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Georgia vet recalls horror of Pearl Harbor attack

Pearl Harbor survivor Fred Johnson.

Pearl Harbor survivor Fred Johnson.

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Pearl Harbor survivor Fred Johnson

As one of just four Pearl Harbor survivors in Georgia, 96-year-old Fred Johnson of Macon said time has not fogged his memory on what happened on that fateful morning in Hawaii, 70 years ago today.

Johnson was originally assigned to the admiral's staff on the battleship USS West Virginia, but on Dec. 1, 1941, Johnson was fortuitously transferred to the USS Maryland as part of rebuilding the crew and staff. As a greenhorn ensign, Johnson slept on a cot in a corridor. A couple of days later the USS Oklahoma tied up "outboard" to the Maryland, wedging the USS Maryland between the Oklahoma and Ford Island in Pearl Harbor.

In the same time frame, Johnson was moved into new sleeping facilities -- the 20mm ammo storage room. "That's certainly a great place to be during an attack," he said with irony.

After a night on the town in Honolulu, Johnson returned to the Maryland around 4 a.m. on Dec. 7 and crawled into bed. At 7:55 a.m., the world changed forever.

"I was sound asleep when the loud speaker blared, 'All hands man your battle stations, this is no ... !' Almost immediately sailors were banging on the door needing the 20mm ammo," he said.

On deck, Seaman Leslie Short was addressing Christmas cards near his machine gun when the attack began. He was the first to bring Maryland's guns into play, shooting down a torpedo bomber that had just released a torpedo against the Oklahoma as Johnson began the gauntlet to his battle station on the admiral's bridge. What he saw first topside were airplanes, squadrons of airplanes, with the big red ball insignia of the Rising Sun painted on their wings and fuselage.

"They were dropping bombs and torpedoes," he recalled. "Except for the smoke, it was a beautiful clear blue day, but for a split-second I thought it was raining because of thousands of raindrops on the water." The raindrops were 7.7mm machine gun and 20mm cannon fire from strafing Japanese aircraft.

Doing what he could amidst the carnage, Johnson witnessed the horrors of Pearl Harbor.

"The Oklahoma took three torpedoes almost immediately and started to capsize," he said. "We were tied up with the Oklahoma, so we had to cut the lines or she would have pulled us over with her."

As the Oklahoma rolled over in her final death throes, two more torpedoes struck her exposed hull.

"It was sickening," Johnson said. "The oil on top of the water started burning. It was a deathtrap. The good swimmers could dive under the oil and make it to safety, but the bad swimmers ... well, we watched those guys surface in the oil. They ignited like matchsticks."

Several crew members of the luckless Oklahoma clambered aboard the Maryland and manned machine guns to continue the fight. Others went down with their ship.

The three Barber brothers -- Leroy, Randolph, and Malcolm -- joined the Navy together and perished together along with Father Aloysius Schmitt, the first American chaplain of any faith to die in World War II.

The Maryland managed to bring all her antiaircraft batteries into action. Hit by two armor-piercing bombs, she continued the fight, scoring hits on several attacking aircraft.

Aboard his previous battleship, the USS West Virginia, a 1,000-pound bomb went through the station where Johnson would have been assigned.

"I wouldn't have made it," he said.

By 9:45 a.m., the sneak attack had run its course. Johnson and the Maryland's crew remained at battle stations all day, no water, no food. By evening things settled down to recovery and damage assessment. "We went to the ward room," Johnson said. "A large pot of tomato soup was waiting for us. Man, did that taste good."

Told to rest, Johnson found an unfamiliar bunk and fell asleep. Shaken from his slumber a short time later, he opened his eyes to a loaded .45 caliber automatic aimed at his face.

"A work party had come aboard to check our damage, but when they left, one of the work party members came up missing. Considering the events of the day, everybody thought a 'saboteur' was roaming our ship," Johnson said. "Well, since I was a new guy, nobody knew me, so suddenly they're thinking I'm the saboteur. It was a little scary until I proved my rank, loyalty, and American heritage."

Several days after being on constant alert, the Maryland was pulled from her berth by a tugboat and sailed to the Puget Sound Navy Yard for repair. The Navy transferred Johnson to the Naval Academy for additional training in communications.

His next ship assignment, the USS Hornet CV-12 (replacing the USS Hornet CV-8 lost during the Battle of Santa Cruz in October 1942) kept Johnson in harm's way for 16 continuous months. Aboard the Hornet, he participated in the battles for Tinian, Saipan, Guam, Rota, the Battle for Leyte Gulf, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima, and many more.

Under air attack 59 times, she was never hit. Her pilots shot down 72 enemy aircraft in one day, 255 in one month. The ship took damage from a typhoon to put her out of action. Johnson and the Hornet experienced VJ Day while undergoing repairs in San Francisco.

Johnson returned to Georgia, taught school in Macon and married. He was then was recalled for duty during the Korean War. He served as communications officer aboard the aircraft carrier USS Antietam CV-36 for 18 months.

When asked about the Korean War, he said, "I remember how cold it was. Coldest damn place I'd ever been in."

After his second war, Johnson returned to Macon to teach and eventually serve as principal until retiring in 1975. He stays active, participating in an Honor Flight with his Band of Brothers from The Greatest Generation to visit Washington, D.C., and continues to drive at the age of 96.

"People ask me why I still drive," Johnson said. "Why shouldn't I? I tell them; I have 80 years of experience!"