Port Charlotte, Fla. man served at Saipan, Leyte Gulf, Guam and Okinawa in WWII

Robert Johnson holds a picture of himself and his four brothers who all served in World War II or the Korean War. The picture was taken in 1948 at Robert’s wedding. Sun photo by Don Moore

D-Day was June 15, 1944. It was the baptism of fire for the crew of the new attack transport USS Comet (APA-166) off Saipan Island in the Pacific’s Marshall Islands chain during World War II.

In 1941, Robert Johnson of Port Charlotte, Fla. was a 19-year-old electrician’s mate 3rd class aboard the ship. The transport was loaded with thousands of Marine assault troops and their equipment. The Leathernecks began disembarking in their first wave at 6 a.m., according to a thin, dark-blue volume called: “Following The Comet’s Tale 1944-1945,” about the voyage of APA-166.

The Comet’s landing craft took the Marines ashore on Saipan during the opening salvos on the first day of the initial assault on the island. All day long, the crew of the Comet brought ashore wave after wave of Leathernecks and their supplies.

By nightfall, 20,000 Marines from a number of U.S transports like the Comet were on the beach. They suffered 2,000 casualties on the first day of combat.

Holding the island were 30,000 tenacious Japanese troops. Saipan formed part of a defensive perimeter around the Japanese Home Islands as envisioned by Prime Minister Hideki Tojo as a protective barrier against the United States’ military might. Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, who had just lost four of his carriers at the Battle of Midway, as in command of Saipan’s defenses.

Johnson (center) and two of his buddies, with beers in hand. They appear to be enjoying their liberty in Honoluly, Hawaii. Photo provided by Robert Johnson

By July 8, the Battle of Saipan was over. The Japanese had lost all but 1,000 of their men. In addition, 22,000 Saipan civilians committed suicide or were killed in the island conflict. Japanese soldiers told the civilians the Americans would rape and murder them if they were captured. Many civilians jumped off clifts at “Suicide Beach” or blew themselves up with hand grenades.

American casualties at Saipan totaled 16,525.

On Oct. 14, 1944, the Comet, together with 1,000 other ships in the task force, entered Leyte Gulf in reparation for the invasion of the Philippines.

“A Japanese torpedo bomber approached unnoticed ate 16:03 (4:03 p.m;.) from behind the hilly terrain of the island, skimmed the surface at an altitude of about 15 feet. When only a few yards from the Comet, it launched a torpedo that struck the cruiser “Honolulu” in an adjoining anchorage. The explosion blew a large gaping hole in the port side of the ship, just forward of the bridge,flooding a boiler room and other compartments and causing her to take on a heavy list. The attacking plane escaped,” according to a written account published by members of the crew after the war, “We’d been watching the fighting in the hills from the deck of the Comet. There wasn’t much going on until we saw the plane that went by us and dropped a torpedo that hit the cruiser anchored right behind us,” Johnson recalled. “She went down on a sandbar in the harbor. We sent our landing craft over to help take off survivors.”

For the next couple of days, landing crafts from the Comet delivered men and equipment to the beach under the cover of heavy smoke laid down by destroyers cursing just off shore. Overhead flights of Japanese planes searched in vain for naval targets to bomb.

After the initial invasion of the Philippines, the crew of the Comet got a respite for a few days. The ship dropped anchor in Humbolt Bay at Hollandia on Oct. 26 and spent the next 10 days off the front lines.

“We had a beer party one day,” Johnson said. “A few of us went ashore and were kinda bumbling around, checking thing out, when we came across an old wooden crate at what had once been Japanese outpost that was all overgrown with vegetation.  We broke the crate open. It was filled with sake (rice wine) bottles.

“We thought this was great. Instead of drinking two hot beers we could drink sake. One of the guys pulled the cork on a bottle of sake and took a swallow. He spit it out. It wasn’t sake–it was machine oil.

“One of the smarter guys said, ‘Let’s take it back to the ship with us.’

“‘Why?’ I asked.

“We’ll sell it for sake to some of the other guys on another ship,” he explained. That night, he took the bottles of oil, with the Japanese labels still on them, and sold each bottle for $20, telling members of the other crew it was sake.

“Luckily we left the next morning. We never saw those guys again. If they would have found us, they would have killed us,” Johnson said with a smile.

It was the 82-day Battle of Okinawa that began on April 1, 1945, with the Marines facing little resistance on the beaches when they went ashore that made the biggest impression on Johnson during his entire time at sea. It was the largest Pacific invasion in the Second World War and the bloodiest battle in the theater.

When the shooting stopped, more than 38,000 Americans servicemen had been wounded and an additional 12,0000 killed. The Japanese lost more than 107,000 soldier; an additional 100,000 Okinawa civilians perished in the battle.

Some 368 U.S. ships were hit by Japanese suicide pilots at Okinawa. The Comet escaped the Kamikazes unscathed. Of those hit by Kamikazes, 30 ships in the U.S. fleet of 1,200 ships participating in the invasion were sent to the bottom. The ships included aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers and scores of destroyers.

“The sky over Okinawa was black from anti-aircraft fire. It was just a solid mass of black smoke from all our guns. I couldn’t imagine how a plane could possibly get through all those shells. It was unbelievable,” Johnson said. “I had a buddy from Madison, Wis. who was a gunner’s mate I knew quite well. He said they were shooting at Japanese planes as fast as they could load the guns. They kept extra gun barrels handy because they would get so hot from firing they would have to change them often. They’d throw the old barrels over the side.”

This is the attack transport USS Comet , APA – 166, used in a Christmas card he sent out during World War II. Photo provided by Robert Johnson

Johnson, aboard the Comet — like millions of other Americans fighting men around the world– was converging on the Japanese main island for the final showdown when Col. Paul Tibbets,flew a B-29 bomber he named “Enola Gay,” for his mother, dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Less than 10 days later–On Aug. 14, 1945– WW II was over.

The young sailor thought he was homeward bound. It didn’t work that way. The Comet and Johnson were headed for Shanghai to pick up a load of wounded at four Chinese ports. The ship would sail all he ay back to the States with its cargo of wounded.

“Shanghai was bombed out. There were few places where you could get a beer and a bite to eat in the once-thriving city when we arrived,” Johnson said. “We’d get liberty every afternoon and we’d go downtown with two cartons of Camels stuck up the sleeves our pea jackets. We’d buy the cigarettes for 50-cents a carton and sell hem on shore for $20 a carton American money. That was our spending money for the day when we wet to town.”

To get to and from town, the sailors took rickshaws. For a a quarter in Chinese money, a Chinaman would haul them three or four miles to downtown Shanghai. On one nightly return trip in a rickshaw, Johnson and a buddy decided to shortchange their rickshaw driver and give him a nickel instead of a quarter for his efforts. The two coins were about the same size.

“They couldn’t speak any English, but they knew a nickel from a quarter. When we gave him a nickel he started screaming an pretty soon a flock of Chinese were surrounding us. We were 20 yards from the safety of a steel gate that closed off the dock where our ship was moored,” Johnson said. “All of a sudden all of the Chinamen surrounding us scattered. Two Shanghai policemen in black outfits with black turbans, who must have been 6 feet 8 inches tall and 400 pounds apiece, carrying night sticks walked up. They stood there and said nothing. We took off for the gate and that was the last we saw of them. They were the biggest cops I ever saw in my life.”

By the time he sailed for home, Johnson had received four battle stars for four major engagements – Saipan, Leyte Gulf, Guam and Okinawa. He knew he had arrived back in the USA when he saw the underside of the Golden Gate Bridge as his ship sailed into San Francisco Bay.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, June 15, 2003 and is republished with permission.

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