When Roy Johnson of Port Charlotte went aboard the destroyer USS Wiltsie (DD-716) in December 1952, just before a shakedown crew, he was an 18-year-old apprentice fireman. Since the ship ran on steam turbine power Johnson was made a messenger aboard the Wiltsie.
“It was in the shipyard in Long Beach, Calif. for a complete overhaul when I first went aboard,” the 79-year-old former sailor recalled. “We sailed for Korea in late December by way of Hawaii, Midway Island, Japan and then the war zone.”
The shootout between the Wiltsie and a North Korean gun mounted on a train flat-car atop a mountain at the entrance to Wonsan Harbor is what he remembers best about the Korean War and the part he played in it.
“We were all up and down the Korean coastline. I remember there was this gigantic hill with an enemy cannon on the top that was shooting down at us way below,” Johnson said. “The bridge was trying to pinpoint exactly where the enemy fire was coming from. That evening, when it got dark, we took a little whale boat to a tiny nearby island at the entrance to the harbor and set up a listening post.
“We finally zeroed in on the gun that was mounted on a train at the top of the mountain. When they weren’t firing at us the enemy gunners pulled their cannon into a tunnel for protection,” he explain.
“At daylight the Wiltsie’s five-inch main guns opened up on the hill-top cannon. We were trying to bury the train with its gun in the mountain tunnel,” he said. “When the train and the gun pulled out of the tunnel and made a run for it we knocked out the tracks, but that didn’t disable the enemy gun.
“Shrapnel from the enemy cannon hit our aft five-inch gun mount. It went right through the deck of the Wiltsie and bounced around in my compartment below that I shared with the cook,” Johnson said. “If the cook had been in his bunk he would have been hit in the belly with the shrapnel.
“The shrapnel hit the deck near my bunk, bounced up and hit the wall and landed on the deck once more. It was a triangular three-inch piece of steel about a half-inch thick. I took it up and gave it to my division officer.
“The Wiltsie’s main gun crew went back to firing at the enemy gun. We eventually blew the hell out of it.
“On another occasion, we came across a little island off the Korean coast where the North Koreans were laying mines. They had all these mines on chains close to this island so they could control them. They would release some of the mines with the tide in the hopes an American ship would hit them.
“We brought in a mine sweeper that had a gigantic clipper that cut the ables on these mines. When this happened the mines popped to the surface and floated out with the tide. Our gunners-mates would shoot at the mines as they floated along the surface and blow them up,” Johnson said.
Every so often the crew of the Wiltsie would get liberty. The ship’s crew would sail into Hong Kong, the Philippines, or maybe Japanese port.
“The port I remember best is Manila. Before we left the ship we were told not to go to a particular section of the city under any circumstances. I decided to walk down to the restricted area and see what was going on,” he recalled more than a half century later.
“I got down to where I wasn’t supposed to be and after a few minutes realized this was a restricted area for people who had leprosy. They let these people out and they were lying on the concrete waiting to die,” Johnson said with a pained expression. “After I saw what was going on I got out of there in a hurry. But it left a lasting memory in my head I’ll never forget.”
About the time the Korean War ended, he was promoted to Petty Officer 3rd Class and transferred to LST-1126, the Snohoish County. She was a flat bottom ship that had big doors that opened in the bow to let tanks and other heavy equipment out on an enemy shore.
“I didn’t want to leave the destroyer, but I didn’t have any choice,” Johnson said. “I was put down in the engine room in the LST in charge of the auxiliary diesel engines.”
He only had a few months before his enlistment was up. Johnson was discharged in San Francisco on Feb. 16, 1956 and headed for his Ohio home.
He went back to work at Hobart Manufacturing Co. where he had been employed before the war. For almost 18 years he worked there as a machinist until he got a higher paying job at General Motors. Johnson spent the next 24 years working at GM as a tool grinder.
In 1989 Johnson and Adah, his late wife, retired and moved to Port Charlotte. They have four boys: Brian, Keith, Kevin, and Marty who live all around the county.
Name: Roy Ervin Johnson
D.O.B: 9 June 1933
Hometown: Greenup, Ky.
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 4 March 1952
Discharged: 16 Feb. 1956
Rank: Petty Officer 3rd Class
Unit: USS Wiltsie
Commendations: Korean Service Medal, China Service Medal, National Defense Medal, Good Conduct Medal, United Nations
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Wednesday, May 29, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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