Colen Johnson was so eager to join the Navy that at just 17 he had his parents sign a permission slip so he could jump onto a ship.
It was a sign of the times — World War II had the entire country rallying.
“It seemed to be at that particular time, the whole country was patriotic,” Colen said.
He returned home with the same souvenirs that many sailors brought back; photos, tattoos, and stories.
He got the tattoo on his right forearm in the 40s in San Francisco. He said his superior chewed him out because he was the youngest man on the ship.
The ship’s dog was named Gertrude. Colen remembers how she got pregnant and had puppies and no one could quite figure out how she ended up in the puppy family way while on the boat.
Colen’s anecdotes are ones he shares with very few men. Their experience during WWII was unlike most other sailors’.
They were called guinea pigs.
Colen and the men in his fleet were an integral part of nuclear bomb testing. From a 20 mile radius, for the sailors’ protection, they watched the bombs drop into the Pacific. The test was to see how the bombs would affect the fleet of ships.
“We were instructed put our arms over our eyes and once we heard the blast we could look,” Colen said. “Yeah you could hear it, it was like a roll of thunder.”
After the explosion, Colen and his fellow sailors got onto the ships to “limit the radiation and put out the fires.”
Colen even received a letter from President Truman, thanking him for his service as a guinea pig, only, not in so many words.
Except for his time at war, Colen has always lived in Jacksonville. At ninety, it is still the city he calls home.
“All my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren live within 10 miles of me,” Colen said.
Colen’s photos and stories weave a narrative of his accomplishments but it was to fight for this life he has now and the freedom of our country. For that reason, he is truly part of the greatest generation.
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