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Dickinson man and Pearl Harbor survivor, 'life has been so lucky'

Press Photo by Betsy Simon The life of Clayton Johnsen, 93, of Dickinson, is captured in images as a father and young man, and in the Uncle Sam sign that he saw while walking the streets of Seattle before enlisting in the U.S. Army.1 / 2
Press Photo by Betsy Simon Ruth and Clayton Johnsen met via long-distance letter writing while Clayton was stationed in Hawaii in the U.S. Army as a company clerk during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They are pictured here recently at their Dickinson home.2 / 2

Seated around the kitchen table in their Dickinson apartment recently, Ruth Johnsen pulls stories from her husband Clayton Johnsen, a World War II veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor, with two statements, "Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. That's where you start."

Clayton reminded her that his personal story as a World War II veteran began earlier, at age 19, when he asked his parents for permission to enlist in the U.S. Army for health reasons.

"I had asthma real bad when I was a kid and finally the doctor told me I had to find a different area where things wouldn't bother me," he said. "I had tried back East, so this time I went out to Seattle, where I was walking down the street once and I saw a sign that said, 'Uncle Sam wants you'. I thought I would try to get overseas, somewhere as far away as possible. That's why I went to the Philippines. I never had asthma again while in the service."

Clayton worked as an Army company clerk, handling paperwork for payroll and promotions for a 212-member company.

But a change of plans landed him at Pearl Harbor long enough to see the Japanese attack.

"I went into the service in 1939 and I was going to go to the Philippines, but when I came back the next morning the quota was filled and they sent me to Hawaii," he said. He was going to be in for two years because it was foreign services, so his tour of service was over about a week before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Clayton was waiting for the ship to take him back to the United States.

"The morning of the attack I had just had breakfast and had stepped out onto the sidewalk outside of the kitchen outside of Schofield Barracks," he said. "There was another guy standing next to me and we looked up and saw planes with red circles under their wings. Not even five seconds later, bombs started to go off and some of our guys went up on the roof with rifles, but it had no effect on them at all."

Beaches normally consumed by sunbathers were manned by armed American soldiers the day after the attack, Clayton said.

"We just manned the beaches and protected them in case of another invasion, which was only about a mile from Pearl Harbor, but I was never really scared because it happens so fast," he said. "We all had rifles and ammunition and stuff, but we had been using them."

He was stationed at Pearl Harbor for four months before traveling to Guadalcanal, where he spent about a year-and-a-half.

"Then they took us down for a rest period in New Zealand before we went to the Philippines, and by that time they sent me home because my term of service was over and war was practically over too," Clayton said, adding his two-year enlistment turned into six, "but the guys that died were really the ones who paid the bill. The ones, like me, who came back without being hurt, they were the ones that got it good."

It also was during those six years that he got acquainted with Ruth, who taught at the same one-room school northeast of Dunn Center, where Clayton had attended school.

"Every Friday, the kids would each get to write a free postage letter to someone who had attended that school, so we all kind of knew each other," Ruth said.

When he finally returned to the States, Clayton father turned the farm over to him for a year. At the end of the year was up, Clayton bought a hardware store in Warner, a town no longer on the map.

But, more importantly, when Clayton came back to the U.S. in 1945 he found love with his wartime lady pen pal.

"Ruth would write to me about the weather back home and I sent her a grass skirt and a purse while I was gone," he said. "When I came back I wanted to meet her, so I went to the school and thanked her for writing. That's how we ended up meeting in person finally and it took off from there."

They married in 1947 and will celebrate their 65th anniversary on Friday.

The couple has two sons, Robert of Wyoming and Owen Johnsen of Dickinson. Owen also served four years in the U.S. Navy and is a Vietnam War veteran.

"To some degree, my dad influenced my decision to serve and primarily my decision was financial and the benefits the military offers after you've completed your term of service," Owen said. "Dad would share some of his stories with me when I was growing up, but not willingly. You had to pry. Dad isn't one for publicity."

But it's important to capture the stories of World War II veterans while we still can, Owen said. Memorial Day is Monday, and people across the country will commemorate the brave and fallen. The number of living World War II veterans is shrinking rapidly, something Clayton knows all too well.

The Johnsens religiously attended the Pearl Harbor survivors' reunion in Hawaii every five years, but the gatherings have ceased as America's Greatest Generation dwindles.

"Almost all of the guys are gone now, but it doesn't make me sad because life only lasts so long," Clayton said. "The last reunion we attended was the 35th, but I always enjoyed going back and seeing the guys and sharing stories.

"It makes me realize just how fortunate I was to get out of there as good as I did when so many others didn't come home. I was so lucky. My life has been so lucky."