Sixteen million Americans served in World War II. My father was one of them, plucked fresh out of high school into the Navy. The Navy liked boys from the wide-open prairie because they weren’t bothered by the endless horizons of the ocean.

Dad trained as a ship mechanic and shipped off to the Pacific front aboard LST-1081. He vividly recalled Pearl Harbor, where the carcasses of the eight battleships sunk by the Japanese in 1941 steeled the soldiers for the fight ahead.

Destination: Japan, for an assault that was expected to claim tens of thousands of American lives. “Everybody knew we were going to Japan,” Dad told me.

Crossing the Pacific, his LST landed troops and equipment at Kwajalein, Roi Namur in the Marshall Islands, Guam, Ulithi, Okinawa and Saipan. Visualize the crude boats that landed troops in “Saving Private Ryan” – only this was reality. His war was on the seas, where the horror was nothing like that encountered by the Marines and Army infantrymen on those islands. But he saw kamikaze planes destroy dozens of U.S. vessels, ships riddled by bombs and torpedoes, ships sinking with young sailors aboard. His was spared.

George Walter Johnson

George Walter Johnson

Then Truman made the fateful decision to drop an atomic bomb on Japan, killing thousands of civilians but ending the war. The U.S. Navy proceeded to Japan. Dad’s convoy ported at Yokohama, the Imperial Japanese naval base south of Tokyo. The next few months, he helped transport American soldiers who had been liberated from Japan’s notorious POW camps.

Then his war was over; he resumed his quiet life on a South Dakota farm. He never talked much about the war, unless prodded by one of his children.

Fast forward to 2005. Dad had died the year before. Business took me to Tokyo. After checking into my hotel, I took the subway straight-away to Yokohama. In a restaurant overlooking the port, I ordered a glass of wine and silently saluted my dad.

I carry his dog tags with me always.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.