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July 22, 2014

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Las Vegas veteran, 90, reflects on his WWII service, race and field hospitals

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Steve Marcus

World War II veteran Harvey Johnson, 90, talks about his service during during an interview at his home Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013. Johnson served in a hospital unit in Papua New Guinea and in the Philippines, he said.

World War II Veteran Harvey Johnson

World War II veteran Harvey Johnson, 90, poses in his backyard Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013. Johnson served in a hospital unit in Papua New Guinea and in the Philippines, he said. Launch slideshow »

Harvey Johnson remembers the day he was told he’d be serving overseas during World War II.

Leaning back in a recliner at his Las Vegas home, the 90-year-old veteran recalled how he had been in the military for two months when a medical unit needed one more person to go overseas. That person ended up being him.

“Out of all of them, I’d be damned if they didn’t pick me,” Johnson said.

Johnson went on to serve from 1942 to 1946 in a military hospital unit during World War II, stationed in the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. He saw live combat, dealt with racial issues and helped save lives.

The Sun caught up with Johnson the day before Veterans Day to talk about his experiences in the war. Here’s what he had to say:

How did you become involved in the military?

I lived in the little town of Crockett, Texas. They notified me that I had 12 days before I’d be inducted to the military. So I left Crockett and went to Houston. I was in Houston for a month and a half, two months and I notified them I had changed addresses because they told my father if he didn’t tell where I was, he’d be in the Army. Then they notified me I was in the service, so I left Houston and I went to Amarillo, Texas. They got me there after three months, so I went back to my little hometown. When they notified me again, I left and went to California. Then they came after me there, so I gave up.

What did you do while you served?

We were transferred to different places, and we would set up hospitals for these areas that didn’t have one. I was in New Guinea for more than a year. The first time we were there, we were supposed to go to a certain place and set up a hospital, but they didn’t stop there. Where we went was where the ships were invading New Guinea. Boy, those ships were really shooting. We weren’t battle medics, but we had to go out and pick up all the wounded guys and bring them back to the ships. Boy, it was terrible. That gun would go off and we’d drop the stretcher and hit the ground. We weren’t trained in that kind of stuff.

How many people did you rescue?

We ended up bringing about 51. I carried about 10 troops. We didn’t have one person get hurt.

What challenges did you face during the war because of your race?

You see, it wasn’t an integrated situation. We had ours, and the whites had theirs. It was a tough situation. There was very little promotions, and you were always in an area where things were awful bad. You didn’t get the pay or things you were supposed to get, like food and places to stay. We would be left with something that just wasn’t right for the area, and there wasn’t anything we could do about it.

When did you find out you’d be out of the war?

After so much time in the military, you got so many points before you could get out. After some time it would come out that the points had gone down. I was on the island of Leyte, and the points had gone down to 81 points, and I had 81. They sent me down to another place instead of sending me home, but I will never forget the day I saw I was eligible. They had an earthquake. All of a sudden I said, “I’ll be damned.” All the rest of the guys said, “What’s the matter? Did you get hurt?” I said, “Hell no. The minute they call my number, there’s an earthquake.”

What does Veterans Day mean to you?

It means a lot to me. I put up with what I had to put up with. Most of the time in the service it wasn’t too bad for me. We used to have parties to celebrate, go out to certain places. I don’t do that anymore. It isn’t because I don’t care; it’s just that I’m too young to mess around like that.

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