Although it happened nearly eight decades ago, Garnet Johnston remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing on Dec. 7, 1941 – the day the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was attacked.
“I was 16 years old and I was in high school. I heard about Pearl Harbor on the car radio. I had been rabbit hunting with my father and we were in the car. We were stopped at a traffic light,” said Johnston, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y.
That’s when the news broke that Pearl Harbor had been attacked by the Japanese navy and air force. Many American ships were bombed or torpedoed, and some sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
Johnston, who now lives at the Brandywine Senior Living at Pennington assisted living facility, certainly did not think about the implications of the attack. He only knew that President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan on Dec. 8.
“The potential impact (of the attack and the declaration of war) did not register with me. (But) I didn’t know as much then as I know now about Pearl Harbor,” Johnston said.
Certainly, Johnston was not thinking he would spend three years in the U.S. Navy, patrolling the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Roosevelt had already instituted a peacetime military draft in 1940. It initially focused on men, beginning at age 21. A few weeks after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the minimum draft age dropped to 20 years old. By 1942, all 18- and 19-year-old men were subject to the draft.
“I did not want to be drafted into the U.S. Army at 18 years old. I chose to bite the bullet and control where I would go and what I would do, so I went to the U.S. Navy recruiting office,” Johnston said.
“I was 17. It was May and I wanted to graduate from high school. I would be 18 in a couple of months,” Johnston said, adding that the recruiter agreed to let him postpone going to basic training until after he graduated.
So in September 1943, Johnston was inducted into the U.S. Navy. After searching for a specialty, he became a sonar operator. Sonar was used to detect the presence and location of enemy submarines.
After receiving training – he was the top-ranked candidate in his class in “sonar school” – Johnston was assigned to a team of six sonar operators on the U.S.S. Lowe. The ship was part of a destroyer escort, protecting a convoy of ships as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
During his first trip across the Atlantic as part of the destroyer escort, Johnston, who led the sonar operator team, sank his first submarine. He sank two more German submarines in the Atlantic during subsequent trips.
As the war in Europe was winding down, the U.S.S. Lowe was reassigned to protect convoys in the Pacific Ocean, where Johnston spent the remainder of World War II. He saw plenty of action there, too, and was responsible for sinking two Japanese submarines.
“It was kill or be killed,” he said.
“Killed” was the fate that met a pair of destroyers and the supply ships that were tied up alongside them at the Navy base in Guam – a scene Johnston still remembers, although the U.S.S. Lowe was a mile away.
“There was a tremendous explosion. I was hanging onto the wire (the railing at the edge of the deck). It blew me from the wire against the bulkhead. When the smoke cleared, there was nothing left, just debris,” he said.
A Japanese submarine was responsible for blowing up the destroyers and the three supply ships. The submarine came in underneath a bigger ship in the deep channel that had been created for freighters, he said.
Johnston, who was discharged from the Navy in March 1946, said that from the time he came aboard the U.S.S. Lowe until he finished his work on the ship, it traveled 499,995 miles.
“That’s a lot of water,” he said.