Wilburn David Johnson

Born – 1919 - Wilburn David Johnson, 87 died on March 5, at Caldwell, Idaho. David lived a quiet life in a cottage on 9th Street in Payette, Idaho, where in 1953 he planted a few bamboo canes in his back yard to see whether they would take root and to begin his career as a Spanish teacher. Today, David’s bamboo canes are a magnificent forest thriving in an unlikely climate.
David Johnson was also a WWII, Japanese POW; like his forest he endured and survived three and one-half years of atrocities at the hands of his Japanese captors in the Philippine Islands and in their coalmines at Omuta, Japan.

A native of Carter County, Kentucky boy, twelve in 1936, he worked the corn fields of the Johnson family farm on the picturesque banks of what is now the Carter Caves State Park. When corn prices fell, Wick Strother cut off credit to David’s father Daniel. Daniel turned his cheap corn into moonshine, with Strother as his best customer, as long as the corn lasted.

Hearing of jobs in California, he abandoned their farm, loaded up their Model A with his sons, and drove the Lincoln Highway west. The Johnson men set out first leaving Mirtie Johnson to sell their last corn crop to pay for her trip.

David picked cotton, and dug potatoes. In southern California, he learned to sort dates in sheds at Indio. His mother and sisters joined them in the fall of 1936.

By 1940, David was twenty; he joined the CCC, and served at Camp Seiad Valley and Mt. Shasta, California for $25 a week that was paid to his parents. In July 1941 he enlisted in the Army and chose the Philippines for his tour. The war in Europe was far away. Within five months, he was a Japanese Prisoner of War; the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941, they invaded Batan, a northern Island of the Philippines. David, a medic was kept at his Infirmary post by his Japanese captors, and by May 1942 his honed medical skills saved him again from the Batan Death March. But, orders changed with the Visagan – Mindano breakthrough.

“That night we were boarded on the Roka Maru, (Oryoku Maru) a freighter anchored in Subic Bay. All night we held to the shallows. Early the next morning, the US bombers spotted us, though and after a fly-over, they sank the ship. We swam for shore and some of us made it. Three times we were loaded, and twice more they sank our ship. Our food was at the bottom of the bay. The Japanese refused to paint a Red Cross on the ship to show American POW’s were on board.”

Somehow, David’s ship made it clear of the bombs, while all around him, other ships sank and his fellow soldiers drowned. “I’d lost all my clothes. In the water, I found a white hand towel that became my wardrobe. In the sun, it protected my head, and at Omuta, Japan it was cold; it became my shawl. We did not know we were bound for the coal mines; we did know our future was uncertain.”

David shoveled coal for three and one-half years and while he survived on a bowl of rice a day. His teeth fell out, and his 6 feet 1 inch, lanky frame reduced to 100 pounds, he remarked, “When men are confined under repressive circumstances, there are outbreaks of anxiety and belligerence by superiors and by prisoners. Japanese guards did not believe in talking it over, they used their sticks. I was struck, usually because I wasn’t moving fast enough. Some prisoners used stall and delay tactics in responding to commands. It was their own weapon against our captors to slow down the progress, to interfere with operations. They received blows for their behavior.”

“The Japanese were unnecessarily cruel to us. Often, after rice was dished up, my bowl was sent flying by a Japanese Guard. I learned to stand in the center of a group and not draw attention to myself. Other soldiers fought to the end, and were maimed or killed. The Japanese went out of their way to abuse us. Koreans too, who had been captured by the Japanese, ran the mines. They were brutal as well.”

“One morning, three and one-half years after I began digging coal, replacement guards did not appear for the next shift. When our guards ventured up, they soon discovered the Atomic bomb had exploded at Nagasaki across the Bay from us. The bomb had blown everything away. It was 1945. For a few weeks, our former guards, Japanese and Korean shared their food with us; roles reversed and in retribution some GIs became as cruel as our former captors.”

“Food was scarce for all of us. At one point we found brown sugar in the hold of a ship. It was a feeding frenzy. I still do not care for sweet.”

David left the Army as a disabled veteran; the Army meted $25 a month as sufficient compensation for three and one half year POW slave labor. He never complained. He used his GI money of $2,000 to attend the University of Idaho. Back in Payette, Idaho, he taught school and bought a little place on 9th Street where he planted a few bamboo canes in his back yard to see if they would take root in a cold climate. Now those canes are a resplendent bamboo forest thriving in an unlikely place. When David died on March 5, 2007, his $25 pension had grown to only $200 a month and he’d saved $50,000, and paid off his mortgage. He was never married; instead he provided his home, care and love to rear his nine siblings. He was a voracious reader, and astute about world affairs and international business. From a hardscrabble Kentucky farm boy, migrant worker and big brother to his siblings, David endured and triumphed over unusual cruelty at the hands of his Japanese captors. His hardships strengthened him; he became an extraordinary man who educated himself, cared for his family, and lived a noble life.

Wilburn David Johnson born 1920 was the son of Mirtie Kinney and Daniel Johnson, also of Carter County, Kentucky. If you hike along the long Trail in the Carter Caves State Resort Park, you will cross their Johnson home place farm, or if you visit the Public Swimming area, you will be standing in David’s cornfield.

Lydia Justice Edwards as told to by David Johnson (first cousins) in a private interview in 2004.
Credit: Journal Times - Grayson, Ky.

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