Memories of war: Upper Peninsula veteran Betty Johnson recalls her service

QUINNESEC – While Memorial Day stands to remind us of the countless men and women who have died while serving our country, it is also important to remember and honor those who have served and are still surviving today.

Betty Johnson, who recently flew from Escanaba to Washington, D.C. as part of the Upper Peninsula Honor Flight, is one such veteran.

Martha “Betty” Johnson, now of Quinnesec, grew up in Augusta, Georgia. She joined the Air Force after her brother, Capt. James Hollingsworth, a P-38 pilot, was shot down over the English Channel in 1944.

“That is the reason I went into the service in the first place,” said Johnson, adding that her brother’s body was kept in England until the war ended. Unaware that the body would be returned to the United States, Johnson planned to travel to pay her respects to her brother.

Johnson was stationed at the Chatham Field Air Force Base in Savannah, Ga., where she worked as a stenographer, until she as offered a position at the Pentagon as one of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretaries.

The decision to take the position at the Pentagon meant that Johnson would not only need to leave her family in Georgia, but leave the Air Force entirely.

“When I got ready to go to the Pentagon they told me I couldn’t be in the Air Force and work in the Pentagon,” said Johnson.

To get around the requirements, Johnson was presented with two forms, one discharging her from the Air Force and one enlisting her in the Army and stationing her at the Pentagon. At the Pentagon, Johnson continued working as a stenographer and secretary.

“On my discharge papers you can see I had a superior rating, so I must have been doing a good job,” laughed Johnson.

Often when Eisenhower was in England, articles that were transcribed by Johnson were signed using a pantograph. The device allowed Johnson and other staff to copy, enlarge, or reduce an image by tracing it – allowing signatures identical to the general’s to appear on documents despite Eisenhower being overseas.

While at the Pentagon, Johnson was asked by one of Eisenhower’s aides if she was interested in traveling to the Atlantic or Pacific Theater. Because her brother was still buried in England, Johnson chose the Atlantic.

Details about Johnson’s trip were vague. When she boarded for the ship for Europe, no information was available about the trip other than the direction the ship would be traveling.

“They said, ‘we can’t tell you where you’re going because we don’t know where we’re sending you, but we can send you to the Atlantic Theater,” recalled Johnson.

After landing in Le Havre, France, and a little sightseeing in Paris, Johnson and the other servicewomen she was traveling with were taken to Heidelberg, Germany and based at the Third Army Patton Barracks.

Shortly after coming to Heidelberg, Johnson noticed a note on the assignment bulletin board asking for people interested in classical music. Johnson was a musician and had practiced with members of the Air Force Band at the Chatham base. She had even requested a transfer while in the Air Force to join the band, but the transfer was denied.

Despite reservations about volunteering for anything in the Army, Johnson signed her name on the board. Her interest led her to be selected by her commanding general, Gen. Geoffrey Keyes of the Third Army, to go on a trip that would take her to see Hitler’s hideout, the Nuremberg Trials, and the first music festival to take place in Salzburg, Austria following the war.

“I was one of six servicewomen selected … He was taking six men and six women,” said Johnson.

One of the few people allowed to watch the Nuremberg Trial, Johnson listened to English translations of the high ranking Nazi officials’ testimony on headphones. Following the trials, Johnson’s mother called to tell her that she had been seen in a newsreel.

“I just happened to be at the right place at the right time,” said Johnson, adding that she had never seen the reel herself and that her entire group must have been photographed at the same time.

Also while in Germany, Johnson met Lee Johnson, an American soldier who had been badly wounded in the Alsace-Lorraine area of France and had received the Purple Heart for his valor.

The couple was married by an Army chaplain at Providence Church in Heidelberg in 1947. They managed to be discharged at the same time and took the same ship back to the United States. Despite being lodged in different portions of the ship, the newlyweds managed to spend time together in the ship’s officer’s lounge and by working in the ship’s clerical department.

Johnson remembers the Statue of Liberty as the most impressive sight as she approached American soil.

“I still was about 500 miles from home, but that told me I was home,” said Johnson.

Following her return to the U.S., Johnson joined the Army Reserves. She was high-diving at the Fort Lee pool in Virginia when an Army Olympic coach requested she sign up for three months active duty to represent the U.S. in the upcoming Olympics. Johnson declined because she was married.

When Lee was called home to help take care of his father, the Johnson’s moved to the U.P., where Johnson taught swimming, was a Red Cross water safety instructor, and started a drill team for girls in Quinnesec.

“Once you sit back and think about what she’s done, she’s an interesting lady,” said Johnson’s son, David Johnson.

In honor of Johnson’s service, she was sent on the Upper Peninsula Honor Flight on May 1. She was the only female service member sent on the flight to Washington D.C. to see the World War II Memorial.

“She was bubbling over it last night,” said David, the day after her return.