He thought they were US aircraft conducting drills until explosions and flames erupted from stricken ships in the harbour. Then came screams of sailors; the stench of burning oil and flesh.
The 86-year-old Oregonian is due to return on Monday to Pearl Harbor for the first time since World War II to attend a ceremony marking the 68th anniversary of the attack.
“I really don’t know how I’m going to handle it,” said Johann, from his home in Oregon. “When I think about it, all I have is unpleasantness. I’m sure it’s not like that now.” Then, he and two other sailors were waiting to ferry passengers on a small boat to and from the USS Solace, a hospital ship that was moored in Pearl Harbor. Johann’s motor launcher boat rushed to the USS Arizona, which was hit by several bombs, one of which struck her forward ammunition magazines and set off a massive explosion. Already fuelled and manned when the attack began, their 30-foot boat was the first rescue vessel to arrive at the scene.
They found the water littered with people — some wounded, some dead, some unharmed. They loaded as many as they could and delivered them to the hospital ship before returning to the USS West Virginia for more.
“As we’re pulling them out of the water, a lot of times the skin would come right off the arm,” Johann said. “They would just be black with oil, except may be you could see the white of their eyes.”
The planes kept coming. Dive-bombers plunged out of the sky, dropping bombs and strafing the water and ships with machine gun fire before roaring back up for another round. The burning, sinking vessels at first lowered men into Johann’s makeshift rescue boat. But some sailors started to panic and jump into their small ship, forcing it to pull away so it wouldn’t sink too.
The next morning Johann’s boat unloaded men from the Solace who failed to make it through the night and delivered them to land. Johann served the rest of the war on USS Wright, a seaplane tender. After 1945, he returned to California where he worked in sawmills before moving to Portland, where he spent 28 years as a firefighter.
Every year on July 4, he goes to bed early to avoid the fireworks because they remind him of Pearl Harbor’s explosions. Even so, the blasts keep him awake. But the horrors he went through also led him to become a firefighter.