Veteran Salute: Bryce Johnson
Bryce Johnson was born on his parents’ homestead south of Ralph, South Dakota, on Flag Day, June 14, 1921. He described his life on the homestead as pretty much the same as every other boy during that period of time. They struggled through the “dirty ’30s” like everyone else and Bryce said, “In 1936 there was no rain at all and there is just no way to explain how terrible it was to anyone that didn’t live through it.” There was plenty of heartache to go around, but life was also splashed with a bit of fun, laughter and light-heartedness. The smile on Bryce’s face when he talks about meeting a beautiful young Bowman girl, Annie Jorgenson, at a local dance is an indication of some of the happiness of the time.
Bryce’s peaceful prairie life changed Dec. 7, 1941, when news on the radio announcing that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Bryce joined the ranks of many other young patriots when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps on April 9, 1943 and right away he was caught up in a whirlwind of training at Fresno, California, then onto Denver for more training. While stationed at Denver, he married his sweetheart, Annie Jorgenson, his dance partner from Bowman. She accompanied him to Topeka, Kansas, for more training before he was shipped out to Africa.
At times chuckling and other times, misty eyed, Bryce told stories of tragedies, successes, near misses; the stories of war.
His voice changed when he started to talk about one particular flying mission. The plane had already lost one engine earlier that day and now they were preparing for an attack. He described every detail; he watched the 12 enemy planes make a formation turn to head back at them. He anxiously waited for them to get within range before he took a shot. “I ran off a few shots in short spurts” Bryce said, “but you can’t fire steady, you see, the barrel will get too hot and melt.” Their wounded plane lost two more engines in the battle. The crew knew what that meant so everyone was getting prepared, changing shoes and readying jump equipment.
Amidst all the turmoil, Bryce heard someone call his name, he removed his helmet to look up. There stood the radio operator with his parachute spread out around him on the floor. He had accidentally released it. “I will never forget the look on his face when he asked me, ‘Can you guys do something about this?’ I said, ‘You bet I can.’” Bryce picked up that parachute and started stuffing it back into his pack, no time for folds. “Out he went, I stood right behind him, I had to know what happened.” Bryce said. “Sure enough, it was a streamer. The pilot chute caught enough wind to pull it straight up but it didn’t open.” Bryce explained about the wind, the gaining of speed and momentum and how it jerked the guy around, each jerk opening it a little more until the chute managed to completely open. Dangerously close to the ground, Bryce was the last to jump. “I dived out of the cabin hatch and within a second or two my head just exploded, possibly bullets.” Bryce said, “I passed out instantly.” He revived while in the air in time to concentrate on his own landing. Bryce gave precise details–the shattering of his right side against the ground, the dangling arm and the horrendous pain.
“We were told in our training before we left that if a civilian gets you, you don’t stand a chance,” Bryce said. “With the military you may go through a lot, but you have a better chance of surviving.” After his hard landing he looked up and saw a crazy man coming across the field whipping a rusty corn knife over his head. Following military protocol, Bryce dug a hole in the dirt, put his 45 automatic in the hole, covered it and unsteadily stood on that disheveled ground. The man ran up to Bryce’s smashed right side yelling something he couldn’t understand. At that moment Bryce turned his head to the left and said, “Little bride it don’t look like it will be very long until you will be a widow.” He turned his head back and there stood a little soldier with his rifle pointed at his attacker’s head. Bryce described the “big ole boy’s” agitation and the little soldier’s stature and composure; all the while the rusty corn knife was being wielded around. “I stood there waiting to get my head chopped off”, Bryce said. “Then he put the knife way behind his shoulder and come at me with it. Just before about 2 inches from my neck, that little soldier shoved his rifle between the knife and my neck and spun that big ole boy out of the way. Then he said to me plain as day, “Walk beside me.” Bryce said, “I am convinced to this day that I saw my guardian angel that day.” Bryce Johnson was officially taken as a prisoner of war (POW) on June 26, 1944.
Bryce ended his story with, “The Lord is good and his mercy endures forever.”
–reprinted with permission from the Scranton Equity newsletter