George A. Johnson

George Alfred Johnson
1st Raider Battalion, B Company
140 East Chestnut Street, Coatesville, PA
Mother, Mrs. Isabel L. Johnson
September 26, 1922
January 28, 1942
August 10, 1942
Solomon Islands
Killed in Action
Private George Johnson participated in the assault, capture, and occupation of Tulagi, British Solomon Islands. He distinguished himself in action by demolishing a Japanese position with a shower of hand grenades.

Not long after this gallant feat, Johnson was mortally wounded. He was reported buried on the island, but his remains were never recovered.

Silver Star, Purple Heart
“Buried on the island, details later”
Not Recovered
Manila American Cemetery
Namesake of USS George A. Johnson (DE-583)

Like many of his generation, George Alfred Johnson grew up with his father’s scars of war.

Alfred Richard Johnson was Russian-born, British educated, linguistically gifted, and indelibly marked by his experiences in the Great War – especially the day near Belleau Wood when a German machine gun killed ninety-eight of his friends and gouged a deep scar across his forehead. Released from captivity after the Armistice, Johnson – possibly wishing to start over – immigrated to the United States. He met Isabella Gehrig at her family’s boarding house in Redding, Pennsylvania, and the two were married shortly thereafter.[1] George Alfred was their first child, born on September 26, 1922.

The Johnsons settled in Coatesville, Pennsylvania around 1930; Alfred tried a handful of jobs before going to work for Lukens Steel as a flanger. The family grew steadily until George had six younger siblings. George inherited his father’s work ethic, first as a pin boy at the local YMCA bowling alley and later as a Lukens welder, all while attending classes at Scott High School. He earned a reputation as a hard worker, willing to go above and beyond for family and friends.[2]

Private Johnson, not long after his enlistment.

As a boy, George Johnson may have heard the stories behind his father’s tattoo, his shortened finger, his scarred forehead.[3] He certainly learned of Belleau Wood and its importance to American military tradition – particularly members of the Marine Corps. Something about that branch of the service must have appealed to him, for when news of Pearl Harbor reached Chester County, George was quick to drop out of school and join the Marines. He enlisted in Philadelphia on January 28, 1942, and was on a southbound train the very same day. By the end of January 29, a hard-bitten Parris Island DI was filling Private Johnson’s ears with information and obscenities, and he was on his way to becoming a Marine.

Johnson and several hundred other hapless, hopeful “boots” made up the Sixth Recruit Battalion from late January to mid-March, 1942. The young man from Coatesville must have made a strong impression on his instructors, for he was one of the few chosen to report to Quantico, Virginia for placement in the First Marine Raider Battalion. There was no turning back; just two weeks after completing boot camp, Johnson was on a train bound for San Diego, and one month out he found himself aboard the USS Zeilin bound for exotic Tutuila, American Samoa.

Johnson’s battalion set up camp on Tutuila on April 30, 1942 and began training in the commando-style tactics for which the Raiders were intended. On May 27, Johnson himself was transferred from Battalion HQ to Company B, and began integrating himself into a rifle squad. Training continued until July 4, 1942. On that Independence Day, the First Raider Battalion marched out of their camp at Tutuila, boarded the USS Heywood, and set sail for Noumea, New Caledonia. After a further three weeks ashore, Private Johnson and his company embarked aboard the USS Colhoun and headed west once again. This time, they were bound for combat.

In the early morning hours of August 7, 1942, the 1st Raider Battalion arrived offshore of its first objective: the little island of Tulagi, administrative capital of the British Solomon Islands. Under the covering fire of three supporting warships, the first two companies of Raiders – including Private Johnson’s Company B – embarked in landing craft and headed for the designated landing site on Beach Blue. Every one of the little boats hung up on the island’s coral reef, and so George Johnson made a wet, wading landfall in one of the Corps’ first amphibious operations. Fortunately, the Japanese garrison did not decide to fight on the beaches.

B Company advanced across the island, occupying the small native village of Sasapi on the opposite shore. They turned right and headed down the coast, encountering a handful of civilians near Carpenter’s Wharf before a fusillade of gunfire dropped three members of their First Platoon.[4] The defenders, members of the 3rd Special Landing Force, were well emplaced in caves in a nearby cliff. The fight for Tulagi “assumed the nature of a storming operation… a soldier’s battle, unremitting and relentless, to be decided only by the extermination of the adversaries engaged.”[5] Tellingly, the defenders retreated to caves or “cleverly constructed dugouts and tunnels” which “could only be eliminated by bold action with grenades, well placed explosives, and submachine guns.”[6] PFC Vincent Cassidy emerged an early hero by scaling the cliff and bombarding the enemy positions with grenades.[7]

George Johnson spent his first night in hostile territory on the Marines’ left flank, near Tulagi’s Government Wharf. His company was spared the brunt of the famous banzai counterattack that nearly broke the Raider line, and the island was declared secure the following afternoon. However, an unknown number of Japanese holdouts remained hidden in caves, especially in the crags of Hill 281. Johnson and Company B were given the unwelcome assignment of clearing them out.

Draft citation for George Johnson’s Silver Star medal.

“[On August 9] Marines combed the area around Hill 281 three times, finding snipers each time,” states the Division Commander’s Final Report. “The tenacity of the individual soldier was astonishing. Each Jap fought until he was killed, each machine gun crew to the last man.”[8] On one of the laps around the hill, a sniper opened fire on George Johnson’s squad. The teenaged private – borrowing a page from PFC Cassidy’s playbook – grabbed a handful of grenades and, “with utter disregard for his own personal safety,” rushed the enemy position, pitching the grenades into the cave mouth until the enemy fire stopped. Thanks to his quick reflexes and courage, his squad continued their mission unscathed.

Private George Johnson would be awarded a Silver Star medal for gallantry in action. He did not live to wear it, or even to see the end of the fighting on Tulagi. The language of his Silver Star citation – and the retelling of his exploit in newspapers back home – suggested that he died in the performance of the deed.

“Private Johnson, with utter disregard for his own personal safety, rushed to the mouth of the cave and continued to throw in hand grenades until he was killed by the enemy.” 

This illustration by “Leff” appeared in newspapers across the country, as an exhortation to buy war bonds. Example from the Mount Carmel Item, 18 December 1943.

Yet the date of this action on this citation is August 9, 1942. Private George Johnson was reported as killed in action on August 10.

Mopping up operations continued in the vicinity of Hill 281 “for several days,” according to the Final Report, and while the muster rolls for the 1st Raiders reported no B Company casualties on August 9, August 10 was a very different story. Private Harmon Pike was evacuated for wounds that would eventually end his Marine career, while Privates Thomas E. Church, Joseph T. Martino, and George A. Johnson all lost their lives.

Sergeant Hugh C. Davis, an NCO in Company B, related his memory of George Johnson’s last moments.

“Johnson picked up a Japanese hara-kiri knife, a very beautiful thing, and made the remark that he was going to keep it until he died. He walked about twenty yards and died with a bullet between the eyes. As far as I know, that knife stayed on his body unless someone in a burial detail removed it.”[9]

From Sergeant Davis’ recollection, it seems likely that Johnson survived the event that resulted in his decoration, only to be killed in a separate event on the following day. The ambiguous language of the citation – which likely went through several revisions before its release – is probably the root cause of the confusion. Newspaper reporters, either ignorant of Davis’ version of events or seeking a more dramatic end to Johnson’s story, repeated the August 9 date.

Johnson’s death certificate. Note cause of death from grenade fragments, and the report of his burial by the 2nd Medical Battalion.

The Certificate of Death included in Private Johnson’s official military personnel file confirms the date of 10 August, but contradicts Sergeant Davis’ account insofar as the cause of death is concerned. According to the clerks of A Medical Company, Second Marine Division, Johnson was killed by “wound, lacerated, abdomen, fatal (hand grenade).” It seems unlikely that the trained medical technicians would have entered incorrect information in such detail; they certainly would not have mistaken a sniper’s bullet for grenade fragments. Johnson may have been hit in the exchange of grenades – the Japanese were known to toss the missiles back out of their caves – and succumbed to the wounds at the field hospital the following morning.

Privates Marino, Church, and Johnson were all reported as buried on Tulagi; the clerk in charge of the muster roll entered the common placeholder of “details later” instead of recording the precise location. A report of interments compiled by the First Marine Division in December 1942 places Martino in Cemetery #1 (“White Beach”) while Church and Johnson are in the much smaller Cemetery #3 (“Chinese Barracks”). Yet another discrepancy arises, though, when the Certificate of Death is consulted. This document states that Johnson’s “remains [were] recovered and buried by “A” Medical Company, 2nd Marine Division” at the Police Barracks Parade Grounds – Tulagi’s Cemetery #2.

While Martino and Church were identified, and returned to their families, George Johnson was not as fortunate. His remains are either buried in an unmarked grave on the island, or as one of the many “unknowns” in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

George Johnson is the namesake of Johnson Avenue in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. It intersects with Toth Avenue, named for John Toth – another Coatesville native and Lukens employee, killed on Guadalcanal.

Articles and Records:


[1] Chester County Hall of Heroes, “George A. Johnson,” last accessed 31 May 2017. Unfortunately, Alfred’s military unit is not known; he reportedly served as an intelligence officer.
[2] Ibid.
[3] According to his draft card, Alfred Johnson sported a tattoo reading “A. M. Johnson” on his right arm, and was missing the first joint of his left thumb. The significance and story behind these “obvious physical characteristics” is no longer known.
[4] Marlin Groft and Larry Alexander, Bloody Ridge And Beyond: A World War II Marine’s Memoir of Edson’s Raiders in the Pacific (New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2014), 44.
[5] Commanding General, 1MarDiv, Final Report on Guadalcanal Operation, Phase II (Headquarters, First Marine Division, 28 June 1943), 19.
[6] Ibid., 4.
[7] Groft and Alexander, 45. Cassidy was later decorated with the Silver Star.
[8] Final Report, 5.
[9] George W. Smith, The Do-Or-Die Men: The 1st Marine Raider Battalion at Guadalcanal (New York: Pocket Books, 2003), 123.

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