By Gabriel Monte: Freedom New Mexico
Physically, John L. Johnson changed during World War II.
He was 119 pounds lighter than his normal 215 pounds and three years older when he returned from his ordeal as a prisoner of war in the Philippines during World War II.
But his personality defied the starvation, disease and slave labor that took its toll on his body, said his nephew, Robert Phillips. A long-time Portales resident, Johnson was still the gregarious, kind person that wouldn’t say an unkind word about anyone, not even his Japanese captors.
“He would say they were just doing their jobs,” he said. “He wouldn’t say (garbage) to anyone even if his mouth was full of it.”
A survivor of the Bataan death march, Johnson died Thursday at 93.
More than 50 servicemen from Roosevelt and Curry counties were among the thousands of Japanese prisoners in the Philippines forced to march a 70-mile stretch of land from Mariveles (on the tip of Bataan) to San Fernando in 1942, according to American Legion Post 31 Commander Joe Blair. He said 34 of them made it home.
Another 89 from Curry County were also among the Bataan prisoners.
While Phillips said his uncle’s personality didn’t change, Johnson brought back nightmares that would make him scream at night.
“He always hesitated to spend the night with us because of that,” Phillips said.
Johnson joined the Army National Guard in 1941. He was assigned to the 515th Coast Artillery in the Philippines.
After the war, Johnson worked as a delivery driver for Arrow Gas Co.
Phillips said his uncle didn’t talk much about his personal experience as a prisoner of war except to talk about fellow prisoners.
The did learn of one story about Johnson carrying and dragging a fellow prisoner during the march to spare him from Japanese bayonets that killed men who stumbled and fell during the march. A son of the prisoner Johnson helped called about 20 years ago to tell them about his uncle’s heroics, according to Phillips.
Johnson never married but was close to his nephews, Phillips said.
“He was the grandfatherly type. He was a confidant, he would show you how to do something (such as) work on a car,” he said. “He was just a sweet, sweet old man.”
Johnson was an active member of the Veteran of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. He helped establish a war memorial honoring victims of the Bataan Death March in Santa Fe.
“Them guys didn’t talk much about their ordeal,” Blair said. “John was just a normal guy, he’d sit around and drink coffee and tell jokes like the rest of the guys.”