Luther Johnson shot down in torpedo bomber over Japan; taken prisoner

UPI--Former Japanese guards at the Ofuna prison camp, 16 miles from Yokohama, described as one of the worst in the area, bow low in the old polite manner as Luther P. Johnson (foreground), Portland, Me., and John Chapman, Los Angeles, Calif., prisoners until Japan capitulated, carry their bags from the camp to freedom. Photo provided by Nancy Poe

UPI–Former Japanese guards at the Ofuna prison camp, 16 miles from Yokohama, described as one of the worst in the area, bow low in the old polite manner as Luther P. Johnson (foreground), Portland, Me., and John Chapman, Los Angeles, Calif., prisoners until Japan capitulated, carry their bags from the camp to freedom. Photo provided by Nancy Poe

Gunner’s Mate 2/C Luther Johnson was shot down in his TBM torpedo bomber during an attack on the Japanese fleet bottled up in Kure Bay, Japan in late July 1945. He was the back seat gunner on a ring-mounted .50-caliber machine-gun in an “Avenger,”  part of Air Group VT-6 that flew from the deck of the carrier USS Hancock, in Adm. “Bull” Halsey’s 38th Fleet.

The teenage aerial gunner’s World War II experiences are told by his younger brother Ken Johnson, a resident of Maple Leaf Estates in Port Charlotte, Fla. Luther died  in 2010.

Over a three day period, from July 24, 25 and 28, Naval aircraft from the U.S. and British fleets decimated what was left of Japan’s fleet. Flying 1,747 sorties U.S. pilots sunk the aircraft carrier Amagi, battleships: Hyuga, Ise and Haruna, and two heavy cruisers: Tone and Aoba. The allies lost 102 air crews and 122 planes, primarily from Japanese anti-aircraft guns surrounding the port.

“After they bombed the fleet they were flying real low over the port. They saw a Jap on a bicycle laughing at them. Their pilot, 1st Lt. Targie from Oklahoma, decided to circle back around one more time and shoot that Jap dead for laughing at them,” Ken recalls his older brother told him after the war. “As they flew off gaining altitude their plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Their Avenger caught fire and both the pilot and the radio operator were trapped inside and didn’t escape.

“My brother got his chute on and looked around at the radioman. His face was full of blood. He kicked Luther out of the plane. As he bailed out of the aircraft the radioman yelled, ‘Goodbye!’

“As he floated down in his parachute he saw the plane crash into the side of a mountain. Jap civilians were running up the side of the mountain looking for survivors, but the pilot and radioman didn’t get out. I learned later the civilians found their bodies and chopped them into pieces and buried them in shallow graves.

“When my brother hit the ground in his parachute he started running up the mountain and disappeared into the jungle for 10 days. He spent most of his time searching for something to eat.

“Near starvation and disoriented Luther gave himself up to a Japanese patrol that was still looking for him,” Ken said. “They marched him into a nearby town where the women in the village threw eggs and tomatoes at him.

“He was scared to death because he didn’t know what was going to happen to him. They finally reached the Ofuna Prison Camp, 16 miles from Yokohama where 1,000 POWs were kept in brutal conditions.

“When they first took him in for interrogation there was another American pilot in the room with him who was being interrogated. The other flyer tired to communicate with my brother by signaling with his eyes. The Japs caught him at it and beat him to death right in front of Luther with their bamboo canes.

“At one point, during my brother’s interrogation, he was thirsty and asked his inquisitors for some water. They made him drink is own urine.

“Then they took him outside and acted like they were going to shoot him. They asked Luther if he had a last request? ‘Yes, I would like you play The Star Spangle Banner before I die.

“The Jap band didn’t know how to play it. He was taken to a very small cell and locked up. It was too small for him to stretch his 5-ft., 11-inch frame out flat on the woven mats that covered the floor. They kept Luther locked up in this tiny cell for a few days.

“Several times a day a Japanese Imperial Marine, a big guy, who grew up in Chicago and spoke English would show up. He would beat him on his back and legs with his bamboo club.

“Finally, he was taken out of the holding cell and put in the camp with the rest of the POWs. They fed the prisoners rice soup that was supposed to have some fish heads in it. My brother said it had more maggots than anything else in it. After a while the maggots started tasting pretty good.

“Shortly after Luther was shot down over Japan my parents received a letter form Adm. Venfield in the Pentagon that my brother was missing in action. My father called the admiral and got assurance from him he would do what he could to find out what happened to him.

“When the Navy learned my brother had survived the crash of the Avenger and was being held in a POW camp the admiral sent him another telegram. It came addressed to Master Sgt. Luther P. Johnson, Ret. My father loved it. The Army had been his whole life for 28 years, 4 months and 5 days.

“My brother said, just before the Japs surrendered to the Allies the prison guards all disappeared. By then B-29 “Superfortresses” were flying over the camp in waves. They knew the end was getting close.

“The first Americans to reach the POW camp was a contingent of U.S. Marines. They blew the locks off the front gate and the prisoners were free. A UPI (United Press International) photographer was standing and the front gate as Luther and John Chapman from Los Angeles, Calif. walked out with their sea bags over their shoulders. Three former Japanese prison guards bowed to the former POWs.”

The UPI photographer captured the scene on film that made papers through the U.S. at the time. Ken said he’s seen his brother’s picture leaving the camp three or four times on the History Channel over the years.

Luther Johnson is having a beer with his buddies from the carrier USS Hancock during World War II. Photo provided Nancy Poe

Luther Johnson is having a beer with his buddies from the carrier USS Hancock during World War II. Photo provided Nancy Poe

After spending time aboard a hospital ship off the coast of Japan recuperating from his ordeal, Luther few on to Hawaii and eventually San Francisco. During the trip the Navy lost his papers and he arrived Stateside without any funds. He hitchhiked across the country to get home. A man drove him all the way from California to Chicago and payed for his food along the way. When they parted company he gave his brother $20 and wished him well. Two days later he was standing in front of his house near Portland, Maine.

Ken Johnson -  Sun photo by Don Moore

Ken Johnson – Sun photo by Don Moore

“After receiving a telegram from the commander of his squadron listing all of the men in his unit that had been killed during the war that was very upsetting to Luther. He went into a depression and started drinking,” Ken recalled.

“It was about this time, Luther reenlisted in the Navy and went through a terrible divorce. He spent several more year in the service, but finally he had had enough. It was sometime around 1950 when he decided not to reup.

He decided to start a new life for himself down south where his father had grown up. He moved to Myrtle Beach, S.C. and lived with his Aunt Estelle for a while.

“It was a bit rough for a Yankee from Maine living down south in the 1950s. They were still fighting the Civil War down there,” Ken recalled with chuckle. “Luther finally got a job working as an electrician.”

This is when he met, Dorothy, and got married once more. Eventually the couple had three children: Nancy, Sherri and Barbara.

“My brother was probably 65 before he told me one day he had decided to give the Japanese their due,” Ken said, and added: ‘They were human beings, too.'”

Johnson’s File

Name: Luther Pope Johnson
D.O.B: 25 October 1925
Hometown: Portland, Maine
Entered Service: 18 June 1943
Discharged: 11 Jan 1946
Rank: Gunner’s Mate 2/C
Unit: USS Hancock
Commendations: World War II Victory Medal, American Theatre Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Theatre with 3 Stars, Air Medal with 2 Stars, Navy Unit Citation
Battles/Campaigns: Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Kure Bay

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Dec. 17, 2012 and is republished with permission.

All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.

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  1. That’s an interesting photo of the prison camp guards bowing at the end of the war. If a picture is worth a thousand words that one certainly qualifies.

    • That’s exactly what I thought when Ken, his brother first called me and told me about Luther’s story. He mentioned he had a UPI picture of his brother getting out of the POW camp. I wanted to see the picture and hear more about his story. Glad you liked the picture.

      Don Moore
      Sun Nwspapers

      • Reminded me of a book which I just read. ‘Give Us This Day’, by Sidney Stewart, a survivor of the Bataan Death March and more than one prison ship.

  2. It is amazing how much a person can survive. It’s no surprise he got a divorce after his return and he suffered from depression. I am glad that he was able to overcome his war experiences and have a second chance.

  3. Around 1981 while stationed at Ft. Fisher Air Force Station, a radar site just south of Wilmington, N.C., I was ‘adopted’ by the Johnson family after I met them at church. He never talked about the war. While using the master bathroom one time I noticed this same picture, enlarged and framed, hanging over the bed. I asked him about it and he told me his amazing story. A couple years later I was transferred to Oklahoma and never made it back to N.C. I am writing my recollections of this as a Veterans Day endeavor to share with my church, friends and family. I came across this article and sure want to thank you for posting it. Mr. Johnson became a ‘born again’ Christian and overcame his despair and bad memories. He was a man of high character and devotion to his family. He and his family took this USAF serviceman in and loved me like I was their own. They became my second family. I will never forget them. Thanks Nancy for remembering the photo. Luther Johnson is a hero and was a tremendous influence for good to me. What a privilege to have known and talked with a WWII POW!

    Here’s some info I remember him telling me not included in the above story. He mentioned while eluding capture that each day he wanted to kill a cow out in a field with a rock but was afraid to be seen. One time he ran into a Japanese villager at a creek and pulled his .45 on the guy but didn’t shoot. The man ran off, most likely giving his position away. He tried to steal one of the small fishing boats but they were guarded every night with a large campfire by every boat. The Japanese actually discovered his shelter but overran his secret hiding place and continued up the hill. They were ecstatic at finding his camp and intensified the search. He then figured it was just a matter of time. When he revealed himself from a distance he thought they were going to hill him as they hysterically charged at him with their bayonets while running back downhill towards him. At the last second a loud voice gave an order and they stopped and took him prisoner. During his imprisonment, several times they made him get on his knees blindfolded and put a sword on the back of his neck as if to execute him. Later on, a train he was on passed close to one of the atomic bomb drops that helped end the war. He could see some of the destruction and upon asking the conductor he was told ‘big bomb’.

    I have told Mr. Johnsons story to many people through the years and am glad to see it published on the internet. Thanks to Ken, Nancy, and Don for all your efforts.

  4. Don, just curious if you are still on here. The man behind Johnson is most likely Jack Dunn, my Uncle. I have photos of him later in the day as well. He was from VBF-85 shot down the morning of the surrender.

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