CLARENCE ELMER JOHNSON
Branch: U. S. Navy
Rank: Water Tender Third Class
Status: Killed in action/Lost at sea
Date of Service: WWII
Home Town: Moose Creek Township
Arnold and Clarence Johnson
Clarence Elmer Johnson was born November 2, 1920 to Peter Melvin and Anna Mary Hoff Johnson in Bagley, Minnesota. Both Peter and Anna, who married in 1920, were American-born children of Norwegian immigrants. Anna was born and raised south of Shevlin in Moose Creek Township. Peter was a WWI veteran who had been a private in Battery A, 332nd Field Artillery of the U.S. Army. The Johnsons had four living children: Clarence (1920), Arnold (1921) Lloyd (1927), and Joyce Alice (1928). Tragically, Anna Mary died due to premature childbirth along with her infant daughter Anna in July of 1930. “Mrs. Johnson was a woman of quiet and Christian character and loved by everyone who knew her,” said her obituary.
Peter was left to raise the children on his own, the eldest of whom (Clarence) was nine. He farmed in Shevlin Township then later moved to Moose Creek Township and worked for the WPA.
Clarence was working for the National Youth Administration when he registered for the draft on February 16, 1942. He listed his weight as 135, his height as 5’4” with hazel eyes and blonde hair. In November of that year he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in Fargo, North Dakota. Immediately after boot camp he was sent to the USS Spence, a Fletcher class destroyer which had just been launched in October, 1942. The Spence had a speed of 38 knots and an armament of five 5” guns in single mounts with 10 21” torpedoes in two centerline mounts. The Spence could perform anti-submarine warfare, anti-aircraft warfare and could cover the vast distances required by fleet actions in the Pacific.
Clarence was already aboard the Spence on her “shakedown” cruise (performance test) out of Guantanamo Bay in February of 1943. In July of that year she was sent to Pearl Harbor to serve in the Pacific against the Japanese.
Clarence’s rating was F3c (Fireman third class) when he first boarded the Spence. He was progressively promoted until he reached WT3c (Water Tender third class) on January 1 of 1944. He was assigned to firing and tending boilers and operating, adjusting and repairing pumps. Once he reached WT3c he was in charge of the fireroom when under way and responsible for maintaining, repairing and overhauling the boiler system.
The Spence was attached to Destroyer Division 46 of Destroyer Squadron 23. The squadron sailed in September of ’43 for Tulagi, Solomon Islands where it helped to destroy 20 Japanese barges off Vella Lavella.
That was only the beginning for the Spence. It saw plenty of action in the Solomons and the Caroline Islands. The ship participated in the “Marianas Turkey Shoot” during the Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 19th and 20th, 1944. It bombed land targets, sunk ships and shot down planes.
It was not the enemy that caused the Spence’s downfall, however. On December 17, 1944, the Spence prepared to refuel and pumped out all the salt water ballast from her tanks, but rough seas caused the fueling operation to be cancelled. The next day, the weather worsened and the storm turned into a major typhoon named Typhoon Cobra. As the ship wallowed, its electrical equipment got wet from the great quantities of sea water taken on board. After a 72-degree roll to port, all of the lights went out and the pumps stopped. The rudder jammed, and, after a deep roll to port about 11:00 a.m., the Spence capsized and sank. Only 24 of her 315-man crew survived, and WT3c Clarence Elmer Johnson was not among them. His body was never recovered.
Clarence is memorialized in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial for those lost at sea. Clarence’s family also installed a memorial headstone in his memory in Landstad Cemetery in Shevlin. He was 24 years old.
The Spence received eight battle stars for World War II service.