Orphaned as a teenager, WWII vet made his own way in life

July 11, 2014 at 9:49 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

(Left) Wallace Johnston during his days in WWII. (Right) Johnston now, at 91.
(Left) Wallace Johnston during his days in WWII. (Right) Johnston now, at 91.
Wallace Johnston, 91, is truly a child of a different era. He was orphaned at only 13 years old, dropped out of high school, participated in a work camp and joined the Air Force during World War II – all before the age of 20.

Johnston and his three brothers and five sisters became orphans when their parents died within six months of each other.

“My mother died from a ruptured appendix and my dad had cirrhosis of the liver,” he said.

The circumstances of this misfortune would be acutely felt only two years later when he had to leave school and go to work for the first time. With few other options and a family that needed help, the then 15-year-old Johnston joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Mandeville.

It was in the CCC, a program borne out of the Great Depression meant to put those most needy to work, that Johnston made the leap from being a child to being man.

“We were doing a lot of transplanting pine trees. We would pick them up in one area and transplant them to another area. Then we would go build some roads that needed to be built and fight fires. Sometimes there was a fire you’d have to fight with a flap or a 5-gallon can on your back,” he said.

Although undergoing backbreaking work before the age of 16, Johnston recalls the period of his life with understatement.  “It  is something you have to get used to I guess,” he said.  At $30 a month, the pay was not bad for the time, but Johnston was only able to keep $8 a month. The rest went to help care for his family in New Orleans.

The living situation he experienced in the CCC was much like what he would experience later after joining the Air Force. “Living in the barracks, taking a shower with 10 men, shaving with 15 men, eating in a mess hall,” he said.  

At 16, Johnston’s one-year contract with the CCC was up, although he says that he would have kept on going if he had been able.

“You had to get out after one year and give someone else a chance,” he said.

Afterward Johnston had dreams of going to a trade school, but was unable to do so due to a lack of finances.

“I wanted to go to trade school, but I lost my parents and didn’t have any money. I couldn’t even afford street car fare. It was 7 cents each way and I couldn’t even afford that,” he said.

After a brief stint as a Pullman porter, Johnston landed as a laundry and dry cleaning driver.  

“It didn’t come easy, we were working for $7 a week,” he said.

But with the USA’s entry into World War II in 1941, Johnston knew it was only a matter of time before he was drafted.

Before his draft card came up he joined the Air Force on the advice of his brother-in-law.

“My brother-in-law went in before me. He was about eight years older than me and he told me to join the Air Force, that I’d like it. I was encouraged more or less to go into the Air Force and I said I’d go in with them,” he said.

Within days of signing up, Johnston found himself at Randolph Field outside of San Antonio, Texas. Although Johnston had been out of Louisiana on a few occasions he had never been away from home as long as he would be while in service of the country. From Texas he moved onto secondary training in Utah and then back to Texas where he was trained to drive a fuel tanker to refuel planes landing on air strips.

And then he found himself on a transport boat headed for the island of New Guinea located just north of Australia. This is where things went wrong for the first time. Late at night in enemy waters, the transport boat suddenly jerked everyone awake with a crash.

“We thought we were torpedoed. Everything started shaking and people said, ‘Oh what do we do! I can’t swim! Where are we!’ So we drifted about half of the night. We didn’t have any lights because we were in enemy waters,” he said.

The boat had been accidentally struck by another Allied Forces ship. Luckily Johnston was not injured and the next morning the vessel was able to make it into a shipyard at the New Hebrides islands.

Although stopped short of their ultimate destination, Johnston and the others aboard would be at their New Guinea base within three weeks. At the time of his deployment, Johnston said he’d never heard of the tropical rainforest covered island.

“I didn’t know anything about foreign countries. I knew some things about Paris, France...that is about all I knew. I didn’t know anything about any place else. I didn’t think I end up in New Guinea,” he said.  

The Louisiana boy now found himself halfway around the world assisting in the Pacific Theatre war effort. For he and his fellow soldiers, Johnston said it was just an experience he had to endure.

“Not only me, but everyone I was with in the Air Force was the same way. They said we had to do it so let’s go ahead and do it. That is the attitude they had,” he said.

For 11 months Johnston helped with transport operations, keeping airplanes fueled and oiled. He did not see time in war zones.

“I was nowhere near the action, but you could hear it in the distance...the cannons going off and the different artillery, but I was never close,” Johnston said.

Johnston knows how lucky he was to be separated from the action.

“Some G.I.s went through hell. Dog faces and G.I.s of that sort went through hell watching their buddy die beside them and they couldn’t do a damn thing for them. They couldn’t save them,” he said.  

However, Johnston soon had his own battles to fight. After a bad reaction to an anti-malaria drug he became ill.

“I got yellow jaundice. My whole body turned yellow. That is just something you go through,” he said.

Then he contracted a skin disease that signaled the end of his career as a soldier.  

“I had a skin disease from my head down to my feet. ‘Jungle Rot’ was the nickname of it. Some fellas got it, some fellas didn’t get it. They say it came from the water you swim in at the bay,” he said. “The outfit I was in about five to six guys got it out of 200 men. I was one of them that caught it. Why me? I don’t know.”

Due to his medical condition, Johnston was transported back to the United States where he spent a year and half in a succession of hospitals. In 1944 he was discharged and went home to New Orleans and his old job as a laundry and dry cleaning driver where he spent the remainder of his career.

“I went back to laundry and dry cleaning. That’s all I knew. I got a route,” he said. “I had the experience, I knew the city and that was all I could think to do.”

In his early 60s Johnston retired to Montz where he lived for several years before his advanced age led him to become a resident at Luling Living Center.

For all he has been through, Johnston is a cheerful, thankful man who is easy with a laugh and eager to engage with others. For him, life keeps on being a surprise.

“I’m 91. I didn’t think I’d make it up to 91. I thought I’d make 75 at best. I have my bad times and sometimes I say ‘well time to go’ but the old man don’t want me yet,” he said.  

View other articles written Kyle Barnett

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