J.K. Johnson lives with his wife Irene in a modest bungalow house on Stones Bay Drive overlooking the scenic Stuart Lake in Fort St. James.
At 89 years old Johnson has lived in Fort St. James for 67 years making him, as he put it, the oldest man in town. It’s his claim to fame, he says.
Johnson is also one of the last living veterans of WWII in the province, if not the country.
Born in 1925 in Calgary, Johnson enlisted in the Canadian military in September of 1943, towards the end of the conflict, after returning to Alberta from California where he had been living and studying aircraft mechanics.
“I guess I shouldn’t have [joined] really, because I had previously been taking an aircraft mechanics course down in California and I had a job in Minneapolis, Minn.”
Alas, Johnson’s patriotism got the better of him in the end as he made his way back up to Canada to enlist.
“It was take the job in Minneapolis, Minn. or go home and join the armed forces.”
Enlisting in the airforce, Johnson originally tried to join the navy.
“I went into the navy recruiting office and they weren’t recruiting at that time,” Johnson said. “Right next door was the airforce, I went in and joined.”
Johnson initially trained as a radio operator for an aircraft gunnery before training as a navigator and finally, upon discharge in September of 1945, a Flight Officer.
During his military career, Johnson was stationed throughout western Canada in cities such as Edmonton, Saskatoon and Calgary, he was never deployed overseas.
Johnson remembers his service years with fondness, urging young men and women continue to enlist, saying,
“I enjoyed every minute that I was there. I would strongly suggest that any young man [or woman] who is more or less at loose ends should join the services. The navy, army, airforce, whatever. It’s a great experience.”
Johnson served until the end of war when he was discharged.
After the war he studied in Calgary for a few years before deciding that he was too much of an outdoorsmen to be stuck behind a desk. It was then that he made the trip to Fort St. James in 1947.
Married on his birthday to his wife Irene, in 1953, Johnson and Irene had five children: Kevin, Brett, Royce, Janine and Marilyn that they raised in Fort St. James.
Ever the patriot, Johnson set about organizing and building the town’s first Legion building.
“I was involved with the Legion right from the beginning,” Johnson says.
In an account he wrote down, Johnson details the stages of the buildings creation including a trip by bush plane to Germanson Landing to observe log building methods in 1969 and the Legions first celebration in 1970.
“Most of the labour was volunteered for which we thank Walt Taylor, Dutch Forshner, Olv Luthehouse, Jerry Playfair, Bob Vandlander, Bill Wilkes, Art Strong, Jim Perrin, Jack Spry, Ed Chrysler, Tom Browne, Jack Day, George Warning, Earl Hemminsgon, Art Besudreault, Art McInnis, Ralph Iilerbrun…”
The list goes on and on ending finally in “There are others who’s names were not recorded but their assistance was appreciated.”
John played an intrical role in the Legions operations in the years following its building, but in his old age he had taken a step back from the veterans organization.
“My conscience bothers me a little bit, because at one time I was very involved in the legion and now I’m taking a back seat.”
He says the Fort St. James Legion has gradually begun to go downhill, attributing the decline to low membership, financial woes and “a sign of the times.”
Johnson is still very involved in the military going-ons in Canada today, weighing in on the current military mission in Iraq.
“…The problem is now what we’re fighting is not the type of war we were all used to. It’s easy to point a gun at a man or an airplane or boat and shoot it, or get shot, but the type of war we’re fighting now, which includes terrorism, are some of the most heinous crimes man can commit; to pick on innocent people to prove a point, that’s the part that really bothers me.”
Johnson recounted his first experiences in Fort St. James and a record of the towns inhabits in the late 1940’s in a short memoir he wrote. That work, along with his record of residents is available on our website at www.caledoniacourier.com