Wallace Johnson was only 19 years old when he helped drive a 2.5-ton amphibious truck onto Utah Beach during D-Day.
Johnson, 94, who would go on to move to New Braunfels in 1966 and open up Johnson Furniture, remembers the tangible fear of the harrowing day and recalls the horror of the scene on the Normandy beach 75 years ago.
“Dad said they really weren’t prepared for all the carnage,” said Carol Johnson, Wallace’s daughter and today’s owner and manager of Johnson Furniture. “He said the hardest thing was seeing the paratroopers from the trees.”
“They came in ahead of us and some of them made it to the ground,” Wallace Johnson recalled. “Some of them didn’t make it to the ground, some of them were still hanging up there, and were still alive.”
He now lives in Élan Westpointe Assisted Living and Memory Care where he’s been the past two years, and where he will be honored Thursday morning at 10:30 a.m. for serving in D-Day by the American Legion Walton F. Hoffman Memorial Post 179 and VFW Post 7110.
Wallace Johnson was drafted shortly after his 18th birthday, in 1943, said Carol Johnson.
“He graduated in 1942, went to work in Austin for the National Biscuit Company, and ‘got an invitation,’ as he says, ‘from Uncle Sam,’” Carol Johnson said. “He wanted to go into the Army Air Corps, but they had already filled those positions and so his story to us was he could out run rather than out swim so he went into the Army.”
Johnson was just one soldier in the 160,000-plus Allied troops that landed along the 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified French coastline on June 6, 1944. The Allies victory on D-Day would become the start of their European push inland and was a turning point in World War II.
Still, it was not without heavy losses and sacrifices; more than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded on D-Day, according to the military, but their sacrifice began the march toward defeating Adolf Hitler’s troops.
Wallace Johnson was in the third wave onto Utah Beach, Carol Johnson said.
“The high tide came up and he was in the truck, in the passenger side and the guy that was driving the truck literally freaked out because … the truck was going underwater, and they had a snorkel on the muffler to keep it from drowning out,” Carol Johnson said. “Dad had to push the guy off the seat to gun it to get it out of the water to get it on the beach because they had to get out of the way.”
From the beach, the next challenge was to get past the hedgerows, behind which were the Germans, Wallace Johnson said.
“We had to go through on this side, so we had to try to eliminate them, and once we got through the hedgerows, then we had more open land to work with,” Johnson said.
When asked what D-Day was like, Johnson responded, “It was like a big 4th of July. It was like a whole lot of noise and light all at one time.”
Being in an ammunition truck, Johnson said he and his buddies made it through. He never had to fire his own weapon.
“I had a 45 pistol,” he said. “Luckily I didn’t have to fire — I was in a truck the whole time.”
Upon returning to his hometown of Hutto, Wallace eventually met and married his late wife Dorothy, who died about a decade ago, Carol said.
“Dad was a regional sales manager for a manufacturing company for 15 years, and the family that my parents bought the furniture store from, the husband had passed away from a heart attack and his wife did not want it anymore,” Carol Johnson said.
“Dad was ready to get off the road, he had two small children, he had a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old.”
The store brought the Johnsons to New Braunfels, where they’ve lived ever since.
“Dad never talked a lot about his war experiences,” Carol Johnson said of her father, who has five bronze stars and two silver stars (awards given to members of the military for bravery and gallantry). “Dad always told us you pick yourself back up and you move forward.”
“Well, the war was over with,” Wallace added, making everyone in the room laugh.
Coming home from the war was a great day, Wallace Johnson said.
“We were supposed to go into New York City, and then … the harbor filled up, there was no more room for ships to come in, and so they decided to move us into Newport, Virginia, because they had room there to bring us in and so we came in there and we had three Salvation Army gals greeting us as we came in,” Wallace Johnson said.
Years later, Wallace and his family have had the chance to visit many World War II museums across the country and be honored at several D-Day memorials, Carol said.
“One of the most important things about celebrating D-Day in today’s world is if this had never taken place, I don’t believe that we would be experiencing the freedoms that we are today,” Carol Johnson said.