- Chapter 5 -
THE SERGEANT'S ANNUAL
CHRISTMAS TELEPHONE CALL
very year, for many years, Lee Johnson, who was a Sergeant in my Platoon in France, called me exactly at 7:00 o'clock on Christmas morning to wish me "Merry Christmas". It amused members of my family, because they knew I had been up late the evening before assembling Christmas toys, and I didn't enjoy being awakened that early. However, I had such sentiment about his remembering me in this way I didn't have the heart to ask him to change his timing. When I got word of his death I was very sad indeed, because, as you will learn from the following account, our relationship meant a great deal to me. My children consoled me with the thought that at least the phone calls would cease, even though I wished they could have continued for years to come. Not so did they cease. For a couple of years afterwards his son called me, much to the amusement of family members.
State Times, Baton Rouge, LA, Tues., April 17, 1945
Livonia Sergeant Called One of the Best Soldiers on Western Front
S/Sgt. Lee R. Johnson, about whom the following story was written, lives in Livonia. His wife works in a Baton Rouge store. Sgt. Johnson was wounded in December but is now back in action on the march to Berlin. The author, a native of New Orleans is a 1st Lt. now in Harmon General Hospital, Longview, Tex.
By Bryan Bell
S/Sgt. Lee R. Johnson of Livonia is one of the best soldiers who ever hit France. He just seems to be on one of those men who do not have fear in their make-up. "Hitler never will put me out of the fight," Johnson used to say, "the bullet never was made which could get me. And to see him in action one could really believe he thought that boast was true.
Johnson was a member of the first platoon to go into Cherbourg, on a reconnaissance patrol. And it was there that the officers of his company discovered a valuable asset of his, that of being able to speak French, coming, as he did, from the French-speaking area of Louisiana. Once when they were marching down the road near Cherbourg a Frenchman came running out to them and started talking rapidly. The other GI's, not understanding, just shrugged their shoulders and walked on, but not Johnson. He got the information which the Frenchman was trying to give them, and as a result the platoon went over to a neighboring barn and found 20 Germans who were hiding there, making them prisoners.
But it was not until later on in the Normandy campaign that Johnson really proved what a soldier and potential leader he was. He wore only one stripe on his arm, as a private first class, at the time an action took place which is still talked about by Company G men as they sit in their foxholes. The platoon was cautiously moving along a hedge row in the direction of the enemy with, as usual, Johnson out in front.
Takes ChargeSuddenly, they came upon a group of Germans, superior in number and with several machine guns, in the process of setting up a defensive position. The enemy did not see them. There was no American officer there at the time, and the squad leader was farther back, so Johnson took charge of the situation, and spread the men out in firing positions, cautioning them not to make noise and give away their presence. Then he grabbed an automatic rifle and on his signal, they all opened up at once. The Germans toppled over like duck pins as the GIs threw lead at their most rapid rate, the automatic rifle doing particular damage. An antitank grenade fired by an American blasted a German mortar to pieces.
The Jerries, taken by surprise, fired a few bursts from their burp-guns, but so much fire was coming from the GIs that they thought they were being overrun by a superior force, and started running down a road bordering on a field where they were. As soon as Johnson saw the enemy retreating he put a new magazine of rounds in his rifle, scaled two hedge rows and took up the pursuit. Running down the road after the Germans, he continued to fire his piece from the hip, stopping only to reload. He sprayed the road, the ditches, and the hedge rows, and the bullets sizzling in their direction caused the Germans to abandon completely all their equipment. He continued in the pursuit until all the enemy were either dead or had disappeared, then he counted the Germans who had fallen before his fire, and there were at least 18 including a captain.
Gets Squad of His OwnVery shortly Johnson had a squad of his own, which soon became known as one of the most aggressive in the battalion. It also suffered a proportionately higher percentage of casualties.
One time Johnson was crawling up to a German machine gun, which was well hidden behind a hedge row and holding up the company's advance. He pulled the pin from a hand grenade and held the primed missile in his fist as he inched forward. When he felt he was close enough, he sprang up, threw the grenade and took cover again. Then he heard two explosions. On investigating, he found that another GI had advanced up the other side of the hedge row and they had thrown their grenades simultaneously. The Germans were knocked out. Johnson looked at the other American, a lad about his own age with a long yellow beard, and said, "You're a new man in the company, aren't you?"
'What's your name?"
"Bud Rogers." (Pfc. Jacob C. Rogers of Saugerties, NY)
"I like the way you work," said Johnson, "how'd you like to be in my squad?"
So from then on Johnson and his first scout Rogers were always out in front together.
Nothing daunted the Baton Rouge boy. Once while leading his squad in the forest of Parroy, they bumped right into five German machine gun emplacements. The thickness of the foliage had caused them to meet practically face to face before seeing each other. The German bullets were cutting off branches and chopping up ground, while tracers ricocheted among the trees. but Johnson, instead of staying in a protected position behind a tree, crawled to where he could see the front and took up return fire with his automatic rifle. He got off so many shots that someone later asked, "Who was that up front there with an automatic rifle?"
When some American tanks helped the GIs, and the Germans, met with superior force, were overwhelmed, Johnson was the first man forward in the assault. He sent round after round after the fleeing enemy, took some prisoners, and directed the activities of his squad in pursuit. He also found time to relieve several Germans of their Luger pistols, prize souvenirs, larger numbers of which Johnson had taken from time to time and given to other members of the company.
Because he did so much firing himself, Johnson always carried more than the normal amount of ammunition. He caused more than one person to laugh, as he walked along, a veritable moving armory. There were hand grenades hanging from every pocket, and clips of ammunition stuck all over his clothing wherever they would stay.
The Louisiana Sergeant's attitude toward his own safety and that of his men was illustrated the time he and an officer took a reconnaissance patrol out. They came to a large open area where their movements might easily be detected by the enemy and where they might be taken under fire from the elevated positions to the front. Rather than expose the whole patrol to danger, Johnson readily agreed to a plan whereby just he and the officer would go forward, while the rest of the men would remain in firing positions in the rear to cover their movements. The sergeant exchanged his Garand for an automatic rifle, because, he said, "We might need some fire power."
The officer and the noncommissioned officer moved forward quietly, in dashes taking advantage of every bush for concealment and returned later with valuable information. By studying the way the grass was beaten down in the paths, they determined in which direction the enemy was moving. They got back without being detected by the Germans, and no one was lost, but his willingness to undertake what was essentially a dangerous mission - and could have been a fatal one - illustrated Johnson's habitual attitude.
As it turned out, Johnson was wrong when he said, "There is no shell made for me." There was, but experienced soldiers in Company G claim to this day that it was a freak shell, not an ordinary one. All the men assembled in a small neck of woods while the first gray light of dawn lit the sky, waiting for H hour to make an attack. Suddenly, a mortar shell exploded in their midst. Usually you can hear the pop of the mortar when it takes off, or at least there is a whistle caused by the round the last few hundred feet of its descent. But on this occasion, no one heard the warning - just the explosion. An officer, not knowing who had been wounded, passed Johnson and was surprised to see him lying in a hole, his face as white as it could be, contrasting strangely with the black whiskers. This was a man not usually given to fear, and the officer could not understand why his face did not look as normal. Then he saw a red color spreading out over the water in the hole and bloody bandages around the sergeant's leg and he understood.
But whether fighting or wounded Johnson was the same. He looked up and gave his lieutenant a reassuring smile before opening up another first aid pack to put more bandages on his bleeding legs.
Johnson was one of the many GI heroes who never received a special medal, although there were a number of occasions which would have justified such honors. Somehow the company he was in was always too busy fighting to think much about medals. But the lads he fought with will always think of him as one of the best, and they will often recall his mad dash down the road in pursuit of the Germans, and they will think of the many occasions when they saw a figure out in front in the attack and they said to themselves, "There is Johnson."
S/Sgt. Lee R. Johnson ****
I made a great effort, and I think successfully so, to keep myself out of the account in order to direct the attention to Johnson. However, for your identification, wherever "the officer" or "the lieutenant" appear, I am that person.