LDS Veteran Recalls Blessings of Love and Hope after Iwo Jima

Contributed By By Julie Dockstader Heaps, Church News correspondent

  • 8 October 2013

Darel Orval Johnson still has his U.S. Navy memorabilia. He was 19 years old when he landed on the black beaches of Iwo Jima, the site of one of the deadliest battles of the Pacific Theater of World War II.  Photo by Julie Dockstader Heaps.

Article Highlights

  • Brother Johnson felt blessed to have celebrated his 20th birthday after fighting the battle of Iwo Jima at age 19.
  • His faith, the love of his family, and his hope for the future sustained him during the battle.
  • Today Brother Johnson has five children, 25 grandchildren, and 69 great-grandchildren.

“[Hope is] what the Church is all about. It gives you something to do that makes life worthwhile.” —Darel Orval Johnson, World War II veteran

On a cool day on the Pacific Ocean in 1946, a young sailor, Darel Orval Johnson, celebrated his 20th birthday—twice. His ship, a troop transport, was ferrying marines a few months after World War II finally came to an end. Busy with his duties as a U.S. Navy signalman, he didn’t blow out any candles or open any gifts, but he did note that because they had just passed the international date line, the calendar remained February 1.

Now 87 years old with gray hair and a gentle smile, the former sailor recalls that milestone with particular fondness. “That’s always been special to me,” he said with a chuckle.

Maybe that’s because it was a miracle he lived to see February 1, 1946. Nearly one year before, he was 19 years old and standing on the black beaches of Iwo Jima, the site of one of the deadliest battles of the Pacific Theater of the war.

Sitting in his apartment recently in Logan, Brother Johnson, a member of the Pioneer Branch, North Logan Utah Stake, looked back 68 years. On the floor beside him were remnants of his old U.S. Navy footlocker with a still-pressed blue uniform decorated with two battle stars, one for Iwo Jima and one for Okinawa. When asked about the significance of his 20th birthday, he responded simply, “I’ve been well blessed.”

Many who went ashore during the 36-day assault on Iwo Jima, from February 16 to March 16, 1945, never made the voyage home. There were more than 26,000 American casualties, with 6,800 dead. Out of 20,000 Japanese troops, only 1,083 survived. Brother Johnson’s attack transport, the U.S.S. Bladen, was one of 450 ships in the U.S. armada.

Today Brother Johnson is a father of five, including one foster son, grandfather to 25, and great-grandfather to 69. He and his wife, Janice, who died in 2007, served two missions together. From 1988 to 1990, he was director of the Winter Quarters Visitors’ Center, and in 1993 they served in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City. He is a former bishop and high councilor, having reared his family in Brigham City.

But in late 1944, the recent graduate of Box Elder High School was fresh out of naval training in Farragut, Idaho, and getting ready to embark for Pearl Harbor. After one week of training as a signalman, he was assigned to the Bladen. He didn’t know for sure where the ship was headed, but upon arrival he could see one large hill on this particular Pacific island—Mount Suribachi, the site of the famous World War II photo of the raising of the stars and stripes by U.S. marines.

Blue Beach Two

The son of a first-generation immigrant from Denmark who fought for the U.S. in the World War I trenches of France, Brother Johnson was among the first wave ashore. For days, ship batteries and planes had bombarded the island. He recalled seeing “lots of planes go down, Japanese Zeroes. A lot of American planes went down.”

Finally, just after daylight, he and others were loaded onto an LCVM, a landing craft, and headed under fire to the beachhead called Blue Beach Two. His craft made it. Others did not.

“I saw a lot of people killed. Saw tanks going up the beach—whoomp! They’d go up 15 feet, come down. Death all around.”

Although he carried a rifle, he doesn’t remember ever firing a shot. He was too busy using his red and yellow signal flags directing in other landing craft. For the next six days, he spent his time directing traffic and, when not on duty, hunkered down in holes they had dug deep in the sandy beaches and then covered with some of the metal strips from the nearby airfield. Sandbags were piled on top.

“We were safe as a bug,” Brother Johnson said, smiling. “I guess I wanted to go hide in my bunker and stay there forever. Guys got shot on both sides of me, all day long. But you had to do your duty. There was no choice.”

“Three Days of Interesting”

Brother Johnson and his group were supposed to be on the island for only six days. But when they were finally relieved, they realized their ship was gone. That’s when the young man spent what he describes as “three days of interesting.” A beach commander put him and his buddy, Mike, on burial detail.

“Mike and I picked up a stretcher and went around the beach picking up dead GIs. A bulldozer would dig a big hole, and we’d lay the bodies in there. The corpsman would take one dog tag and put it on his ring and leave the other tag on the body.”

Then, with tears in his eyes, Brother Johnson added, “At night we slept on our bloody hammocks.”

There Was Always Hope

Looking back, Brother Johnson spoke mainly of three things that saw him through those days and beyond—the love of his parents, his love of the gospel, and finally the love of his wife, Janice Woodruff Johnson, whom he met at a dance one week after returning home.

He said during those dark days of war, there was always hope that “things are going to get better someday. That’s what the Church is all about. It gives you something to do that makes life worthwhile.”

He laughed when he said he never fit the world’s stereotype of the sailor—a girl in every port and drunk on every leave. He came home, met and married his wife, and baptized her the next week. A year later, they were sealed in the Logan Utah Temple. He spent his career teaching school in Brigham City.

After Sister Johnson’s death in 2007, he went to work as an officiator in the Ogden Utah Temple. Today health problems have slowed him, but he picked up his copy of the scriptures and said, “It’s the only thing that’s real and true. The Lord took good care of me. That’s all.”

Historical information for this article comes from the Navy Department Library.