By Jeffrey S. Williams
It has now been 65 years since former Green Bay Packers guard/linebacker, Howard W. "Smiley" Johnson was killed in action while serving as a first lieutenant with the 23rd Marines at Iwo Jima. Of the 32 Packers who served in the military during World War II, he was the team's only casualty.
1st Lt. Johnson died late in the afternoon on Feb. 19, 1945, the day of the Iwo Jima invasion, from wounds sustained when a Japanese shell landed near him as he returned to his command post. Four enlisted Marines were wounded in the explosion, and it is said that Johnson refused medical attention until the enlisted Marines were treated first.
Smiley Johnson will not rank among more notable Packers from that era, guys like Cecil Isbell, Don Hutson, Arnie Herber or Tony Canadeo, since he only played in 22 games during the 1940 and 1941 seasons, but his athleticism, grit and determination could have extended his career greatly had the war not interfered.
Born and raised in Tennessee, he was known for outstanding play in basketball, baseball, boxing and football by the time he graduated from high school in Clarksville, Tenn. He was 5-foot-10 and weighed 160 pounds when he began his collegiate career as a guard for the University of Georgia in 1937, head coach Harry Mehre's final season. He also played for the Bulldogs in 1938, Joel Hunt's only season as head coach; and for Wallace Butts in 1939, the first year in a stellar coaching career that spanned nearly a quarter decade.
Howard W. "Smiley" Johnson
Johnson wasn't your stereotypical football player. He had a deep southern drawl and didn't drink, smoke, chew or swear. He was a very polite gentleman who read his Bible every night. In a sense, he could be considered the first "Minister of Defense," the title that a half century later was bestowed upon another Packer, defensive end Reggie White.
In August 1940, Johnson arrived in Green Bay as a 200-pound undrafted free agent who played guard and linebacker, reuniting with his former Bulldog teammate, Pete Tinsley. The Packers, under head coach Earl "Curly" Lambeau, were the three-time defending NFL champions.
George Strickler, a friend of Johnson's, recounted a story in a 1951 issue of the Chicago Sunday Tribune, about how excited Smiley was when finally played in an exhibition game against the College All-Stars.
"In the fourth quarter, Coach Curly Lambeau sent him in – and he stay in until the final minute of play," Strickler wrote. "Rushing off the field, grimy, sweaty and liberally sprinkled with welts, he grabbed me along the side lines and cried: ‘Ah made it, Gawg, Ah made it!' Smiley wouldn't like me to tell it, but there were tears welling out of his eyes and down over the welts. Smiley Johnson was a happy guy. Once again he had not failed."
Smiley's first regular season game, a 27-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at Green Bay's City Stadium on Sept. 15, 1940, was also the 250th regular season game in the team's history dating back to 1919.
Two months later, he was a part of NFL history when Lambeau flew the team from Chicago to New York City on two airplanes for a Nov. 17 matchup against the Giants. It was the first time an NFL team flew to their destination instead of taking a bus or train. However, two losses to the Chicago Bears kept the 1940 Packers squad from repeating at NFL Champions.
Johnson returned to Georgia after the season and married his college girlfriend, Marie Jackson, in a small ceremony in Anderson, S.C., on Dec. 29, 1940. He served as Physical Director for the National Youth Administration at College Park, Ga., before heading back to Green Bay for his second season.
The 1941 season again showed promise of another NFL Championship for the Packers. They sported a 10-1 record including an eight-game winning streak to conclude the regular season. A come from behind victory at Washington kept them in the hunt for the NFL title. Their only loss came to the Chicago Bears in the season's third week.
Lambeau took his team to Chicago the following week to watch the Bears take on the Chicago Cardinals. With the Bears 34-24 victory, they also finished with a 10-1 record, forcing the first divisional playoff in NFL history – a rematch against the Packers that was set for Dec. 14 at Wrigley Field. But the news of the day was not the impending NFL history but America's entry into World War II. The public address announcer informed all servicemen in attendance to report to their units, and then announced that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The Bears won the following week's playoff, 33-17.
Defensive stats were not kept by the league in the early 1940s, so it is unknown how many tackles, sacks and fumble recoveries Johnson had, though he did record the only interception of his career in the 1941 season, which he returned for 10 yards. Following his short-lived Packers career, Smiley enlisted into the United States Marine Corps and attended basic training in San Diego the next month before being assigned to Marine Barracks, Naval Ammunition Depot, Oahu, Hawaii. Though he never requested it, he was offered a commission while in Hawaii, and returned to Quantico, Virginia for his commissioning program. In the summer of 1943, 2nd Lt. Howard W. Johnson was assigned to Company I, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines of the newly formed 4th Marine Division. He departed for Camp Pendleton, Calif., by train on July 7.
In a 1983 Green Bay Press-Gazette story, Dick Waldo, a fellow Marine who traveled with him on the train, recalled an incident that occurred in Albuquerque, N.M.
"I first met him on a troop train and I was surprised, because he was a college man and all. I figured he'd be an officer's candidate. He was always working out on this train," Waldo recalled. "I remember we stopped in Albuquerque, and there were a couple of other pro-athletes on the train and he challenged them to a wind sprint, right there in the depot. It was the darndest thing you ever saw, to see these two guys running right through the train station. And he won."
In December 1943, Marie gave birth to their daughter, Jenny Lynne. Late on the night of Jan. 12, 1944, he had a surprise reunion with his wife and young daughter before slipping back to San Diego to board the U.S.S. Calvert, where he along with the rest of the division departed just after daybreak. It would be their last reunion.
As part of "Operation Flintlock," the 4th Marine Division secured the islands of Roi and Namur in the Kwajalein Atoll on Feb. 1-2, 1944, becoming the first division to go directly into combat from the United States. It was their first combat action. The division returned to Maui, Hawaii, for training and resupply later in the month. While in Maui, Johnson was the star player on the division's football team, the Maui Marines. Coached by Lt. Col. Leroy "Pat" Hanley, the former Boston University coach, the Maui Marines decimated their opponents – Aiea Barracks, Kaneohe Klippers, Transcient Center, Ford Island, Barber's Point and the Seebees – going undefeated in all six games and scoring a combined total of 164 points to their opponent's six. The Kaneohe Klippers were the only team to score.
The Saipan invasion began on June 15, 1944, and the Marines of Johnson's battalion were chosen to take the lead in the assault. They landed on Blue Beach 1 just before 9 a.m., passed through the town of Charan-Kanoa and drove inland towards Mount Fina Susu. After they dug in for the night, the battalion was met with point-blank fire by the Japanese defenders. During the the next 24 grueling days, the division made their way across the island then swept over the Kagman Peninsula, cleaned out the last resistance from a failed banzai attack, and help secure the airfield that a year later would launch the Enola Gay on its famous bombing mission over Hiroshima.
During the Saipan battle, 2nd Lt. Johnson earned the Silver Star. His citation reads, in part, "When the enemy counterattacked the flank position held by his platoon, First Lieutenant Johnson daringly directed the defense, exposing himself to heavy fire and helping annihilate in hand-to-hand conflict the Japanese who penetrated the position." He was promoted to first lieutenant on July 3, prior to the division's assault on the island of Tinian, scheduled for July 12. The award citation was written after his promotion. It was at Tinian where the division proved their mettle by withstanding repeated enemy counterattacks.
At last, it was time for the 4th Marine Division to return to Maui for more resupply and training in what would be their toughest mission yet, Iwo Jima.
Early on the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, the lieutenant, like a vast majority of the other Marines, ate a breakfast of steak and eggs aboard his troop transport. At daybreak, instead of seeing the white beaches and palm trees like at Roi-Namur, or the luscious sugar cane fields of Saipan and Tinian, he and his fellow Marines were confronted with a black and gray island with an ominously large volcano at its southern tip.
The first and second battalions of the 23rd Marines landed at 9 a.m. on Yellow Beaches 1 and 2, and pushed their way slowly towards the edge of Motoyama Airfield No. 1. First Lieutenant Johnson's battalion was held in reserve until 4:55 p.m., when they went ashore as the command "dig in for the night," was given. Lieutenant Johnson supervised his platoon's defenses as they dug in and returned to the command post, where he was killed. Johnson was only 28 years old.
The 4th Marine Division suffered 9,098 casualties during the six-week Iwo Jima operation, 1,462 were killed in action and 344 died of wounds. Along with the others, 1st Lt. Howard W. "Smiley" Johnson was buried in the division's cemetery, dedicated on March 15. He received a second award of the Silver Star, which consisted of a gold star "cluster."
Along with other Iwo Jima Marines, his remains were removed from the division's cemetery in 1949, and re-interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (better known as the "Punchbowl") near Honolulu. He was buried on Feb. 2, 1949 in plot C-359. Johnson has not been forgotten. When the division returned to Maui, they named the new baseball and football field, "Smiley Johnson Field," in his honor. In 1968, George Crumbley, executive director of the Peach Bowl, announced that the "Smiley Johnson Award" would go to the game's most valuable defensive player. In 2005, the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame erected a display case at its exhibit entrance in Johnson's honor.
Throughout his life, whether it was football, family, work or the Marine Corps, Smiley Johnson lived out his faith. When Reggie White, the great Hall of Fame defensive end and ordained minister entered the gates of heaven on Dec. 26, 2004, he was probably greeted by a fellow Tennessee-born Packer with a thick southern drawl saying, "Yuh made it, Gawg, yuh made it!"
Note: A life-long Packers fan, award winning photojournalist and military historian, Williams is a Technical Sergeant in the Air Force Reserve's 934th Airlift Wing public affairs office in Minneapolis. He is currently writing Smiley Johnson's biography. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.