He wasn’t big. He wasn’t strong. He wasn’t looking for glory in battle. Ed Johann of Newport, Oregon, considers himself a rather unremarkable guy who found himself in the middle of one of the most remarkable events in American military history. On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor—a surprise, early morning attack that nearly decimated America’s Pacific fleet and left more than 2,300 dead.
Many Americans listened by radio to the retelling of that day’s terrible events in the quiet of their living rooms. Johann heard the bullets whizzing by, inhaled the smoke of burning ships, and saw the bodies of his friends and comrades in arms floating in the water. For Johann, life would never be quite the same.
Lori Tobias of the Oregonian wrote of Johann’s experience that day, including saving another soldier from deadly waters, in a recent front page article commemorating the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. For his heroics, Johann received a U.S. Navy Commendation. Interestingly, Johann enlisted in the Navy mainly because of “economics” not heroics. The low paying jobs held by his dad and two brothers didn’t entice him.
In an interview with the Oregon Faith Report, Johann said that he earned $21 a month in the Navy, on top of the food, shelter, and benefits provided. “Some guys needed money to buy booze or whatever when they had some free time. Me, I didn’t drink, and I didn’t have a lot of expenses. Instead, I sent a lot of my money home.” Johann calls that “economics,” though after further questioning modestly admits that, among other things, he felt the Navy gave him a chance to help support his family.
Johann now marvels that he even passed his physical to be admitted into service. “They kept telling me to inhale real big and stick out my chest. I didn’t even have a chest,” joked Johann. “I was maybe 140 pounds. One doctor had the chart; another measured my chest. They finally passed me on. I guess they just needed all the men they could get.”
Johann’s first six months in the Navy were uneventful. Then came Pearl Harbor. Prior to the attack, Johann had never even seen a dead body. His vision of the Navy was Frank Sinatra movies—singing and dancing without much danger. After Pearl Harbor, there was the constant fear that “we might be next” to die.
The nearness of death at Pearl Harbor and throughout the rest of his four year service had a profound effect upon Johann’s sense of purpose. He resolved to spend the rest of his life helping people. Among other things, Johann served nearly 30 years as a Portland firefighter where he occasionally risked his life for others like he did as a soldier. One event in particular brought back memories of December 7, 1941. On this particular day, he nearly died fighting a terrible fire after a backdraft threw him to the ground, catching his boot on a chair. While the others managed to find the window, Johann was stuck in a thick cloud of black smoke. Somehow he was able to wiggle his foot loose and exit the 2nd story window in time, leaving his boot behind. Johann said he “had a lot of time to think and remember” as he convalesced for a few days in the hospital.
His advice to youngsters thinking of joining the military? “It’s a great way to learn discipline, responsibility, and to serve others. But know what you’re getting in to. There’s a lot great things about military service, but don’t be naïve.”
To the rest of us, Johann says to appreciate life and be flexible. “There are many surprises in life. It doesn’t always go as planned and there are big challenges. But you’ve got to learn to roll with it and make the best of the situation.”
These days, Johann has survived many of his fellow servicemen. “There used to be 13 of us who met each year here locally to commemorate Pearl Harbor. It’s down to two of us.” The realization that the “Greatest Generation” is passing may partly explain Johann’s willingness to share his experience.
“It’s important to tell our stories so that we always remember the sacrifice our soldiers made.”
Well said. Thanks, Mr. Johann, for your service and for your willingness to share your story of sacrifice, one of many from that day, for us and for future generations.