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When Johnny Didn't Come Marching Home
The Life and Death of John Morris Chase
By Ken Kingsley
I was not quite two years old on June 6, 1944, when U.S. Navy Signalman 3rd Class John M. Chase landed on Omaha Beach. He was 20 years old, and a long way from his Kansas home and family. None of us will ever know what was going through his mind as the landing craft ramp dropped and the horrible carnage lay in his path. I assume he was fighting the fear of dying, or thinking about what it would take to stay alive once he left the landing craft. He didn't have much time to think about anything.
At the moment his boots hit the French beach, shrapnel from a German artillery shell hit him low in the stomach. The officer leaving the landing craft with him wrote to my grandmother, indicating that John had died almost instantly and didn't suffer. I hope that was true.
John Morris Chase—uncle Johnny to me—was born November 14, 1923. I know about him only the few things I learned from my mother (his older sister, now deceased), from my aunt (his younger sister), and from reading letters he wrote to my parents during his brief time in the Navy.
Even with this limited knowledge of my uncle, I've always felt very close to him. When we played "war" or "cowboys" as kids, I was always Johnny. I'm not sure why I wanted to be him, I only know it was a strong feeling. I remember asking my mother about him, but her memory was clouded by the years and perhaps by attempts to protect herself from the pain those memories brought.
Johnny was the 5th of 7 children of Dave and Lurah Chase. He was born on the farm near Talmage, KS. He went to grade school in Farmington, and completed his first year of high school at Chapman. Dave was a tenant farmer who frequently moved to "greener pastures" (excuse the pun) in the north central Kansas farmlands near Abilene. Dave was raised on a farm on the outskirts of Abilene and was a schoolmate of Dwight Eisenhower. In later years, when Eisenhower was in Abilene to formally announce his candidacy for president, my grandfather made a point of it to avoid going into town to see the man "who sent his son to France to die" eight years earlier. Curiosity got the best of him, however, and he drove into town in his dirty overalls and beat-up straw hat to "buy a cigar" at the hotel where Ike was staying. Surprisingly, Ike recognized his boyhood friend in the crowd, walked over to him, and grabbed his arm to shake his hand. Media photographers got the photo and it was used on the front page of newspapers all over the country. As you might expect, Dave had a complete change of heart after that, especially when he started getting letters from all over the world from folks who wanted to know more about his relationship with Ike. I was in Abilene to see Ike throw his hat in the ring. It was a rainy day and I remember being offered a “buffalo burger.” It was actually pretty good.
Johnny grew up like most farm boys whose parents were tenant or sharecroppers. Long days at school were made longer with homework and myriad of chores around the farm. Those early years were made even more difficult by the "dust bowl" days and the great depression. Johnny found time in his teens to get into scouting, earning several merit badges over the years. While he wasn’t unhappy with his situation on the farm, he did dream of living in a city where there was more for a young man to do and a non-farm career to be had.
In the mid-thirties, Dave packed up his family and moved to southern California for the new "greener pastures." Johnny and his sister Shirley went to school in California. Failing at several jobs, Dave moved the family back to Kansas. Johnny, however, was reluctant to return and was allowed to stay with his aunt in Whittier, California. He went to Whittier High School for three years, graduating in 1942. After graduation, he worked in a Whittier grocery store (the Alpha Beta Market) for several months. He moved back to Kansas to be with his family for the fall and winter before joining the Navy.
In early March of 1943, John joined the Navy and was sent to the US Naval Training Station, Camp Scott, near Farragut, Idaho, for basic training. His Service Number was 865-69-50. He was assigned to Company 150-43. After graduating from basic in late May (and some leave to Kansas to visit with family and girlfriend Georgia Belle Saunders) he left Idaho, had a couple nights liberty in Portland, Oregon, and arrived in Los Angeles June 10 to attend Signal School at the Naval Training Station there. He was in Division 6, Section 1, Class 3-43. While becoming a signalman was not one of his choices, he seemed to excel at it, completing his training (getting his “crow”) in October. While in LA he married Georgia in early July. He spent five or six weeks in San Francisco at the Armed Guard Center (Pacific), the last couple weeks aboard a non-military ship, the SS Ventura, an oil tanker. [The U.S. Navy Armed Guard was a service branch of the United States Navy that was responsible for defending U.S. and Allied merchant ships from attack by enemy aircraft, submarines and surface ships during World War II. The men of the Armed Guard served as gunners, signal men and radio operators on cargo ships, tankers, troop ships and other merchant vessels.] John was not able to tell his family anything about his activity there, saying it was “highly classified.” His ship made a couple of oil deliveries and then sailed to Norfolk, Virginia (via the Panama Canal), arriving in Norfolk on November 28. He was assigned to the Amphibious Training Base at Camp Bradford N.O.B for training with the Army. He assumed he would next be sent to Florida for additional training with a Naval Beach Battalion. He spent Christmas with a friend’s relatives in North Carolina, and arrived in New York City (Lido Beach, Long Island) on December 28 for embarkation to England. He spent several days on leave in New York City.
He sailed from New York on January 5 or 7, 1944 on the U.S.S. Mauritania (converted passenger liner), and arrived in Liverpool, England January17 or 18. His unit of assignment on arrival in England was AAB (Assault Amphibian Battalion) 415. In February his unit was called JASCO (Joint Assault Signal company) 414. A letter in late March indicated he had been assigned to the 6th Naval Beach Battalion. He was a Signalman 3rd Class assigned to Company B, Platoon B-6. John trained with the 6th Beach Battalion for just over two months. It’s likely he replaced SM3 Robert C. Small in the unit as the third signalman in the platoon prior to the time they boarded the Henrico (APA 45) May 26 in Portland Harbor/Weymouth for the crossing to Normandy early morning on June 5 or 6. Records show he was to land at H+ 210 minutes with Lt. (jg) Turner (asst. beachmaster), Lt. (jg) Ludwig (communications), and Lt. (jg) Collier (MD). However, Lt (jg) Virgil Weathers (beachmaster for platoon B-4) wrote to John’s mother that he was beside John when they exited the landing craft and John was hit in the lower abdomen by shrapnel, killing him almost instantly. There is a penciled line above John’s name on the landing schedule, which might indicate that he and eight others on the list were moved to Lt. Weather’s landing craft at the last minute. I doubt Weathers even knew who John was, since he was from a different platoon and scheduled to be on a different landing craft.
John was buried June 8, two days after his death, in the temporary cemetery, just southwest of the Normandy American Cemetery, almost directly above where he died, and less than a mile from Colleville-sur-Mer and Saint Laurent-sur-Mer. His body was exhumed in winter, 1946-47(?), and reburied in the Abilene, Kansas, cemetery, near his mother, father, and four brothers, and a few miles from where Eisenhower is interred.