Gertrude Johnson, 97, of Harrison Township,  poses with a wartime portrait of herself. She’s lived  in Harrison Township since 1984.

Gertrude Johnson, 97, of Harrison Township, poses with a wartime portrait of herself. She’s lived in Harrison Township since 1984.

Photo by Alex Szwarc


Local World War II veteran proud of her service

By: Alex Szwarc | Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal | Published October 31, 2019

 Gertrude Johnson served in the Army during World War II as an automotive machinist helper at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey from 1944-1946.

Gertrude Johnson served in the Army during World War II as an automotive machinist helper at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey from 1944-1946.

Photo provided by Gertrude Johnson

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HARRISON TOWNSHIP — Gertrude Johnson is one of a select few.

Not only is she one of around only 400,000 World War II veterans still living, she’s a member of an even smaller group — living female World War II veterans.

The 97-year-old Harrison Township woman served in the Army as an automotive machinist helper at Camp Kilmer, in New Jersey, from 1944 to 1946.

Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, Johnson graduated from high school in 1939.

Prior to enlisting in May 1944, she worked at a machine shop for three months in 1943. From 1942 to 1944, she served as a machinist apprentice in Camden, New Jersey.

“I got a job at a heating and cooling place where women worked the day shift and men worked the night shift,” she said. “Women got laid off, and we lived close enough to the New York Shipbuilding Co.to walk to (it).”

At its peak in World War II, the New York Shipbuilding Co. was the largest independently owned shipyard in the world.

In high school, Johnson was told she could go to a vocational school and be a riveter, a welder, a machinist or a toolmaker.

Her father was a toolmaker at the time, and told her she couldn’t do it.

“I signed up the next day and became a lathe operator,” she said. “I became a toolmaker and worked there for two years. My two older brothers were in the service, and I felt I was missing something.”

When she enlisted, something she said was very rare for a woman to do, Johnson went to Oglethorpe, Georgia, for basic training. During World War II, some 350,000 women served in the U.S. armed forces, both at home and abroad.

After taking several tests, a Women’s Army Corps, or WAC, captain said that Johnson’s mechanical aptitude test was higher than anybody at the post, including the men.

Having no WAC classification number, Johnson was classified as a male on the Table of Organization. She was placed in the motor maintenance division, third echelon, as an automotive machinist helper.  

“The captain didn’t want me because there were no women there,” she said.  

As part of a transportation corps, Johnson repaired trucks and cars.

Her discharge papers indicate that she supervised three enlisted people and gave on-the-job training. She also constructed and repaired metal parts, tools and machinery in connection with the operation of Army vehicles.

From what she remembers, Johnson was the only female machinist helper at the camp. She said around 80 other women were based at Camp Kilmer toward the end of World War II.

As one of the only women, she recalls being treated fairly.

“I cannot complain,” she said. “Anytime that I worked with all men, I never had a problem. One might not have liked me because they asked me to help train them, but I was never treated any differently.”

It wasn’t until she returned to civilian life and wanted a toolmaking job that she was told she wasn’t needed.   

Looking back all this time later, 78 years after the United States became involved in World War II, Johnson said her time in the military was the best two years of her life.

“I just went to work every day and I really enjoyed the time,” she said.

Upon discharge in February 1946 as a technician fourth grade, Johnson moved to Michigan, where she married Duane. He died in 1983, and she moved to Harrison Township in 1984.

For her military service, Johnson earned the American Service Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and the Good Conduct Medal.

“I’m proud I was in the service, and glad we won the war,” she said. “I’m mostly proud of what I did, being the only woman that was doing that at the time.”

She later worked for Federal’s Department Store, Mechanical Handling Systems, Divco Truck in Warren for 10 years and Bundy Tubing in Warren for 19 years, retiring in 1988.

Johnson had one daughter who died at 22, a stepdaughter, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She will soon be a great-great-grandmother. 

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