Never Forget: North Dakota man among the few remaining survivors of Pearl Harbor attack

North Dakota man among the few remaining survivors of Pearl Harbor attack

Remember Pearl Harbor.

It was more than a rallying cry for the Americans who immediately went to to enlist after hearing about the attack on a United States territory in the Pacific Ocean.

Brad Mosher

The Herald

Millions responded to the news.

Some joined the military.

Some started working in defense plants.

Some helped served on the home front by organizing rationing boards and scrap metal drives.

Remember Pearl Harbor was a motivator for a nation to transform from a majority agrarian society to manufacturing giant.

War changed America.

But Pearl Harbor was not alone.

The former Navy coaling station in the Pacific Ocean was just one of the targets of the Imperial Japanese Navy on the “Day that will live in infamy.”

In addition to the naval base and battleship row, the attack also focused on the Wheeler Army Air Base, Scholfield Barracks and the Naval Air Station base in Kaneohe.

At Kaneohe, there was a seaplane base which was attacked just before the full attack on Pearl Harbor.

Wheeler Air Base was home to almost 150 fighters.

On that Sunday morning in 1941, it took 14 Japanese fighters and 25 dive bombers only minutes to destroy and damage about 50 aircraft on the ground, in addition to hangars and barracks. Thirty-six people died and another 74 were wounded in the attack.

The attack continued at Scholfield Barracks, adding to casualty and death tolls.

That was the part of the attack that seems to have been pushed aside due to the main focus on Pearl Harbor.

For John Clayton Johnsen, the view of the attack was always focused inland, away from Battleship Row.

According to a recounting by Johnsen’s son Owen many years later, his father was leaving the mess hall Sunday morning when the attack started on the Army base.

“He and his buddy watched unidentified planes fly overhead through Kolekole Pass. His buddy said it must have been an air show and that is when the bombs started falling.

“Everybody grabbed their guns and went to the roofs of Schofield Barracks as the planes came and went the same way,” the son explained his father’s recounting of the attack.

For John Clayton Johnsen, the attack came just two days before his enlistment was up. It was extended until the end of the war, after serving six years.

A company clerk with the 25th Infantry Division, he would go on to serve in the South Pacific, including action at Guadacanal in the fall of 1942 and early 1943.

The Solomon Islands were far from where he had spent his youth

He had grown up on a farm north of Dunn Center and had to work on the family farm, stopping after the eighth grade at a local school. “He completed the eighth grade and started the ninth, but then he had to work on the farm and stop going to ‘Sno School #1’. That’s what it was called,” the son added with a chuckle. “It was only about three miles away.”

The old school, like most of Werner, is gone now.

John Clayton Johnsen’s future wife, Ruth Knudsvig, grew up only a few miles from the Johnsen farm. After graduating from Dunn Center High School in 1939, she went on to get a Standard Teaching Certificate. She was teaching at the local school during the war when a class project was to write letters to people who were fighting overseas.

The teacher picked her neighbor and soon started up a correspondence, one that would lead to matrimony in 1947.

War extends his trip

He also had a health problem, asthma, which eventually led him on a journey to the Pacific Coast in the late 1930s. It was for his health, according to the son, Owen, who remembered his father later in life being over six feet tall and of slight build.. “He went to Washington and then down the coast.”

It was on that trip in California that he went past a sign showing “Uncle Sam Needs You!”

He signed up for a two-year enlistment, in part because of his asthma. That became two years, then four years more before he would see family

When Clayton Johnsen returned after the war, he got married and opened a hardware store in Werner, just a short distance from where he was born and raised. After also farming his stepfather’s homestead, the veteran moved to Dickinson in 1955.

A member of the National Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, he celebrated his 100th birthday on Nov. 5.

His wife organized the first Pearl Harbor Chapter of the North Dakota Veterans in 1965.

At one time, there were thousands of members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.

By 2011, the number had dropped to less than 2,700 when the organization was officially disbanded during the 70th anniversary of the attack.

Johnsen would take his wife to Hawaii and to Pearl Harbor several times, “I think the last time they went was in the late 1980s,” the grandson, Clayton, said about his grandparents. The grandson grew up in Dickinson and is teaching fourth grade in Killdeer.

Always local ties

Both John Clayton Johnsen and his son Owen are in the local veterans monuments in Dunn Center, Killdeer and Dickinson, the son added.

“My grandfather’s name is etched into the Killdeer Memorial right in front of the High Plains Heritage Center on that stone wall right in front. It is also in Dickinson on the Stark County Veterans wall there as well,” Clayton, the grandson, added.

The Killdeer, Dunn Center and Dickinson area will always be home for him, the grandson said.

The veteran of World War II recently moved to a veteran’s home operated by the state of Montana in the town of Glendive near the North Dakota border. He had been living at Evergreens prior to that, the somn explained.

Even as a newcomer to the Century Club, Johnsen was not the oldest survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor,

Ray Chavez of San Diego had been the oldest living Pearl Harbor survivor until his death in November at the age of 105.

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