Born November 27, 1917, Joe Johnston was one of twelve siblings from small town America. He was raised in a rural setting and graduated from a small high school in 1938. Prior to the start of World War II, he began earning a living as a miner where the days were long and filled with constant danger – something that would dog him in his next job as well.
In June of 1941, Joe enlisted in the United States Army and was assigned to the 9th Division, 39th Infantry Regiment where he rose to the rank of Technical Sergeant and platoon leader. In addition, three of his brothers also enlisted for a total of four brave volunteers from a single family who answered the country’s call to rid the world of Nazi fascism and protect the homeland.
Joe’s tour of duty took him to just about every Atlantic theatre of action from the United Kingdom to North Africa, and most of Western Europe. Some of the areas he fought in included: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Sicily, Normandy, England, Belgium, and of course, Germany. During that time, Joe was decorated numerous times including a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and the prestigious Legion of Merit. From battle to battle and through all the horrors of war, Joe clung to a promise he made to his mother in a letter he wrote while overseas. His priest at his home parish of St. Mary Magdalene’s in Frugality, Pa (now St. Joan of Arc), was in need of a chalice used for the celebration of mass. Joe was quick to promise that he would donate the needed chalice if he survived the war…
While in the field, Joe never missed a chance to write home, especially to his beloved mother, Mrs. Henrietta Johnston. In fact it was well known among his fellow soldiers that Joe sent and received a great deal of mail (imagine, no cell phones). On one particular day while serving in the North African country of Tunisia, Joe received 22 letters at a single mail call. In response, the following is a letter Joe wrote to his mother describing the Tunisian campaign:
I have eight letters here from you. I just finished reading them. I also received two from Mary, one from Betty and 11 from Annie. You see I had quite a mail call, the first I had for a long time. Now since things are straight over here and no more fighting, I probably will get to answer them more often. As you know Mom, after I left the states I went to North Ireland and then to Scotland. When we left here we were on our way for our final trip. We were told then it would be Algeria, North Africa. I know you can imagine how we all felt.
Wow, put yourself in my place! That night we were found by two destroyers. They started towing us in, and it was four days later before I could put my foot in North Africa. Was I ever glad!
From here we started toward Tunisia. We knew there was some fighting to do. I’ll never forget the first time I was under enemy fire. It was Linus’s birthday. From then on we were given the works. The first place was at El Guettar. After we finished the enemy here, we went to Sedjenane. These two places were all mountain fighting. We had to use mules to carry food, water, and ammunition. From here we went to Mateur and then we too Ferryville. I was also in Bizerte… As you know there were a lot of prisoners taken. I was on a detail bringing them back – all alive.
True to his generation, Joe remained humble about all of his accomplishments. So much so they remained unnoticed until 1996 when he was informed that, he had in fact, been awarded the Legion of Merit back on October 9th, 1943.
His actions were described as follows:
While engaged in the battles of Tunisia (Sedjenane, Bizerte, and Troina), Corporal Johnston took command of his platoon in the absence of his platoon leader and Sergeant. In total blackout conditions and under heavy enemy shelling and machine gun fire, Joe led his platoon over difficult mountainous terrain in order to deliver much needed supplies to his fellow soldiers fighting on the front lines. Often the routes were lined with mines and other anti-personnel obstacles so Corporal Johnston needed to skillfully maneuver his troops to avoid disaster. Providing food, water, and ammunition under constant harassment from the enemy proved to be a deciding factor in the fight for Tunisia.
I happened to be at Joe’s award ceremony while he was surrounded by his wife, children, and very large extended family. I will forever remember the humility this man showed while thanking those who presented the award. He quietly said how proud he was to serve his country, even though everyone there realized the Military was 53 years late with his award. It is little wonder his generation is known as the “Greatest Generation.” In 2004, Joe made a pilgrimage to the newly created WWII memorial in Washington, D.C. along with a bus load of his fellow Veterans and two of his children. Seeing how he was overwhelmed with emotion and excitement from the trip, the next year my wife and I decided it was time for us to take him back to that memorial. So we gathered up our son and daughter and off we went to our nation’s capital.
What an experience! At that time, Joe was becoming a little less mobile so we were able to tour the memorial with the use of a wheel chair. We noticed a number of other elderly gentlemen in wheel chairs. It was not long until they spotted each other and began congregating to share stories about their tours and where each had served. What happened next was amazing. Visitors of all ages began greeting the men and thanking them for their sacrifice. I remember taking note at the pride these veterans felt as people were treating them like rock stars; perhaps something that was long overdue.
As the day went on we were walking up a ramp that had pictures on the walls of various scenes from the war; one in particular showed a Sherman tank. So being an amateur history buff, I asked Joe if he had ever been inside one. He quietly looked at us and said, “No, but I did hitch a ride on the top of a Sherman so my squad did not have to walk to our next assignment.”
He went on to say, “I remember a German plane came at us; it was a Stuka dive bomber that made a loud whistle as it dove from above.” Waiting with extreme anticipation, I asked him what happened next.He said a bomb dropped and hit the side of his tank. By this time I had stopped the parade and asked once more what happened. Joe simply said it was a dud and did not explode.
Everyone took the answer in stride and began walking again. I took a step back, looked at my family and said “Hello? Do you guys realize what he just said?” Clearly they did not think about the fact that had that fuse worked, none of them would be here. Even more astonishing was how calmly Joe told the story with no exaggeration or embellishment which was quite revealing to me. All I could think of at the time was maybe he had witnessed so many horrific things that this particular tale was not extraordinary enough to get excited about; or perhaps he was just that humble – I think it was both! Sergeant Joseph Johnston was honorably discharged from the United States Army on June 5, 1945.
Once home safely, Joe immediately followed through with his promise to purchase a chalice for his home parish. It is still used today!I am convinced that Joe’s promise was less of a deal with God and more of an act of thanks – that was simply the type of man he was. On November 7, 2010, just five days before my daughter’s wedding, father time did what the Nazi’s could not when Joe passed away in the quiet of the night. He was 92 years old (just twenty days shy of his 93rd birthday).
At about the time of World War II and throughout the country, it was very common for people to use the phrase “Average Joe”. To be clear this hero’s name was Joe, but having known him and through researching his time in the military, I can tell you he, like so many of his generation, were anything but average. They were honorable men who answered the call to serve when our country needed them the most… lest we never forget!