build runways, where the Japanese already had killed 3,000 sailors,&uot; Johnson said. &uot;And then we were scheduled to go to Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan, but they dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan before we left to go there.&uot;

Like almost all other American soldiers in the Pacific, Johnson had more to suffer than attacks by Japanese bombers. There also was dengue fever. &uot;They gave us all the shots they had before we went overseas, but this was something you got that was part of becoming acclimated to the tropics,&uot; Johnson said.

His military service continued after the war, Johnson said. Then using the G.I. Bill, he attended college at Alcorn State, where he earned both bachelor and master’s degrees. He studied further at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and at University of Southern Mississippi as well as at Mississippi State and Central State College in Ohio.

Johnson went on to complete a distinguished 37-year career in public education. He was a history and government teacher and then became a principal, serving in that capacity in four different schools in the Natchez public schools system.

Now 77, Johnson remembers with pride that he worked with other Americans who were ready to serve their country.

&uot;At that time, the American soldier didn’t mind making the supreme sacrifice,&uot; he said. He remembers particularly the Marines he knew. &uot;They were mean and ornery men. They were combat veterans. And they knew where they were going and what they were doing.&uot;