SURFSIDE - James K. Johnson remembers vividly the first time he landed in Oran, Algeria. "It was in November of 1942 and it was cold and we landed at 4 a.m.," Johnson said. "General Ike and the Brits' Montgomery had been meeting and we had sailed from Glasgow on the British ocean liner, Queen Emma, for 21 days. Oran is just like Seattle, built on hills coming up from the water."
Johnson's visit to North Africa was no social call. "We were sent there to chase the German's Rommel, the Desert Fox, during World War II." Johnson, who will be 88 in June, said, "Nothing bothered me as a kid. I finished the eighth grade in Renton and then went into the Civilian Conservation Corps as a woodsman." He jokes of his pre-Pearl Harbor draft notice, "Pretty soon I got an invitation from the army to join."
Johnson was in Lininwood, Mo., completing his basic training as a combat engineer when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. "They sent us to Brownsville, Texas right away to be a part of the 591st Division and get our amphibious training. We were trained to build bridges and work on most any kind of equipment or weapons." Jim then went to Providence, R.I. to train on the use of landing craft and then was sent over seas. "We rode the USS Wakefield to Scotland and we stayed north up by the icebergs so the German U-boats couldn't get us."
His first assignment in Africa was as platoon sergeant in charge of 45 men. "They gave me a 50-caliber machine gun and told me that if anyone came up the road to shoot 'em," Johnson said. "We traded cigarettes for food with some of the Arabs. I was too busy to be scared."
Probably the closest call he had in his four years of service occurred when Johnson was unloading a cargo ship filled with high-octane airplane fuel at Arzu. "The Germans dropped a 100-pound bomb and it just missed us on the portside. The water shot sky high and we quickly turned out the lights. That night they bombed a graveyard nearby because they could see the white tombstones."
After Johnson's stay in the African theater he took the African Queen to Naples, Italy. "We fought up the coast of Italy at about the middle of the boot," he explains. Johnson then moved to Heidelberg, Germany and fought northward to Nuremberg. "We shot at Germans in two feet of snow there and we slept in pup tents. I did see some of them go down, but I don't know if they were hit or just ducking down."
Johnson says that after Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge the Germans began to surrender in droves. "They would come across some of the bridges we built walking four abreast and saying, 'Comrade, comrade.'" He explains, "I wasn't in the Battle of the Bulge but I was near it and helped some of our boys who got separated during the fighting. We captured 65,000 and shipped them all off to France."
Jim once built a bridge over a 60-foot span on the Rohr River. "I got 70-foot I-beams, 16 inches tall and 12 inches wide and we used skywire to pull them across the narrow valley. We used three-by-eight planks we took from the Germans. The colonel asked if a 32-ton Sherman tank on a 58-ton flat boy could cross and I told him to go ahead. We were prime movers and our work helped police up the Germans." He says of his time in Europe, "We were knows as the Easy Boys because we rode everywhere with our welder, concrete mixer, and air compressor while the infantry had to walk."
After the war in Europe was won, Johnson went to work in Marseilles, France building crates to send vehicles home in. "We stayed in the nicest hotels and would go to Monte Carlo to gamble until the MP's would chase us out," Jim chuckles. "We used to catch trout in some of the rivers in Germany and we'd visit the castles with our 'buddy guards' who carried rifles. We found a supply of 25-year old rum Hitler had hidden and we were real happy, but we made revelry the next day."
"Pretty soon we hear that the Japanese gave up and the war is over," Johnson said. "I took a B-17 to Casablanca and a DC-10 to Brazil. From there we flew to Orlando, Fla. and then took the train to Fort Lewis. It was real good to be home."
When asked to re-enlist for a $600 bonus, Johnson quickly said, "No thanks. I took my $600 mustering-out pay and went back to Redmond." There Johnson met his wife of 52 years, Carmen. He worked unloading ships in Kirkland for a time then went to Edison Vocational School and learned precision grinding. "I went to work at Boeing and eventually taught others how to do the grinding." Carmen was a nurse. "We both had a trade and we were settled before we got married, not like a lot of people now days."
The couple has five sons and after retiring moved to Surfside Estates in 1989. Jim still spends time in his well-kept shop that includes a metal lathe. Carmen, though legally blind, enjoys quilting and they used to be avid square dancers.
As Jim and Carmen admire his immaculately kept uniform, Jim says, "I am going to get my pants hemmed and wear my uniform in the Loyalty Day Parade. Of course, I'm going to ride and not walk." His jacket is laden with medals from each of the three theaters of war, with the Good Conduct Medal, and two medals from the divisions he served with.
Carmen says, "After 52 years I still enjoy listening to Jim talk about the war years. The Good Lord has blessed us." Carmen obviously loves a military man. Her great-grandfather fought for the Union in the Civil War and had 18 children, the last born when he was 69. Carmen's father fought in World War I, brother in Korea, and one son in Vietnam.
"I spent but four years of my life in the war and I'm not bitter against anyone, but there aren't many of us left anymore." The wiry veteran said with his contagious good humor, "I guess I'm what you call an endangered specimen."