MONMOUTH — When Harlon Johnson returned from an honor flight recently, there were about 300 people waiting at the Quad City Airport."A lot of them were just there to meet us," Johnson said. "I was impressed by the amount of them."
It was a show of support for a man from a disappearing generation who has served in two wars. At the Navy and Army reunions he attends he's often the only WWII veteran left.
Johnson is a humble man who said he tells his story to honor the men with whom he served. In his living room he pointed at a plaque on the wall. On the plaque there are 30 names of people who were killed in a kamikaze attack on his ship, the USS Mullany, a Fletcher-class destroyer, in April 1945.
"Those are the real heroes," he said.
The story behind the plaque
1940s America was devoted to the war effort. Towns like Monmouth had blackouts to save power for the war. Everything was rationed.
"Tires were almost impossible to get," Johnson said.
Children saved up their money for war bonds.
"All of my friends were older than me and they were gone," he said.
Many of them had joined the military. Johnson, a lifelong Monmouth resident, decided to join himself, but he was only 17 at the time. In order to join the Navy Johnson had to have his mother sign a consent form.
"They told her I wouldn't go overseas for a year," Johnson said, but he was in the Pacific Theatre in just three months.
At first leaving home was difficult, but Johnson made a couple of friends from similar backgrounds in boot camp, Olga Dean Poling and Carl Poucher.
"We all ran around together," Johnson said. They even spent New Years Eve 1945 together.
On April 6, 1945 Johnson was a look-out on board the Mullany. Another look-out spotted gun bursts in the air like a white explosion. The burst was coming toward the ship, but only two men on deck could give the command to fire.
They didn't get the order. The kamikaze plane crashed into the destroyer and the men were forced to abandon the ship.
"They threw potatoes in the water," Johnson said. They were looking for anything that could float.
Once the men were overboard they wafted in the water for an indeterminate amount of time. At reunions over the years, Johnson said he asked others how long they were in the water, but no one has ever been able to answer him.
"I don't know why you don't remember things like that," he said.
But it was only the beginning of his shock. Once the men were rescued they had to identify the bodies of their friends. In the back of the ship in a body bag, Poling lay dead. Johnson didn't know how to handle it.
"I was 18 at the the time," he said.
Since the war was still on there was no way to bury Poling in America. He was buried on a small island near Japan.
The Mullany was salvaged and Johnson's crew was brought back to America. The war ended before Johnson saw any more action.
"America was elated," he said about victory in WWII.
Enlisted men couldn't even get time off for fear of riotous celebration. Men were burning cars.
Time flies by
Johnson also won several awards from the U.S., U.N. and South Korea for his valor in the Korean Conflict. Amongst those awards are Bronze Stars from close combat. He attends honor flights and reunions whenever he gets the chance for the camaraderie.
Johnson said he never could get Poucher to go to a reunion. Some of the men don't like to look back. When asked how you come back from war and live a normal life, Johnson answered "you forget."
But Johnson will never completely forget. In the den of his house he goes over each name on his plaque and tells each of their stories. R. Brett, one name reads.
"Brett was a doctor, but he was an enlisted man. One time he performed an appendectomy on the office's table," Johnson said. "He was a really, really good man."