Ed Grisamore

Gris: Only a few can wear it

The navy blue cap is adjustable, a one-size-fits-all.

But Fred Johnson is one of the few who can officially wear it.

After all, “Pearl Harbor Survivor” is written in gold, letters above the bill, and Mr. Fred rarely leaves the house without it on his head.

Sometimes, folks stop to salute him for his service to our country. Others notice him wearing it and offer to buy him lunch at the Cracker Barrel or in the take-out line at the S&S Cafeteria.

They don’t know him. They just want to thank him.

Not long ago, at Steve’s Steak & Seafood on Arkwright Road, the waitress told Johnson his check had been taken care of, then motioned across the room. It was one of his former students from his days as principal at Macon’s Willingham High School.

The man later told a friend about seeing Mr. Fred at the restaurant.

“I thought he would be in a wheelchair,” he said.

Hardly. Johnson is 99 years old, still walks daily for exercise, supervises the planting of his garden and drives a Toyota Prius.

Imagine that. A man who was nearly blown out of the water by Japanese planes 73 years ago is now driving a Japanese car.

At least he can now tell people he is 99 with some degree of certainty. Before, he never really knew. The Johnson family Bible, which later burned in a fire, listed his birthday as April 17, 1915.

But he was the youngest of 11 children, and his older sisters always insisted he was born in 1914. Johnson’s granddaughter, Sara Kingsley, did some genealogical sleuthing and located his name in the 1920 Fannin County census to set the record straight.

He will be 100 on his next birthday. If he reaches the ripe old age of 101, he could be around for the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day on Dec. 7, 2016.

There are only a few like him still living, and he is among the oldest. Men who survived the carnage aboard battleships, destroyers and cruisers are dwindling in numbers and may one day all fit in a row boat.

The “date that will live in infamy” marked America’s entry into World War II, a conflict that killed more people and caused more destruction than any in the history of civilization.

It was as scared as he has ever been in his life, running across the deck of the USS Maryland, bombs dropping from the sky and torpedoes racing through the water.

“You know how they say your life flashes before your eyes?” he asked. “Well, it does.”

Because of overcrowded conditions on the ship, he had been sleeping in a munitions room, not the safest place during an attack. Danger surrounded him. Fate rushed in to save him.

Johnson had been transferred from the USS West Virginia a week earlier. During the attack, that battleship was sunk by two bombs and seven torpedoes, killing 106 men. The USS Oklahoma, which was docked next to the Maryland, took the brunt of the attack. It was struck by five torpedoes and capsized, killing 429 men.

Johnson was just a 26-year-old country boy from north Georgia who had only seen the ocean one other time before he sailed across the Pacific to Hawaii.

Times were lean when he graduated from high school eight years earlier.

“It was the Depression,” he said. “There weren’t any jobs. There wasn’t any traffic on the streets. The stores were all boarded up.”

He had no luck getting a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps. He went to Berry College, where he majored in English and prepared himself for 30 years as an educator after the war. (He was a teacher at Lanier Junior High and principal at Alexander IV Elementary and Willingham High.)

When he graduated from Berry in 1940, the threat of war was a key issue in a presidential campaign. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for an unprecedented third term.

“Roosevelt said he wouldn’t send American troops to fight in the war, so I went ahead and volunteered,” Johnson said.

Johnson was a self-described “neophyte ensign” and communications watch officer, reporting directly to the admiral, in the days leading up to the surprise attack. While standing watch one night, he struck up a conversation with a commander about the prospects of war.

“He said the Japanese would never attack us,” Johnson said. “He had been to Japan the year before and said they were firing at targets and missing everything. They were inefficient, ineffective and there wasn’t anything to worry about.”

Four Navy battleships were sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor. A dozen other ships were damaged and 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed. A total of 2,403 military personnel were killed and 1,178 wounded.

Johnson spent the next 16 months aboard the USS Hornet in battles across the Pacific Theater. He later was recalled for duty during the Korean War, serving as a communications officer on an aircraft carrier. It marked the only other time he has been back to Pearl Harbor, and he didn’t even get off the ship.

Several years ago, he was looking through his grandson’s middle school history book. There was only a one-sentence mention of Pearl Harbor in the chapter on World War II.

That bothered him. It was a defining moment in American history. Although Hawaii would not become a state until 1959, Pearl Harbor remained the most devastating enemy attack on U.S. soil for 60 years -- until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Johnson is hopeful history won’t be rewritten. Several years ago, he went to see the movie “Pearl Harbor,” which turned out to be more of a love story than war story.

“I told people it was 5 percent historical and 95 percent hysterical,” he said, laughing.

He also has read some of the “conspiracy theory” books. He is currently turning the pages of “At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor,” by Gordon Prange, which was published for the 50th anniversary in 1991.

When Johnson went to Robins Air Force Base to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, he was asked his birth date for verification purposes.

“She looked at my age on my license, and then she looked at my hat,” he said. “She said I ought to write a book.”

As a matter of fact, he has written his unpublished memoirs. Looking back at 99, his working title is “From the Observation Deck.”

He’s been there. Done that. Got the cap to prove it.

Contact Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.