World War started on a quiet December Sunday

By Pat Kenney
Journal Correspondent

This year Pearl Harbor Day falls on Sunday, as it did 67 years ago, December 7, 1941, when the Japanese navy launched World War II with a surprise attack on the U.S Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Over 2,400 American servicemen were killed, and 1,300 wounded. The American Pacific Fleet was nearly destroyed, with four battleships sunk and four more damaged, other smaller ships sunk or damaged, and 188 aircraft destroyed.

The attack was, and remains, the worst single military loss in U.S. history, and aroused America to mobilization to defeat the war-fighting empires of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in a little over four years.

As these events unfolded, Joe Johnston, now 92, was a 25-year-old student at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, pursuing an academic degree in theater art, which led him to a career as a college professor, and finally to Hollywood, where he made himself famous as a set designer for some of the best known television series of the period.

Joe arrived at Tech later in life than most, having spent some his teenage years during the American Great Depression "on the road," pursuing his own muses.

Joe Johnston was born Joseph Eggleston Johnston, March 30, 1916 in Mill Valley, California. He was named for an uncle, a Civil War General of the same name. The general, who had no children of his own, was one of eight sons, another of whom was Joe's father. Joe, now 92 years young, is a resident of Fairhope, Alabama, where he spent time as a youth with his father, attending high school.

Many in North Louisiana remember Joe Johnston as one who shared his creative talents with the folks in Monroe at the Little Theater. He lived in Union Parish, building a house after retirement in Rocky Branch with his wife and love of his life, Maurice. She was born Norma Maurice Smith November 30, 1919, in Union Parish, and went to school in West Monroe, Louisiana. She became a teacher at Rocky Branch and Linville. (The present sheriff of Union Parish, Bob Buckley, was one of her students.) She met Joe during her senior year at Louisiana Tech and her life was forever changed.

Joe's parents divorced when he was a teenager. His father left the Merchant Marines and moved to Fairhope, Alabama, while his mother remained in California. Joe's mother, Stella, was of Swedish origin and came from North Dakota. She lived to be 102. Joe's father was from the South, but retired in Detroit where he ran a museum that was a merchant sailing ship dry-docked on Lake Michigan.

Joe, being an adventurous teenager, quit school when he was 15 and rode the rails all over the country, doing a little work now and then for food. This was not unusual in those days because the Depression was on. He felt he wasn't doing his mother any good by staying at home, since he couldn't find a job and wasn't interested in school. He was just another mouth to feed. Around 1933, he rode the rails to Galveston where his father was, and together they rode a freighter to Fairhope.

After a while he went back to mom but before long he was back in Fairhope with dad. His father intervened at this point and put a stop to his wayfaring. He demanded that Joe finish his education. This presented a problem, since he had missed so much school and was very tall and mature for his age. Joe was miserable at the prospect of going to school with a bunch of "babies." However, in Fairhope, there was, and still is, a progressive school founded in the 1920's called the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education that placed students in class according to their age. Joe was able to graduate and receive his diploma within 1 1/2 years.

This experience was the impetus he needed to continue his education at Louisiana Tech. In 1937 Joe came to North Louisiana because of a dear aunt, Louise Johnston who for many years was matron of women's dormitories at Louisiana Tech. Joe majored in theater art at Louisiana Tech.

The beginning of World War II found Joe in the position of thousands of young men, in college preparing to begin their lives. He joined the millions answering the call to military service. With 3 1/2 years of college, he joined the Army and received officer's training at Fort Hood, Texas. Emerging from Fort Hood as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Joe Johnston and Maurice Smith were married, on November 2, 1942. She had graduated in 1940, and launched her career as a teacher in North Louisiana.

As an officer, Joe embraced his duties as an adventure that took him to battle in Europe. Joe's unit, 807 Tank Destroyer Battalion, Company B, was attached to Patton's Third Army, fighting the Germans. The 807th helped to liberate Metz, France which had been under German rule for five years. Joe said he never asked his men to do anything he would not do himself. This attitude endeared him to his men. It was, and still is, clear that the men loved him and were deeply loyal.

Joe finished Army service as a First Lieutenant, then returned to finish his degree at Tech. He earned his Masters at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City. Joe and Maurice had two children, Jill and Joseph Eggleston Johnston, Jr. to carry on the name.

In these early years, Joe Sr. taught theater set design at the University of Miami for two years, at the University of Texas, Del Mar for seven years, and then briefly at Alhambra. The need for change and adventure caused Joe to move his family to California where he launched a successful career painting sets for NBC and ABC TV. In the latter years of that phase of his life, he was the lead scenic artist for ABC, where stayed until retirement in 1979.

His son, Joe Jr., intrigued with this industry, has become a movie director, with several successful movies to his credit.

Jill tells that when brother was two and she was about eight, he drew a picture of a train. For a two year old, it was amazingly good, and Joe Sr. took it to work, proudly showing it around to everyone.

Jill could not see what the big deal was. Because she too could draw, she was convinced that everyone could. Joe Jr. won a contest at Long Beach State while in school there. He was chosen as a student in industrial design to go to San Diego and work on a rapid transit system being designed. He was chosen to design the spacecraft on the TV show The Battleship Galactica which has made a return lately. After that, George Lucas picked him to design the space craft for Star Wars. He worked on the first three Star Wars movies. He then went to direct movies for Disney, including "Honey I Shrunk the Kids", "Rockateer", "Hildalgo", and others.

For Universal he directed Jumanji, and October Sky. He worked with Steven Spielberg directing Jurassic Park III . He won an Academy Award for special effects on Indiana Jones. He is now finishing a remake of the movie Wolf Man for Universal pictures.

Daughter Jill Johnston McLemore, also sharing her Dad's artistic ability, has had a career of 20 years in the Los Angeles area as a freelance artist for ABC, working on the TV soap opera General Hospital. When she retired in 2000, Jill became art teacher at the Marietta Johnson School, completing a circle begun years ago by her father. Today she leads a busy civic and church life and cares for her parents.

After retiring from teaching school in Louisiana and Texas, Maurice wanted to come back to Rocky Branch to be near her mother. She and Joe Sr. built their own house on land Maurice inherited, and Joe found places to do what he loved to do--work on sets. He volunteered his time at the Strauss Theater in Monroe from 1980 to 1994, where he designed sets for the ballet in Monroe and for the Miss Louisiana Pageant, which was televised each year. In 1994 Joe, Maurice, and Falon, the oldest of Jill's four children, moved back to Fairhope, a tourist town on Mobile Bay.

Joe Johnston's favorite tales are from his experiences with a special group of men that he served with in WWII. In the 1980's he wrote a long poem from the heart that recapped their war experiences together. Each year when they gather for a reunion either in the US or overseas, Joe has read aloud his poem for them. Below are a few stanzas of that poem.

Flaming dogs from out of hell raced
Across a dark and stormy sky,
And the prophets said that was a sign
Of war and a million men would die.
That dreadful, fateful year
Was nineteen-thirty-nine,
To bring those fiery dogs to heel
Was a job for all mankind...
And back home, among our wives, mothers and sweethearts
There was probably some feeling of despair.
But as the evening sun went down
And they knelt in prayer
The answer came to them very clear
God is also over there. ...
In those battles, fought so long ago
Never once did you flinch or yield an inch of ground.
So when a lasting peace settles over this earth and love and life are fair
And people talk about the war
Your grand kids will tell their grand kids,
"My grandpa was there."
So for helping to preserve
The freedoms they adore
Your praise will be sung
Forever, ever more
So, when life, like the morning fog
Drifts away with the breeze,
You will be living on
In their hearts and in their memories.