Early Years

Becoming a Soldier

New Guinea and the Philippines

Japanese Prisoners of War

Police Boys and Marys in New Guinea

POWs in Finschhafen, New Guinea

Philippines and Operation Downfall

POW Camp Organization

Postwar

Recollections

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Burton Johnson was born in Providence, Rhode Island in May 1920. His parents delivered groceries to families even though they were both college graduates. Johnson had an older brother who was in the Navy in World War 2 and served under Admiral Nimitz [Annotator's Note: US Navy Admiral Chester W. Nimitz]. The Great Depression affected his life in many ways. Both of his parents worked as teachers after they moved to Lamoni, Iowa. Johnson's father died after running in a race and being immersed in cold water. This happened while the two sons were just young boys. His mother later remarried a state employee. The family moved to Arkansas where they homesteaded land while his mother continued to teach. Johnson considers Fox, Arkansas as his home town. Fox is where his mother taught school. The family raised cattle for milk. Johnson milked the cows and separated the cream and sold it in the local post office in Fox. At age 18, Johnson decided to go into the service because he no longer wanted to work on the farm. 

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Burton Johnson entered into service at Clinton, Arkansas at age 18. At Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he was assigned to the 1st Field Artillery as a gunner on a 105mm cannon. After being promoted to corporal, Johnson was recommended as a motorcycle driver since he had prior experience with both personal and military motorcycles. He was transferred to the new motorcycle patrol unit for Fort Sill and given the rank of sergeant. He had five corporals under him. The unit was assigned to do escort and police duty in and around Fort Sill. This was before the war began. When the war started, the only Officer Candidate School [Annotator's Note: commonly referred to by the acronym OCS] open to Johnson was at Fort Benning, Georgia. That school was specifically for the infantry. His commander requested that Johnson go there and represent his office. Johnson was in the field artillery but decided to transfer to infantry. He went to Fort Benning and then, after OCS training, got his second lieutenant's bars in 1941. Johnson's motivation to join the Army in 1938 was to get away from the farming life. He started in field artillery, then went to military police then into infantry. Johnson's rank was given for infantry because the military police had not been formed organizationally. Johnson joined the Army because it was more available near Clinton, Arkansas. It was easier in 1938 to enter the Army than any other armed forces branch. His brother had entered the CCC [Annotator's Note: Civilian Conservation Corps] at that time. Army training in 1938 involved Johnson using his motorcycle skills to transport officers using a side car through trips in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He also had to escort visiting dignitaries and performed traffic and police duty. He would escort the paymaster to assure protection of the Fort Sill payroll. Johnson enjoyed the leadership duty and responsibilities that involved his squad of seven motorcycles and riders. There was a serious accident on the firing range where an artillery shell exploded and injured a soldier. Johnson had to escort the ambulance with the injured soldier to the hospital. During that incident, Johnson had an accident that injured his shoulder. Afterward, he was not able to lead the motorcycle patrol any longer so his superior officer, Colonel Bell, asked Johnson to go to Officer Candidate School for military police. Following his completion of OCS, Johnson was transferred to Fort Riley, Kansas where he was promoted to captain within the military police. Promotions seemed to come relatively quickly to Johnson. The decision was made for Johnson to be trained in Michigan for handling prisoners of war. In Kansas City he attended the Advanced School for Provost Marshall Appointments. Afterward, he was sent by military transport to the South Pacific. 

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Burton Johnson arrived in Finschafen, New Guinea in the South Pacific after completing his stateside training. This was shortly after the United States and Australian Armies assaulted the Japanese held island of New Guinea. Johnson came in after the invasion was underway and took over control of Japanese prisoners. These were Japanese captured by both the Americans and the Australians. He watched over the prisoners as they rebuilt a dirt airstrip that had mountains surrounding it. The Japanese Army occupied portions of those mountains. Johnson was in charge of 120 MPs [Annotator's Note: military police] watching over the enemy prisoners. He continued this type of duty from Finschafen to Hollandia, New Guinea and on into Manila in the Philippines. In Manila, Johnson was part of General MacArthur's [Annotator's Note: U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur] secondary, but not general, staff and attended some of the planning meetings for the invasion of Japan. He was put in charge of the North and South Bay harbors in the Philippines where American transport ships were being loaded with supplies to support the invasion of the Japanese home islands. Johnson's role was to assure protection of supplies that were being marshaled for the coming invasion that would be transported by the North and South Bay Fleets to the invasion sites in southern Japan. Johnson was pleased that General Douglas MacArthur was to be the commander of the invasion of the Japanese home islands.

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Burton Johnson had been in the service for three years when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor [Annotator's Note: on Sunday, 7 December 1941]. He learned of the attack while he was in military police training at Fort Riley [Annotator's Note: Fort Riley, Kansas]. This is when he took the Provost Marshal training. He knew that there would have to be training for many more MPs [Annotator's Note: military police]. When he was sent to New Guinea, he knew the Japanese would use that location for a jumping off spot for an attack on Australia. As a Provost Marshall, Johnson was responsible for controlling land traffic for American armed forces advances through enemy territory, as well as controlling enemy POWs [Annotator's Note: prisoners of war]. This involved recruiting native individuals as appointed local traffic control officers. These recruits would get a white band, a billy club and an Australian type billed hat. The native officers would receive rewards for capturing Japanese or showing evidence that they kept their village safe. Cut off ears or heads were considered evidence and would result in a reward of Australian bully beef [Annotator's Note: bully beef is a type of canned corned beef]. The weather was very rainy and always damp. Often, there were many individuals under Johnson's command who were on the sick list. Johnson had both of his ears infected with fungus at one time. While dealing with POWs, Johnson's MPs were ordered to limit the number of prisoners they oversaw to seven so that the Garfield rifle [Annotator's Note: the interviewee is most likely referring to the M1 rifle, commonly referred to as the Garand] would have enough rounds to shoot all of them. The threat to keep the Japanese POWs from escaping into the jungle was that if one escaped or tried to escape, six of his fellows would be shot. The attitude between the combatants was harsh. On one occasion, one prisoner tried to escape and one of the guards fired on six of the prisoners. The Japanese commander over the POWs was told that he would be shot the next time. The enemy commander threatened his men with harsh punishment if they attempted to escape. He told the MPs that he would mete out punishment to his troops if they tried to escape. The threat seemed to work. The Japanese prisoners were worked hard on the airstrip. There was insufficient help to do the heavy physical work other than through the use of the Japanese prisoners.

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Burton Johnson had multiple locations where Japanese prisoners were held in New Guinea. There was still hard fighting in New Guinea with many Japanese troops still in the northern area. After the airport was finished, it went into service to defend the immediate area. Johnson traveled through local villages on the east side of Finschhafen to set up defenses with the native police boys. The American troops referred to the indigenous male constabulary they organized as police boys rather than try to remember their names. The police boys were to prevent Japanese incursions into the villages to rape the Marys. The American troops referred to the female natives as Marys rather than remembering their individual names. There was a problem with Japanese soldiers coming down from the hills and raping the Marys. That had to be stopped. As a result, the police boys were recruited to stop the Japanese. Johnson used a motorcycle without a side car to visit these native villages. He shared this territorial allocation of police work in New Guinea with an Australian. One of the first steps when Johnson entered a village was to speak with the chief who usually spoke some English so a translator was not needed. The natives had been exposed to Lutheran missionaries so they knew a slight amount of English. Hand signals were used often to convey messages. Communication was possible as a result of the combination of limited English and hand signals. One incident with a chief that was memorable for Johnson was when a question arose about a set of ears that was being turned in for reward of canned Australian beef not being Japanese. The chief responded that the captured Japanese soldier was completely destroyed by the villagers. The Provost Marshal's Office tried to stay on top of these questionable claims.

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Burton Johnson had over 1,500 Japanese prisoners in the massive POW [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war] camp in Finschhafen. These were a combination of captives from both American and Australian operations on New Guinea. The barbed wire compound for enclosing the POWs had to be enlarged several times. There were many trucks but few MPs [Annotator's Note: military police] for the vehicles or for guarding prisoners. The manpower problems were largely due to sickness resulting from weather conditions. Food was a problem for the POWs. To solve this problem, American ships would explode ordnance underwater in the local harbor and fish would float up and be gathered in drums. The fish were then sent to the POW camp for use in feeding prisoners. The captured Japanese were not routed through a particular registration process by the Provost Marshal. The registration of names of POWs was left up to the senior Japanese officer in the camp. As the New Guinea invasion proceeded further into the mountainous areas, there were far fewer numbers of Japanese POWs. Feeding of the prisoners was through the senior Japanese officer. Some of the American guards who were assigned to Johnson were sent to him because they were only able to perform limited duty due to sickness or injury. Rations for the American servicemen were ample, but it was largely reserved for the Allied troops. The fish from the harbor, along with captured Japanese food stocks, were the main food sources for the POWs.

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Burton Johnson was transferred from New Guinea to Biak and then to the lower part of the Philippines after it was secured. He set up POW [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war] camps throughout the Philippines but few Japanese were surrendering. Eventually, Clark Air Force Base [Annotator's Note: then Clark Field] was recaptured but the enemy had destroyed much of the edible supplies on the base. The US Army Quartermaster helped overcome this problem. The operation moved fast and the Americans were back into Manila within 30 days. General MacArthur [Annotator's Note: US Army General Douglas MacArthur] had been the Grand Master of all Freemasons in the Philippines prior to the war. When MacArthur returned to Manila, he saw that Johnson was a Shriner. MacArthur may have singled Johnson out for further responsibility as a consequence of those affiliations. In Manila, Johnson was appointed to the North and South Bay to make sure no Japanese remained organized in fighting forces. If there were enemy troops, Johnson was to see to their capture and incarceration. At this time, invasion preparations for assaulting Japan were underway. Many ships were in the bays that Johnson had responsibility for managing. There were even concrete ships mustered for use in the invasion of the home islands. Despite some power struggles, General MacArthur was chosen for overall command. The stocks of Allied supplies had to be protected not just from the Japanese but from the Filipinos as well. The Filipinos were desperate not only for food but also for clothes. Johnson developed a method of protecting those supplies. Johnson's responsibility did not extend to the Manila area, only the bay areas. Johnson felt that MacArthur was an egotist. Johnson knew him as a friend and as a fellow Mason. They respected each other. Often, Johnson spoke with MacArthur and there was an affinity for one another. The stocks of supplies for the Japanese home island invasion were abundant. War planners knew that the conflict would be vicious. Johnson always carried a .45 caliber automatic pistol but never a rifle. He captured many Japanese weapons. In May 1945, Johnson was in the Manila Hotel when he heard of V-E Day [Annotator's Note: Victory in Europe Day]. In reaching MacArthur's office, the General said it was then all up to the troops in the Pacific to end the war. MacArthur said that the plan for the Japanese invasion was still on. When the bomb [Annotator's Note: the atomic bomb] was dropped, Johnson was in one of MacArthur's meetings and he was told that this was not the end of the conflict. Johnson and others were told to stand fast with all the marshaled ships under his watch as they would all be needed for the invasion of Japan. Security was not to be broken. That was Johnson's job.

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Burton Johnson organized POW [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war] camps by first getting the engineers to establish a barbed wire containment area. The engineers used only tents for protection of POWs. A senior prisoner would be appointed as the commander. That commander would then be in charge and would suffer for any infractions by his POWs. That leader would also carry out any orders given by the guards. There were some instances where Japanese POW resistance or attempts to escape resulted in the killing of other Japanese POWs in retribution. This was mainly in New Guinea and not so much in the Philippines where the Japanese were contained and accepted POW status. The Filipinos were used for labor and were paid for their efforts. Relations between the Americans and Filipinos were primarily business relationships that were created to show what work had to be done and the food that was available for them. Clark Field in the Philippines was the last Japanese air force strip in the Philippines. It was a jumping off spot for the American assault on Manila.

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Burton Johnson remembers when he heard of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death. Harry Truman was not a surprise as the successor to Roosevelt. When V-J Day [Annotator's Note: Victory Over Japan Day] occurred, MacArthur [Annotator's Note: US Army General Douglas MacArthur] called all his principle staff together and indicated that he would be going to sign the armistice with the Japanese. He told his staff that they were free to return home if they had the required service. Johnson immediately signed up to do that in order to rejoin his wife and children. He had written many letters during the war. That exchange of letters with his wife kept him updated on the progress of his children. Coming home was a challenge to Johnson because he had been favored in his rank in the military. He lost that prestige upon his return to civilian life. He immediately went to work and went to law school. A transfer to New York for work in the insurance home office happened but then he returned and graduated from law school. Johnson then started a law firm with some colleagues. The GI Bill was used for his education. Some money had been saved up to aid in his school expenses. Johnson went straight back to the United States from the Philippines without going through Japan. He returned to the United States via airplane to Hawaii and then on to San Francisco where he boarded a train to Kansas. He returned home to a touching reunion. His wife had been fearful for him because he would have entered Japan right after the American landing forces in order to set up POW [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war] camps. Johnson entered the reserves after World War 2 and stayed in until 1953. During his time in the reserves, he worked for his former superior officer. He helped Colonel Bell form a command with new officers and noncommissioned officers. At separation, Johnson was a major. Separation was in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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Burton Johnson feared that his handling of Japanese POWs [Annotator's Note: prisoners of war] would be held against him. Particularly the way the Japanese superior officers would harshly treat their men for stepping out of bounds with the rules. Johnson was not aware of the way the American POWs were treated by the Japanese. Johnson did not have to go to Korea because of wartime disabilities he acquired in the Pacific. Johnson had no respect for the Japanese. He could not like nor forgive them. He had seen their cruelty and therefore just does not like nor have sympathy for them. Transition back civilian life in the United States was made easier because he continued in the reserves working to build his former superior officer's command. During his Pacific service, Johnson was Chief of Military Police as well as Provost Marshal. All military police for the US Army were under Johnson. Johnson fought in World War 2 to offset the opportunities he had received in the Army. The work was interesting to him. His experiences in the war helped him later in life. Johnson learned to fly after he left the service. He became a member of the Defense Research Institute, the DRI. He became the DRI president. He was assigned the DRI region of Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas and New Mexico. World War 2 changed Johnson's life by providing him with initiative to want to do something and to help win the war. Looking back at his service, Johnson feels that he was very lucky to have survived the war. The Japanese were very tenacious fighters and had planned to capture Australia. Johnson felt his efforts helped prevent the Japanese from capturing Australia. World War 2 today is not as well known by today's citizens. What is amazing to Johnson and his peers was the fact that they went into the conflict under pressure and still managed to end the war quickly. He is proud to be an American and would fight for the country again if necessary. It is important that future generations learn the lessons of World War 2 and know about the sacrifices made by those of that era.

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