Veteran Remembers Dancing At The Hollywood Canteen

COVER STORY

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World War II veteran Howard Johnson doesn't remember the song the night he heard the Harry James Orchestra play at the famous Hollywood Canteen.

But his memory of the redhead he held in his arms and twirled once around the dance floor is crystal clear. She was the legendary Rita Hayworth.

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Veteran World War II cook Howard Johnson says the Navy had him cook enough for a lifetime. Arlene (his girlfriend) is a great cook, he said. "When I'm alone, I open a can of soup."

"They (the servicemen) pretty near beat me to a pulp, tapping on my shoulder to cut in, before I got her once around the floor," Johnson said of the beautiful screen goddess of "Gilda" and "Cover Girl" fame.

"It was just once around. I couldn't have handled it twice," he said.

Johnson's unforgettable experience happened in 1942 not long after he joined the 16-member crew of the Gloria Dalton, a sailing ship that performed observation duties off the California coast. He served as the ship's cook.

The grin never leaves Johnson's face as he tells about that night.

"I thought my friend and shipmate Billy O'Toole was a bull artist," Johnson said.

O'Toole claimed he had grown up in Hollywood and had gone to school with all these movie actresses or had met the actresses through his father who he claimed was a diplomat.

"I thought, yeah, you bet," Johnson said. "Come to find out, what O'Toole said was absolutely true."

O'Toole wanted to dance with Harry James' wife Betty Grable that night. Grable declined because she was too far along in her pregnancy.

Actress Bette Davis started the Hollywood Canteen as a place servicemen could go to unwind and perhaps dance with a Hollywood starlet.

"The movie stars felt sorry for us," Johnson said.

The Canteen was always crowded.

"They would let the men stay for two hours then usher them out so another group could go in," he said.

Johnson's brother was already a chief in the Navy when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Johnson left his small Iowa town for his folks' home in San Diego with plans to join up.

"It was the right thing to do," Johnson said.

The Navy sent him to cook and bakers school for three months, although Johnson said he knew how to cook because his mother had taught him.

As a cook, second class, his first assignment was to the Gloria Dalton.

When the Gloria Dalton was laid up for extensive repairs he was reassigned to a tanker.

Johnson does not recall the name of the vessel, perhaps it is because as the only cook for the crew complement of 100, he rarely saw the ship from shore.

He left his single small room with its bunk and footlocker and walked down the companionway to the galley by 4:30 each morning.

It was usually 10 p.m. by the time he could come close to sleeping.

Sunday was the only slow day. The men ate cold cuts for two of their three meals so less cooking was required.

The tanker supplied gasoline to different air strips in the South Pacific -- Guam, Tarawa and Guadalcanal to name a few.

The first time the alarm sounded for general quarters was an early afternoon. Johnson left the galley for his assigned post at the conveyor belt loading ammunition to the five-inch guns on deck.

Dinner time came and went. Finally, the supply officer found Johnson and demanded, "Where is dinner?"

"I told him when you can explain to me how I can be in two places at once, I'll make dinner," Johnson said.

The officer told him to wait, then came back a few minutes later with a new order for the tanker's only cook: stay in the galley whenever general quarters is called.

Eventually two "strykers" or want-to-be-cooks were assigned to Johnson. Mostly they cleaned pots and dishes until they learned to pay attention to the chef.

Around the holidays Johnson always cooked something special.

"One time I'll never forget I was going to bake 18 butterscotch pies," he said. "I told the stryker I had to go down to stores one deck below and I would be back in 10 minutes."

The butterscotch filling was cooking in a steam kettle and all the stryker needed to do was stir it.

The stryker apparently thought the mixture was too thin so he took it upon himself to add four boxes of corn starch.

Pouring the hot butterscotch into the pie shells Johnson did not notice the consistency was wrong.

"But it cooled to rubber," Johnson said.

The stryker denied doing anything wrong, but Johnson found the empty corn starch boxes in the trash.

"Pull a stunt like that again and they'll have to pipe sunlight to you in the brig," Johnson threatened.

They threw the 18 pies overboard and started over.

"I don't think even the fish could have eaten those pies," Johnson said.

Each time Johnson asked for help in the galley his superiors told him he was doing fine.

"The first class cook got appendicitis the day before we sailed," Johnson said. "We were at the dispersing center, I don't know why they didn't assign someone else then."

Navy men eat the best of any service branch according to Johnson.

"These guys liked their steaks," he said.

They liked his chili, too.

Cumin was listed as one of the main spices in the Navy cookbook's recipe for chili.

It is a potent spice so Johnson used it sparingly.

Johnson's career ended honorably, but on a down note.

On one of the rare occasions his schedule allowed him time ashore, he contracted jungle rot. The infection claimed his hands and arms up to his elbows. He had to leave the galley in the hands of the two strykers.

The men of the tanker collected a purse for me when I was sent to a hospital ship, Johnson said.

"They liked me because whenever they had a (against regulations) party I supplied ice, lemons for the drinks and glasses," he said. "Of course if the officers had ever found out --" his voice trails into a laugh.

Johnson got over the jungle rot, but not before the hospital ship dropped him on an island and he had to find his own ride to Pearl Harbor in four small Navy planes.

"I had enough cooking in those three-and-a-half years to last me a lifetime," Johnson said. "I don't owe Uncle Sam anything; he owes me! I never cook."

Now when he is hungry he opens a can of soup.

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