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South Jordan Journal

Woody Johnsen: an unsung hero of World War II

Nov 07, 2018 12:35PM ● By Jana Klopsch

By Sarah Payne | [email protected]

In the 1940s, World War II rocked the course of human existence. We hear war stories in history class. We all know about such events as the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the invasion at Normandy. But it’s one thing to read a book or hear a history lecture, and it’s another to hear such stories from the mouth of someone who was there. 

Woodrow “Woody” Johnsen participated in a military group not often recognized for its contribution to the war. The Merchant Marines is a group of civilians who desire to serve their country however they can. These patriotic men and women are tasked with carrying troops, equipment, and supplies to the U.S. military fighting our battles. Their contribution is not less, but they receive startlingly little recognition for their good work. 

Johnsen, a resident of Sagewood at Daybreak, was born in Salt Lake in 1926. He was the youngest of five brothers, all of whom served in the Armed Forces. As the youngest, he was unable to qualify for service in the Navy. Thus, Woody turned to the Merchant Marines, where he served until the end of World War II. 

“Watching my brothers all go off to fight had an impact on me,” said Johnsen. “I wanted the opportunity to serve my country as well and jumped at the chance when the Merchant Marines accepted me. It was an interesting time in my life to be sure, as I saw parts of the world that I could never have imagined. But I also witnessed war and the scars it left on the men we helped transport. We traveled all through the Pacific and even as far as Australia to pick up Allied troops and take them to various destinations. Such experiences leave a mark on a man, and even as a teenager I knew I was part of something special. Everything was new and exciting to me, but I had to remember this was more than just a job.” 

Johnsen received basic training in California, then set off in 1943 with the Merchant Marines aboard a Liberty ship, the “John Shaphroth,” bound for New Guinea, loaded with munitions and equipment. They then sailed for Brisbane, Australia, where they picked up more troops and supplies for battle. 

After returning to San Francisco in 1944, Johnsen was stationed aboard a Victory ship called the S.S. “American Victory”. The ship then made its way to China, where the “American Victory became the first American ship to dock in Shanghai since 1938.
Johnsen was in Manila, Philippines, when the war ended. After returning to the United States, he enlisted in the U.S. Army where he served for three years. Following his service, he returned to Utah and married Sheryl Daun Baer, a school teacher, with whom he had 57 years of marriage. They had two children, Michael and Sue. Woody is a talented artist and has painted many wonderful paintings. 

“I was fortunate and returned home along with all four of my brothers,” said Johnsen. “My family was incredibly lucky in a way that many others were not, and that’s something we never took for granted. The transition back to civilian life was not easy for me. As a result, I enlisted in the Army a year later. I enlisted for three years, and my time was almost up when the Korean conflict began. During this time, I was stationed in Germany because there was growing unrest 

in the region. It is interesting to reflect on this time and how the events of World War II still have an impact on the world even today.”

The Merchant Marines ran many risks, among them was avoiding German U-boats, in order to keep U.S. troops around the world supplied with everything they needed. One casualty of war is the food supply, and without Merchant Marines like Woody Johnsen, the war may not have been won.