LeRoy Johnson is one of eight siblings born and raised in South Dakota. In 1950, he graduated from high school and enlisted in the Navy in 1951. After finishing basic training in 1952 he boarded his ship and was told he would be leaving for Korea. He specialized as a torpedo-man in the gunnery though he was capable in nearly every job on board. He describes his life and duties while stationed in Wonsan Harbor as well as both good and bad experiences during rest and relaxation.
LeRoy Johnson describes his interactions with other nation's troops. He explains that he often engaged with South Korean soldiers when they picked up prisoners in the harbor. He elaborates on mainly picking up mostly Chinese soldiers and transporting them to a carrier.
Russian Technology v. American Technology
LeRoy Johnson explains the noticeable differences between Russian and American submarine technology at the time of the war. He describes how Russian submarine technology surpassed the American's until about 1955. He goes on to explain that the Americans did the best they could with their sonar capabilities despite the Russians being able to dive at a greater depth than American sonar could track.
LeRoy Johnson describes living conditions abroad a ship for several months at a time. He recalls feeling extreme seasickness for the first two months before adapting sufficiently. He goes on to describe how much he disliked the food; that much of it, eggs, potatoes, and milk, were powdered and that he frequently included money with his letters home requesting a care package with food that he enjoyed and shared with his buddies.
[Beginning of Recorded Material]
L: L e R O Y Johnson, it’s, LeRoy Johnson, and I’m from [inaudible] South Dakota.
I: Great. When were you born, and where were you born?
L: I was born in 6/25/1932, and I was born in, in Pierpont, South Dakota.
I: Great. And can you talk about your family at the time?
L: I have, well I had, there was, there was eight of us children
in the family, and my mother and dad were Anna Johnson, and Luther Johnson is my father and mother, and my brothers, I had, my oldest brother was John Johnson, and my oldest sister was Clair Larson, a married name, and Artie and Sanby, her married name, and Marge Ulicknas, her married name, and Ansel Johnson, my old, my second oldest brother, and then I was the next
one in line, LeRoy Johnson, and then there was Luther Curty Johnson, and then Allen Johnson. That’s the last one. That’s eight of them.
I: Great. How was it growing up in a big family like that?
L: Well, we were pretty busy, and we didn’t have a lot. Back in the ’30’s, it was pretty tough. It was dry, and we had, we really had pretty tough going there for quite a while, and at that time, of course, everything was done with, with horses and,
and all the machinery that horses would work with, you know, plowing, discing, hauling hay, whatever. We used horses all the time, and we had a, anywhere from 8 to 10 horses all the time. So we took and used them for farming.
I: I’m sorry. I’m gonna take this from you just because I don’t want it to get in the sound. I’ll give it right back.
L: Yep, yep, yep.
I: Okay. So did you, so, did you graduate high school?
I: And where
did you graduate?
L: Langford, South Dakota.
I: And when did you graduate?
L: Then I worked, I worked around there, we moved into town from the farm in 1948, and then we lived in town there, and then I, I, when I wasn’t in school I was working for local farmers all around the country. I knew most, just about everybody in, in Langford.
I: So when did you, did you draft or were you enlisted?
L: I enlisted in 1951. I, I was gonna wait, and then my buddies talked me into going in the Navy, so I said okay, we’ll go. When I was in boot training, we, I, I got my call to go into the Service, to be drafted anyway, and I said, I just told them I’d been had already. [LAUGHS]
I: Where did you get basic military training?
L: Great Lakes, Illinois. Yep.
I: And when was it?
L: This would have been 1951, August I started, yep. The 27this when I re, when I enlisted, yep.
I: So when did they tell you that you were going to go to Korea?
L: They didn’t tell me right away. They, they didn’t tell me till I got aboard ship. That was after boot camp. And then after I, when I got aboard the ship, well then they said well, we’re on our way to Korea in a lot of months, they said. So
I: Did you know where Korea was?
L: No. I didn’t know.
I hadn’t been out of the, well, actually I hadn’t been out of the States, you know.
I: Did you ever hear about it before?
L: Oh yeah. Yeah.
L: Where did you hear about it?
L: Well, from the news and everything I heard about it and everything. And then when I was in boot camp, they were talking about it a lot, like company Commander and stuff. So. And they knew, they told us we had to take and be prepared to go aboard ship.
I: So where did you arrive in Korea, and when?
L: We arrived in Korea, see, I couldn’t exactly tell you the exact date. They was, it was after, it would have been about February of ’52. That’s when we got into Korea. And then we, what we would do is we’d operate with air, aircraft carriers as plane guard and then after that, we had so many weeks of that, and then we’d go to Wonsan Harbor, Korea and bombard and
make our turret around that and help the Army with their gunny placements and everything like that.
I: What unit were you a part of?
L: Well, I was in the Division, our, our Division was, we had eight ships. We operated with four of them. Four ships were in our Division that we operate d all the time with, and that was the USS Bull and the USS Buck, and the USS Solace and the USS Laufner. That’s the one I was on.
I: Great. And your specialty was?
L: I was in Gunnery, yes.
I: And what was it like?
L: Well, you had, aboard that small, I was just, it’s a small car, small destroyer is what it is, and you have to know every, how to do every job, and I, I was, I could, I, I worked with a 40 mm torpedoes, depth charges, hedge hogs,
and then I learned how to shoot 5’ guns, and then besides that I used to have to be the helmsman of the ship, and I, I did just about everything on the ship except engineer and sonar. That’s the only two jobs I didn’t do when I boarded the ship. Otherwise, I did every one of them. Yep.
I: Wow, and did you learn how to do all those jobs when you were in basic, or did they teach you when you got on the ship?
L: When I got in ship, that’s when we had to learn everything, and they had, you had to do this because
in case somebody got killed or something, you know, you’d have to take their place. And so that’s why we learned everything, yep?
I: Were you ever attacked when you were on the ship?
L: Well, yes. We, we were fired at quite a few different times because we were only 1,000 yards off of shore, and the gunny placements would follow us, we could see them following us the whole time, and as soon as you stopped or if you got very, closer than 1,000 yards then they’d try and, and fire at us.
But we were lucky we never got hit. We had a lot of shrapnel aboard ship, but we never got hit and never got any damage. We had a sister ship that was damaged, and what he did, he stopped just for a couple of seconds and got shelled. It was just above the bottle, water line on the ship, and it blew hole 6’ in diameter, and it killed 13 soldiers, sailors and wounded, it was 17 altogether.
They wounded the four, yep.
I: So did you participate in any of the battles on the ship?
L: Yes. Which ones?
I: Well, the, the, one, we didn’t really have any battles. What we were, we, we would fire, whenever we got fired on, we’d be firing back, and we were right there in Wonsan. They said that Wonsan Harbor was the most shelled harbor in any world war. That’s what they said.
And we would be fired on, oh, at least once or twice a day and sometimes more than that, yes. So we would, and then we’d just fire back as much as we could, and we would really shoot as many shells as we could, too. The 5” only shooting about 20 per minute, and we would try and get at least 18 or 20 of them at every minute we could. [LAUGHS] because, in the
40 mm, we most [inaudible] could shoot 60 rounds a min, a minute, and we didn’t use the 40’s much because most generally the, the emplacements were right, the 40s were far enough where they couldn’t shoot far enough, so we, we’d shoot and then. But we did use 40s a lot, too. And when we were out of Wonsan on plane guard, we would take, we got, we had this Russian sub that was, tried
to get into the carriers. And so we chased that sub for two days, but we never did catch it. It was pretty, they’re pretty sneaky. But we shot a lot of depth charges and a lot of stuff, we never did shoot a torpedo because we had too many ships in the area around there, so we didn’t dare shoot a torpedo.
I: Now, how did you feel when you were being shelled and when you had to try and catch these Russian submarines?
L: Well, we, I guess, you don’t think of things then, firing, the reason you don’t sh, you just, you’re too busy, and you just don’t think of things like that. A guy was going from the depth charges to the hedgehogs, and, and I was the only one firing them, and then the rest of them were on guns. But they, the most, generally the guns weren’t firing because the subs are underneath the water. And so we were shooting depth charges and hedgehogs, and we kept, I kept pretty busy that way, yep.
And you don’t think much about when you’re being fired on or anything because you know that that’s what they’re, they’re gonna do. They’re gonna fire back, you know, or we’re gonna have to fire back, one of the two, and when you’re fired on, well you just keep on going, and you don’t think too much of it.
I: Did you interact much with South Koreans or any civilians while you were over?
L: Yes, we did. And, well we, what we did a lot, we went in quite a few different times when we were in Wonsan Harbor
bombarding, at night we’d sneak in and then pick up prisoners and then we’d go to and meet the Army that was in there, and pick up the prisoners and stuff. And it would be, they were being fired on quite a few times, you know, over there. But then we’d, we were, you couldn’t use no lights at night, you know, and so
I: So what did you do with the prisoners that you picked up?
L: We took the, we took them aboard, and then after when we could, when we got somebody to relieve us in Wonsan Harbor, then we took them out to the carrier, and after we took them out to the carrier then we were, went back in to Wonsan Harbor again. Yep.
I: And these prisoners were mostly
L: They were, they were Chinese and then, we didn’t have any Russian prisoners. But we did fire on a lot of Russian prisoners, or, Army when we were
going in the Harbor, driving around the Harbor and stuff. And when we were going in the Harbor there, and then once in a while I was up on lookout. I’d, they’d relieve me from the gun and set me up to drive the ship or helmsman, and then you’d see the, the Russians coming down on the beach and, and then, then we’d report that if it was too far away for us to shoot at. But
then our jets could come in there, and they’d fire at them, and they were, they were pretty accurate.
I: Do you think that the U.S.’s technology was better than the Russians or the Chinese?
L: No, not at that time. The Russians had us beat in, in submarines. At that time, they did. And later on I guess after I got out, well then they improved a lot more. But after, after, before ’55,
well they did, they were pretty much ahead of us in submarines.
I: So how could you compete with them? How did you stay
L: We, we did the best we can with what, what equipment we had with sonar and everything, you know, and that’s how we took and followed the subs. And it was pretty hard because they had better, and they could take and go down below our signal so that they could lay, and we probably went right over them. I don’t know, you know. We couldn’t tell. But our, our
signals wasn’t great enough to take and pick up everything, and, and so they were quicker and better than we were at that time, yeah.
I: So how did the Korea that you had heard about on the news compare to the Korea that you saw when you were over?
L: Well, the, what I, what I heard was a lot different. I thought that, you know, it was pretty much, not that much many hills and all that.
But there’s a lot of hills in Korea, and we were, the gunny placements that we were shooting at would be in tunnels, and so you could shoot them out one day and the net day they’d be back out there working against you again, firing at you because they, they were pretty smart, and they backed up into the tunnels when we were firing at them, and we, we’d, sometimes we’d, we’d enclose it, you know. We, We’d shoot all of it to plug the, the tunnel up. But then after we,
by morning or the next afternoon, well they ‘d be back out there shooting again. So we never could control it really, you know. But they, they fired whenever they got a chance they fired on us.
I: Do you recall where on the peninsula you visited?
L: We never went in, in shore. We never went ashore at all except, well just in Wonsan when we were picking up the prisoners. That’s the only ones we went in and we had landing parties
that we went in and picked up the prisoners. And then after that, but other than that we never got through on shore. Never, uh uh. We would be there for probably 67 – 70 days at a time we’d be at sea, and then, and then we’d go in for probably 2 – 3 days, rest and recreation is what they used to call it, and so then we’d go in and that was, it, we would take the, really and celebrate then and really enjoy ourselves. And, and they had enlisted men’s club
in Yokosuka, Japan and stopped, you know, in, in places so that’s where we went a lot when we were, when we come back into shore.
I: Do you know if you went all around the coast of the peninsula, or were you mainly in one section?
L: We went all the way around on the southern, you know, the, what’d they call it, 38thParallel. We were all, we covered pretty much the whole area around Korea, yep.
I: Under the 38thParallel.
L: Yep, um hm.
I: So you never went into
North Korean waters?
L: No. We, we were right on the border of the 38thParallel, and what we did, there was a couple times that we, the French were in there, and then they went into a different harbor, and then, and we would sit out and watch so if there wasn’t any Russian migs coming in to fight against them, you know, or, or attack them, and we’d watch and we probably do that once every so often. But
that was, that was just once a month or maybe something like that, whenever they went on special occasions.
I: Um hm. And did you ever get seasick?
L: [LAUGHS] yes I did. I got seasick just about the first two years I was aboard ship, and every time I went out I could get seasick, and then I’d, I’d get over it . Finally I started taking them seasick pills, you know, you take, and I, that helped. But after two years, then I finally
got used to it, and then it didn’t bother me. But there was guys that was so sick that when we, when we went out to sea, we had a couple of small guy, one guy, a little Mexican, good little buddy of mine, he got so sick that he, we had to bring him crackers to keep him alive and water to keep him alive till we got into the next port because he, he just was, he couldn’t take it. He just couldn’t take it. And after six months, then the Captain decided that he’d better take and transfer
him to shore. And so he did. He, he transferred him to shore duty, you know. And so when he had shore duty, well then he felt a lot better. But there was only, there was two guys during the four years I was in aboard ship that was transferred to shore duty, yep.
I: And what was the living condition on the boats otherwise?
L: Well, the first two years, the living conditions was not great
because all we had most generally was chop suey and rice and, and stew. That’s what we lived on, and everything, of course, like all your milks and all the eggs and everything was al powder. Everything was powdered except, well, the potatoes were even powdered, too, you know. And so we didn’t have very, the food wasn’t that great. I most generally lose anywhere between 20 and 30 lbs. every time we went overseas. Then when I got back to the States, so then we’d
hog up, really eat. Then I gained about 20 lbs., and then back overseas again. I was overseas there four times. I made four trips over to Korea, yep.
I: And when you went back to the States, where did you stop for rest?
L: Well, San Diego was our, supposed to be out home port, and then what we used to do is go to San Francisco, and then there’s a, Mirror Island I think that’s what they called it, and there’s one island up there that used to have a shipyard up there, then we’d
repair the ship and get improvements on the ship when we’d come back, and that would be about six weeks, and then after that we’d go back out and start training and then head back overseas. Yep.
I: So did you send letters home to your family?
L: Oh yeah. We, I wrote quite a bit, but we mostly, when we were in Korea, mostly we didn’t get mail more than once a month, yep. And then we, but we, we sent out mail whenever we could, whenever we got alongside of a, a, or if we had a helicopter come and
picked it up, you know, we, from the carriers. But other than that, mostly our mail would be shipped probably every two weeks, something like that. We’d be in the harbor for two weeks probably, and then we’d go back out and then replenish, and then we’d sent our mail to the carriers, and then we’d go back in, in, to Wonsan Harbor again.
I: So what did you say to them when you wrote?
L: Oh, you couldn’t say, you didn’t dare say much, you know. You had to be careful of what you said, and you couldn’t tell them about everything you were doing all the time
because. you know, that wouldn’t be right because then they’d be worried too much. So you mostly just more like explained everything is going fine, and, and we’re doing this and that, and we’ll probably be back in the States in nine months or whatever, you know, and so we made them feel good. But we, I would, we mostly get letters probably, mail was about once a month is when we got our mail. And then, but the first two years, I’d send money home
so that my parents could send me a box of canned stuff so we’d have something to eat.[LAUGHS] besides all that same food over and over and all that powdered food.
I: Did they send it to you?
L: Yeah, they sent it to me.
I: What’d they send you?
L: Oh, they would send crackers and, but most of the time crackers were all crushed. then they’d send sardines and shrimp and all the canned stuff that we could, that could be sent, you know. And boy, we really enjoyed that, my buddies
and I. We’d take, take it, get together, and we’d have a ball then. [LAUGHS]
I: Were you homesick often?
L: The only time I really got homesick was when I was in boot camp because, well I, I wasn’t much homesick as my buddies. Some of my buddies hadn’t been away from home, and so I, I most gently would talk to them and everything, and I did get home, lonesome, you know. You, You got, you got lonesome because, I hadn’t been away from home very much.
The only time I really was away from home is when I went South carbining when I was, that was in 1950, before I went in the Service. And then I was gone for probably about three months. But other than that, why, you know, I, I never was away from home much. I worked away right around Langford and Pierpont area, yep.
I: What do you think is the most difficult experience you had during your service?
L: I think the
most difficult would be when we had our sister ship get hit. That was, then it kind of made you think what was going on, and it made you think boy you’d better be on the ball and, so then we, we’ve worked with them and we, we got them pulled out of the harbor when they got hit, and I think that was probably, plus whenever you get fired on you think a little bit.
But it isn’t, you’re too busy at the time, so you don’t really think too much then. But when you see something like that and then help them out, then, then you start thinking more. Now I think that was probably my worst one, yep. And then being seasick. [LAUGHS] That’s not a good thing to happen. But well, we did have on time when we were in Hong Kong for three days, you know, just rest and
L: recreation, we got dysentery and then that, that’s, that’s a bad disease. That, that really, everybody got sick, and you really don’t feel too great then. But other than that, boy, that’s, that, I think, I think towing that there ship out and, and helping them out, that was my, probably my worst thoughts I think because otherwise I was too busy, and I didn’t think too much of, you know.
I: So you said you were there for four, four times you went back to Korea.
I: When did they tell you you were going to go home?
L: Well, [Stutters] I was over there, the Captain sent me over there with the ship the last time in ’55, and I only had three months left to go. But he thought that I would ship over and re-enlist for another four years. But I fooled him. I didn’t do that. At that time, it got so that I didn’t want no more of it.
I just said that’s enough, and when my three months was up, they had to ship me back to the States. And so then I got, they took, took me into [inaudible] into Yokosuka, and then from Yokosuka to Japan, then they threw me out of there, and it took one, one day, well then we got into Midway, refueled and then into Pearl Harbor, and it, it took one day to get back flying.
And, and one day to, well it was one day to Hawaii and then, and now they’re 12 hours I think it was to get back to San Diego or San Francisco.
I: And this was when?
L: In 19, August of ’55, yep. And it took, it took, well I, I got out, see, one day early, I think it was, yeah. You know, I was supposed to get out the 28th, and they, I’ve got, I got, I got out the 27th I think it was.
So I didn’t get out early, like some guys got out, they would, the other ships, you know, their Captain would, would, wouldn’t take the guys over that was less than three months because they knew they’d have to ship them back unless they re-enlisted. Well, most of the guys aboard our ship, they didn’t re-enlist. We had a real good Captain the first two years, and then after that the, in placement, replacement we had, he was a
good Captain. But he didn’t know what the other one did, and he was, he wasn’t as sharp, you know. He was a different nature guy, too. But we got along with him. We had to.[LAUGHS] We, it was, it was different. And then after they signed the Peace Treaty, then it got all pretty much regulations. So every day was a lot different. You didn’t wear just dungarees and work shirts.
You had to wear whites or blues all the time and have them clean, so. That’s why I just said that’s enough. Enough regulations. So I got out.
I: So when were you discharged from the Military?
L: I was discharged August 27th, 1955. And then I had to do four years of inactive duty, so I never really got my regular discharge till ’59, yep.
I: And what did you do during
just inactive duty?
L: Inactive duty, then is when I went to work, and I was working, I start, I got married and then started raising a family, and then I worked in the Post Office for four years, and while I was down there in the Post Office, well then I got my discharge down in St. Paul, Minnesota, yep.
I: Do you recall what thoughts you had as you left Korea? Did you have any hope for Korea in the future?
L: Oh, yeah. I was, I was hoping that they, everything would
turn out for the people themself, you know, because it, it must have, at that time they were having a bad time. They were having a hard time, real hard time. The, the South Koreans were, and we knew that, and that’s why we tried to take and do our best to help them out, and so there was a lot of, you got to thinking about a lot of that, you know, and, and how good you really did have it, you know, compared to some of them people because a lot of them people didn’t
have, have a good life, you know. They were, well, fighting just to live, you know, just to take and find something to eat and everything during the time that we were out, over there, you know. During the War, they were having a hard time.
I: What did you think was going to happen to them?
L: I really didn’t know. I, I, I was, I was hoping everything would turn out all right once they signed the Peace Treaty, and every got, everything got settled, the I figured I, I’d hope that they would get back to normal,
you know, and then get back to, get better living and everything else, you know, improve everything, and I guess it did was what I found out later on. But it took quite a while before they ever got straightened out, yep.
I: Right. Have you been back to Korea?
L: No I haven’t, and I would, I’d love to go over there. But I guess the way things are now my with retirement and everything and in, a guy don’t make that much in Social Security any more, you know.
And I wasn’t, I didn’t have a lot paid in, well I had quite a bit paid in, but I didn’t have the last five years before I started drawing Social Security, I was, had a low income, so that’s what they gauged me on. So my Social Security isn’t that great.
I: Well, have you heard of the Revisit Program? Do you happen to know about the Korean government’s Revisit Program?
L: No I haven’t.
I: It’s, they bring veterans in, they cover everything
except for half of the airfare.
I: So the veteran play, pays half the airfare, but everything else like hotels, meals, transportation, for 10 days is all covered, and, and in a way to thank the veterans for their service. But they have that program. So
I: I can let you know about, more about that after the interview.
I: But there is that program. If you want to go back.
L: Yeah, I’d, I’d like to go over there and, you know, visit. That’d be something, yeah.
I: So you know that Korea now is the 11th largest economy
in the world. Do you know that?
L: No, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know how great they were doing, but I knew they were doing a lot better, you know. But I never did know for sure what, how good they were doing.
I: Oh yeah. And now, you already talked about Kia, but, you know, electronics, Samsung as well, they’re doing amazing. How does it make you feel that what you did contributed to such a transformative outcome in Korea?
L: Oh, It makes me feel pretty good, you know. Yeah, it does. You know,
all the time I was there, you never thought too much of, you thought about helping them and everything, but you, you never, you had too much on your mind when you, but in the last two years after the Peace Treaty and I got to knowing more about it, then, then I was just hoping that everything would turn out, and I was just wondering how good they’d do, you know, afterwards once everything was calmed down, and I was hoping that they would do real good.
I: Are you proud of your service?
L: Oh yes, yes.
I: Would you go again if you had to?
L: Oh yeah. If I had to, I would. Of course right now at my age, I probably couldn’t be. They probably wouldn’t want me. But, you know, I, I was thinking about it, you know. I thought boy, if I, I know if they ever called me I’d go back, yeah, and I think I could, I can take it and do pretty good with my health they way it is yet, you know. I, I’m still doing pretty good.
I: That’s great. That’s really great. What do you think is the outcome of your service in Korea?
L: Well, I think we, I think we tried to do the best we could, and I, I think it’s come out pretty good. I, I, I was, I thought of it a lot of times. I don’t know if I’d want to go through it again, but then if I had to, I would, you know, and, and the outcome I think I learned a lot and learned a lot about different people, you know, because we, we were
in Japan and China and in Okinawa and, oh what’s the name, all the islands we went to. We went to, see, quite a few islands, Midway, and then we, the island that has trouble with Japan now,
what was it, that, I forget now. There’s one island we were, a couple of the islands. And then we were in, In Japan, we were, I was in about four different places, and then we, oh yeah, we were in the Philippines, too, yep. We were in the Philippines, yep. Yep. But other than that, why, we, I learned a lot, and I, I, and I really think them people have been doing really great. I do. I think they’ve learned a lot, and they’re, they’re really up on their electronics and everything, you know. They’re doing real good. I think, you know, yep.
I: That’s all because of what you did, so thank you. Do you have any other message that you would like to leave perhaps with the younger generation?
L: Well, one thing that I think that they should know is that never think you’re better than anybody else, you know. But never think anybody else is better than you. And I think that, but always do your best,
and, and try and, and help as much as you can, which is a lot of people now I think my, my feelings is everybody thinks they owe them something. Nobody owes nobody nothing. You gotta work for it. And so I think that that’s one thing you gotta do is realize that you can’t expect everything given to you. You gotta take and work for whatever you get.
I: Well, thank you so much for your service, and thank you so much for being here with this interview. I had a great time.
L: Oh, thank you.
I: Thank you very much.
L: You bet, yep.
[End of Recorded Material]