Barry Nesja 1954 on JI

Johnston Island, 1954

on the theadolite
by 
 Barry Nesja

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In the fall of 1953 while stationed at Hill AFB, Utah, I received orders transferring me to Japan. I was not too happy. Japan was a great assignment but usually most people actually ended up in Korea. While home (Chippewa Falls, WI) on leave my orders changed. I was going to Hawaii!

I flew to Hawaii in the cold, non-pressurized hold of a cargo plane. This was better than going by ship as many did in those days. Upon arrival, I found that I was going to either Enowetok or Johnston Island, my choice. There was nuclear testing going on at Enowetok so I picked Johnson Island.

I knew JI was small but was not prepared for the landing there. The nose of the plane actually extended off the runway and over water when it came to a stop!

To explain Johnston Island it would be best to say what was not there. There was not a golf course; in fact, there was not even a lawn. I never saw a lawn mower all the time I was there. There were almost no women. There were three single women, a nurse, a schoolteacher and the base commander’s secretary. A few non-coms and officers did have their families with them, which would explain the schoolteacher.

There was no hot water in the enlisted men’s barracks. This was to conserve on water, as there was no fresh water except for converted salt water. We did some personal laundry by hand in cold water but most of it was flown back to Hawaii. Every time you would dirty a pair of socks, they would travel over 2000 miles before you could wear them again.

There were many good points. The weather was perfect. We were never over worked, as we always seemed to be over staffed. Much of the time, we would work two days and then have six off! The food was excellent.

Any time we wanted a party we would be issued steaks to grill and beer to drink at no cost. The NCO Club was open to every one with great prices. If a guy didn’t get into the crap games he could easily send most of his pay check home, keeping just enough for tooth paste and shaving cream.

There were two planes stationed permanently on the island. There was the “gooney bird” C 47 and the B29 rescue plane with a lifeboat attached to the bottom. Once a week the “Turn Around” landed with supplies, mail, new personnel and our clean laundry then left our dirty laundry and the few people who were getting off the island permanently or temporarily.

We did get one week back in Hawaii for R&R. If you got lucky, there would not be room for you on the Turn around on the way back and you would get an extra week of R&R. A lot of that R&R time was spent in a hot shower!

Of course, there was no TV but there was the outdoor theater. Every evening there would be people walking to the theater carrying their raincoats. It would usually rain for fifteen minutes right after sundown, (those sunsets were spectacular). The movie was usually half hour “TV” show, Honeymooners or I Love Lucy followed by a western. There was many Audy Murphy shows.

A couple of USO shows did make it to the island but the big name ones always seemed to cancel out. There was not the glamour entertaining on Johnston Island as there was entertaining in Korea.

We played many card games. Double deck pinochle was the big one. We also played a lot of softball. No sliding allowed. You did not want to be cut by that corral. A submarine pulled into the dock once and the first person out was carrying a softball bat and challenged us to a game. I do not remember who won but remember drinking with a bunch of drunken sailors.

There was a lot of fishing. We did go out deep-sea fishing but usually the sharks would eat any other kind of fish you had on before you could get it to the boat. Mostly we spear fished using snorkels. No body had scuba gear at that time. There was real excitement when the manta rays came in to mate. They were tough to get but about six guys managed to work together and bring one in. We also would dive for oysters, bring them into shore and break them open, looking for pearls. Many pearls were found but none of much value.

There was a small Quonset house for a church used by all the religions. There was a catholic and a Lutheran Chaplin.

When I arrived, the enlisted men were pulling KP. The weather section was an attachment so we got a break and only pulled it occasionally and then only for midnight chow which was only fed half dozen people. Then they started charging everyone a few bucks and hired Philippines to do KP. We did not think it was worth it so we did not pay the first month. That was the end of our gravy KP. They had us doing pots and pans and cleaning stoves. The next month we paid. There were no chemicals or poisons stored there at that time that we were aware. Perhaps there was radioactive dust. We had a platform on the roof of the weather section where each day we would place a sheet of “fly paper”, then place the previous days sheet in an envelope and send it somewhere to re tested for radiation. We were never told the results. There was nuclear testing going on at Enowetok at the time.

We listened to a lot of music on the radio. Rock and roll and Elvis had not arrived yet. Teresa Brewer, and Eddy Fisher were big. One of the hits was “I need you now” with Eddy Fisher.

On one of the holidays, (possibly Labor Day) we had a great party. After a big meal, the beer came out and the tables were set up in a big circle on the landing apron. We had a great trumpet player from New York who had a friend who played drums and another who played, of all things, the accordion. The drummer sat up in the middle of the circle and the other two walked on the tables playing “Progressive Jazz”. They were fantastic. I am sure every one that was there remembers that musical high.

Mail call was once a week, sometimes once every two weeks. I always got a pile of letters as a little high school cheerleader wrote me a letter almost every day.

The trip home was much different from that ride over in the cargo plane. By then they were shipping everyone in commercial type passenger planes complete with flight attendants. Nobody traveled by boat.

This past year I attended the fiftieth class reunion of that little cheerleader who wrote me all the letters. You see, I did more than take hot showers on that R&R to Hawaii. I bought a diamond ring at the Base Exchange. This June the cheerleader and I, along with our six children and twelve grand children, will celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary. It all started with mail call on Johnston Island