Surviving the March

By Jacob Brooks
St. Tammany News
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Vol. 2 No. 90
Original Article

Johnson reflects on time as POW

Erwin Johnson photographed with army medals and insignia

When Erwin Johnson landed in Okinawa, Japan, in 1945, his Army buddy told him his fiancée had married someone else while he was overseas. It was yet another blow to Johnson who was near the end of an incredible six- year military stint that saw more close calls than most people see in a lifetime.

Johnson, now a retired 85-year-old mechanical engineer in Lacombe, was bombed by Japanese and American aircraft, survived horrific war-crime conditions of the Japanese military and was even on a ship that an American submarine fired at with a torpedo ... twice.

Johnson, raised in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, joined the Army Air Corps Sept. 17, 1940. As a private, he was trained as a mechanic for the A-20, a low-flying attack plane. On Nov. 1, 1941 while the war raged in Europe but the U.S. had yet to intervene, he boarded the S.S. President Coolidge bound for the Philippines. Another ship, laden with aircraft, followed behind. But that ended up going to Australia.

"They should have taken us with them," Johnson said. "I wish they would have.”

Instead, Johnson and thousands of other American service members set up camp in the Philippines and got caught up in World War II.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Johnson heard about it the same day by word of mouth. “It spread pretty fast."

Johnson at the time was camped with his unit near Manila, Philippines, at Port McKinley, where Japanese bombers also attacked on Dec. 7.

His squadron went to a bunker for about an hour and a half while American forces sent up anti-aircraft fire toward the attackers.

"It looked like a lot of fireworks:’ Johnson said. “I heard of one guy shooting one down with a BAR, Browning automatic rifle." Another Japanese attack came the next day.

A Japanese ground attack was imminent, and even though Johnson was not trained as an infantryman, he was issued a rifle. American and Filipino forces retreated to Bataan, a peninsula on the south side of the main Philippine’s island. Regular Army troops formed a first line of resistance, and the Army Air Corps personnel were the second line, Johnson said.

"We dug all of our foxholes and everything," he said, adding waves of Japanese planes bombed their positions each morning.

During the resistance Johnson never saw any Japanese soldiers, but the two sides exchanged gunfire at night. And he did see evidence of them when he was sent on patrol and came upon a village.

"They had killed everybody," he said.

By April 1942, however, American forces were wearing down.

"It had been days since we had anything to eat," Johnson said, and on April. 9, the American general in charge surrendered. About 60,000 Filipino and 12,000 American troops, including Johnson, became prisoners of war.

The death march

On the day of the surrender, "We all retreated from our positions and headed to the southern tip of Bataan," Johnson said. He thought the Japanese would kill them all by pushing them into the sea.

The prisoners were stripped, and anything of value was stolen. Johnson had his high school graduation ring from Warren Easton High in New Orleans, but he was able to hide it from the guards by putting the ring into his mouth each time he was searched. He kept the ring through the duration of the war.

On April 10, the POWs began what became known as The Bataan Death March, a 65-mile trek on foot and rail, in which hundreds of Americans and thousands of Filipinos were killed by their Japanese and Korean guards.

During the march, filled with hot weather and little rest and food, anyone who fell behind "was either bayoneted or shot," Johnson said. The farther into the marshy areas the POWs marched, the more they fell out and were killed.

The worst thing Johnson saw on the march came while the column of prisoners was walking through a village. A Filipino woman carrying a baby tried to give a piece of food to an American as he walked past. But she was seen by a Japanese soldier, who threw her to the ground and then bayoneted her and her baby, Johnson said.

The march lasted days, but eventually Johnson reached the Filipino city of San Fernando, where he and the other POWs boarded a train bound for a POW camp.

"They just packed us in there to where you couldn’t sit, you had to stand," Johnson said. "In the box car that I was in, there was probably three guys that died. They were packed so tight that they couldn't fall to the floor."

Conditions were only slightly better at Camp O’Donnell, where thousands of POWs had to share one water spigot, Johnson said. About 200 men were crammed into each sleeping shack while others simply slept outside. Dysentery and other infections were rampant. "But I didn’t have it as bad as some of the other guys," he said.

By chance, Johnson had found bottle of aspirin during the march, and dropped a pill into the water he drank. He thinks it acted as a disinfectant.

Forced labor

Johnson doesn’t recall how many days he was at Camp O’Donnell, but if he had stayed longer, "I probably would have died there."

The Japanese used the POWs to build bridges and other projects. Johnson volunteered for the work details, which allowed the POWs out of the camp for weeks at a time. And workers were given more food, Johnson said, adding some guards allowed Filipino villagers to give the Americans food.

Later in 1942, Johnson was transferred to another POW camp in the Philippines — Cabanatuan, where conditions were better.

"We had a little bit more rice," Johnson said, adding he had no idea what was going on in the war. "We were just trying to stay alive," he said.

In October 1942, Johnson and about 500 other American POWs were taken to Manila, and boarded the Japanese steamship Tottari Maru. Hunkered down in the hold of the ship, the prisoners were forced to sit in their own filth during a voyage to China. At times, a few prisoners were allowed on deck, and it’s when Johnson was on the deck that a U.S. submarine attacked the unmarked ship. He saw two torpedoes nearly hit the ship.

“The captain of the boat — I guess he was pretty good. He dodged both of them," Johnson said. "I would say they missed it by about 30 yards. I tell you, it looked pretty damn close."

Eventually, Tottari Maru made it to Pusan, Korea. The prisoners disembarked the boat still dressed in their shorts and sleeveless shirts they had worn in the Philippines.

"It was cold, and wind was blowing like mad." Johnson said.

They were taken by rail to Mukden, Manchuria, in northern China. When they arrived On Nov. 11, 1942, "there was snow on the ground and the temperature was below zero," Johnson said.

For much of the next three years Johnson was forced to work at a machine tool factory in Mukden. The guards were fairly mean, Johnson said, but POWs were fed daily, usually a type of watery maize. At the POW camp Johnson was. No. 277.

In. December 1944, American planes were bombing a nearby munitions factory, but three bombs fell on the camp, killing 17 POWs and wounding about 30, Johnson said.


The camp was liberated in August of 1945 by the Russian Army and members of the Office of Strategic Services, U.S. agency formed during World War II akin to a combination of the CIA and Navy SEALs.

Planes dropped in food during the next two weeks while arrangements were made to bring the POWs home. Johnson made it to the Port of Dairen, China, where an American Navy ship, the Colbert, was waiting.

"The guys were pretty happy," Johnson said. "We were treated pretty royally by the Navy."

The ship first went to Okinawa, Japan, where a typhoon was coming in the same time the ship was arriving. The Colbert rode out the storm at sea but hit a mine in the process.

"It hit us right at mid-ship," killing five sailors and nearly sinking the boat, Johnson said. Eventually the Colbert was towed back to Okinawa and it’s there Johnson met up with a friend of his from New Orleans who was an Army infantry officer.

His buddy told him that his fiancée had married another man. Johnson laughs about it now, and still keeps in touch with his childhood sweetheart via e-mail. She lives in Utah.

Johnson was promoted to corporal and made it back to the States aboard the SS Klipfontaine. He was discharged from the military June 6, 1946 at the age of 24. He used his G.I. Bill to obtain a mechanical engineering degree from Tulane University. Johnson married Margaret in 1957, and they raised five boys. They celebrated their 50th anniversary last month.

In May, Johnson will return to Mukden for the first time in more than 60 years. A Chinese group called the Truth Council is inviting ex-POWs to the former factory and camp in an effort to collect information for a planned museum at the site. Johnson will be traveling with nine other Americans.

"They say a part of the factory where I worked is still there," he said.

He’s looking forward to the trip, and plans to visit other sites such as the Great Wall of China.