1944 : Oscar Johnson Wins Medal of Honor

When:
September 16, 2021 all-day
2021-09-16T00:00:00-04:00
2021-09-17T00:00:00-04:00

The Medal of Honor is the United States highest award for bravery in combat. Only 464 men were awarded the medal for actions in WWII. More than half the recipients never saw the medal as it was awarded posthumously. Fortunately Oscar Johnson from the UP survived and went on to become a Spartan. Here are some anecdotes about his story…

From: The U.P Goes to War, by Larry Chabot, and the Congressional Record.

On September 20, 1944, near Scarperia, Italy, Oscar G. Johnson reached for some sheets of stationary he’d taken off a dead German and wrote to the folks at home in Foster City in Dickinson County.

“I put in a busy afternoon a few days ago,” he wrote in one of the classic understatements of the war. “With God’s protection, I came through without a scratch. Everything turned out OK.”

What he didn’t tell his parents would have absolutely terrified them. Oscar was all alone for two days and nights on his company’s flank, watching fellow G.I.’s cut to pieces as they tried to bring Oscar to safety. His company had been cut to ribbons, all the officers were dead or wounded, their machine guns silenced, and hundreds of German paratroopers were charging straight at him. But Johnson stood his ground, using weapons and ammo from his dead buddies. The Germans had evidently never heard the phrase: “Never mess with a Yooper!”

Born in Ishpeming and raised on a dairy farm near Foster City, Sgt. Johnson was in Company B, 363rd Infantry Regiment, 91st Infantry Division. The official citation for his medal stated that he single-handedly protected his company’s flank on an attempted breakthrough of the strong German defensive line during the period September 16-18, 1944.

Company B was the extreme left assault unit. When their advance was stopped by heavy fire, Company B found cover behind an embankment. Johnson, a mortar gunner, used up his mortars and turned himself into a rifleman. As leader of a squad of seven, he set up a combat post 50 yards to the left of cover their exposed flank.

Repeated enemy counterattacks, supported by artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire, wiped out all of Johnson’s squad – except him. Collecting dead men’s weapons and ammunition, he braved enemy fire to hold his exposed spot, inflicting heavy casualties on an enemy so close he could reach them with hand grenades. When the Germans launched their biggest attack against this solitary Yooper, he stood up in his shallow trench in the face of their withering fire and drove them back with his rifle and a few grenades.

He remained awake all night, frustrating all attempts to get him. “I’m staying out here to the end,” he said. In the morning, 25 German soldiers surrendered to Oscar.

Two men sent to help him were wounded by heavy German fire and lay half-buried in a shell hole. With no thought of his own safety, Johnson ran to the hole, drove back the Germans with his rifle, and helped a medic treat their wounds. That night – the second night in his exposed post – he remained on watch until his company was relieved.

Five companies of German paratroops had repeatedly attacked his post, without success. Countless Germans – some say up to 200 – lay dead in front of him. He had single-handedly kept the enemy from turning the exposed flank.

“He just stood in his hole and kept firing,” said Lt. Frank Drazkowski of Bessemer, who was there. “We attempted to send aid but they were either killed or wounded, but Oscar held the enemy back.”

When the fighting stopped, Oscar marched out with another 24 prisoners, including the Commanding Officer. His actions brought him a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars.

On June 25, 1945, Fifth Army Commander General Mark Clark draped the Medal of Honor around the neck of Oscar Johnson of Foster City.

A shy, freckled man who was good at everything he tried, Johnson attended Michigan State University after the war, enrolling in the two-year agriculture short course program. He would marry a local girl and settle in DeWitt, operating an 80-acre dairy farm near there most of his life.

Johnson also served as foreman of a National Guard vehicle maintenance shop in Lansing. During 30 years of duty with the Guard, he saw a lot of changes. “During the ’50s, we got a lot of boys joining to avoid the draft,” he said in a 1980 Panax Newspapers interview. “A lot of them were farm boys who knew a lot about equipment. I enjoyed working with them. Now we get guys in who have to be taught to drive a stick-shift.” The biggest change, he said, was working with women. “I can’t say anything bad about them,” he said. “They make real good jeep drivers and they seem to have more responsibility toward their vehicles. They don’t think a thing about pulling out a battery or crawling underneath with an oil pan.” He said the Vietnam-era veterans he worked with at the Guard were really no different than the veterans of World War II or the Korean War. “The biggest difference is that they don’t get as much attention”. After his Guard service, Johnson retired to Dickinson County.

Rep. Barton Stupak also reported the following anecdote about Johnson. “He was a regular church-goer. A couple of years ago, he attended a Good Friday service at First Lutheran Church in Iron Mountain. I’m sure he attended many others–this happened to be one I managed to make. Part of the service is the reading of the “Good Friday Solemn Reproaches,” representing the agony and reproaches of the crucified Savior. This line is included: “I grafted you into the tree of my chosen Israel, and you turned on them with persecution and mass murder.” Those lines might have been echoing in my thoughts when I noticed Oscar. The sight of his ruddy face and white hair made it especially clear that it took his sacrifices, and those of countless others, to stop the unspeakable horrors inflicted on Jews in Europe. Near the end of the service, after a silence is kept for meditation on the mystery of redemption, there is a time to visit a cross at the altar. Traditionally, one is to bow before the cross, touch it, or kiss it. Oscar Johnson approached the cross, walking with a slight limp as he did in his later years, but with a sure confidence and grace. He didn’t bow before the cross, touch it, or kiss it. What he did was this. He gave it a casual, respectful soldier’s salute and limped back to his pew. To this day, the memory of that simple gesture brings forward tears. Maybe it’s true, as Johnson claimed, that the Medal of Honor story made him sound a little better than he was. It must also be true that he was more.”

He died May 13, 1998, and was buried in DeWitt, Michigan.

His name is still honored:

(1) A 46-mile section of Michigan Highway M-69 running through Foster City was renamed the Oscar G. Johnson Memorial Highway;

(2) A bill supported by the entire Michigan delegation was introduced in Congress to name the Iron Mountain Veterans clinic in his honor;

(3) As his family watched proudly, the 91st Division Training Support Headquarters in Dublin, California, was dedicated in his memory on July 15, 2000.

(4) And then of course, he will always be on the revered role of American Medal of Honor winners.

Sources:

Zlati Meyer, “This week in Michigan history: Soldier from U.P. becomes one-man Nazi wrecking crew”, Detroit Free Press, September 16, 2012.

Oscar G. Johnson Memorial Highway House Fiscal Analysis, House Bill 5027, 2011.

Capitalwords, June 25, 2007.

Oscar G. Johnson : Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient

The MSU community can also read “Oscar G. Johnson Department of Veterans Medical Facilty”, June 25, 2007, Vol. 153 No. 103 Pg. H7039, in Proquest Congressional.

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