Lights! Camera! War!
Follow along, if you can: The Czechoslovakians, who had been driven from Czechoslovakia by the Nazis and now had the backing of the British but were technically under the Canadians, were finally hitting back at the Germans.
And in the thick of it was a guy from Dana, Iowa.
They didn’t call it a world war for nothing.
Just shy of his 30th birthday, Lt. R. Verle Johnson was with a crack unit that reported only to the Supreme Allied Commander himself, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In a May 15, 1944, order stamped “Secret” to the military brass from Eisenhower’s office — the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, or S.H.A.E.F., not to be confused with S.H.I.E.L.D., or Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage and Law-Enforcement Division, of later Marvel Comics fame — the war’s commanding generals were instructed to give this special, hand-picked unit the freedom it needed to operate virtually anywhere on the continent of Europe in the coming days.
By the fall of 1944, the 1st Czechoslovak Independent Armored Brigade and their British-supplied Cromwell tanks were pounding Dunkirk, the infamous port city in northern France where British and Czech troops had nearly been driven into the sea like rats during the first year of World War II.
Now, with each shot of his own, Verle Johnson gave the battered British and the exiled Czechs back some pride.
The details have been lost to time, but Johnson’s weapon was most likely an Eyemo — a portable, seven-pound 35mm movie camera made by Bell & Howell.
The resulting documentary, “The Beaches of Dunkirk,” was released theatrically in the U.K.
The president of Czechoslovakia would later recognize Johnson, the film’s director of photography, as an unsung hero of Dunkirk’s seven-month siege, awarding him the Czechoslovakian Medal of Merit, First Class.
Tales of World War II never get old — just look at the sheer number of books, movies and video games about it — and even men from a small, rural county like ours were sent far and wide in numbers we can’t imagine today.
I’ve been fortunate to get to tell a number of their stories through the years — stories of honor and glory, captivity and lost limbs.
But no Greene County veteran has a story as unique — and as totally unknown — as Verle Johnson, who graduated from Dana High School at 16 in 1931 and earned a master’s degree from Iowa State in forestry well before the war even started.
The recent Netflix documentary “Five Came Back” is a good place to start, and it filled Johnson’s oldest son and namesake, Verle Johnson Jr., with a desire to learn more about his dad’s service as an Army filmmaker who had a hand in capturing moments now seen by generations.
“He didn’t talk a lot about the war,” said Johnson Jr., an Iowa State alum who has served for the past 29 years as an assistant attorney general in the Investor Protection Bureau of the New York Attorney General’s Office in New York City. “He was more likely to talk about the funny things than the horror of it.”
Tragically, the elder Johnson was killed before he could fully open up.
A longtime pilot, his four-seat Cessna 172N plunged into the water near Venice, Fla., on March 28, 1995, unable to find the runway in a dense fog.
A Cessna is etched on his tombstone in the Junction Twp. Cemetery near Grand Junction.
For years, Johnson’s two sons had no clue how their dad had even come to own a Czechoslovakian medal.
“I never knew how or why he won that,” Johnson Jr., 66, said, explaining how he’s tried to put the pieces together in recent years.
Netflix fueled his fire with “Five Came Back” in 2017, a three-part documentary series from executive producer Steven Spielberg about five legendary Hollywood directors (Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler) who each enlisted to document World War II.
The elder Johnson was a member of Oscar-winner George Stevens’ 45-man Special Motion Picture Coverage Unit.
The Stevens Irregulars, as they were called, were present at some of the most historic moments of the 20th century: D-Day, the liberation of Paris, the Battle of the Bulge, the meeting of American and Soviet forces at the Elbe River and, finally, the discovery of the Dachau concentration camp on April 29, 1945, where Americans found more than 30 rail cars crammed full of bodies left to rot.
Their footage at Dachau later helped condemn 12 Nazi war criminals to death at the Nuremberg Trials over excuses that they were “simply following orders.”
Stevens — who had gotten his start in Hollywood behind the camera for Laurel and Hardy before directing Fred and Ginger in “Swing Time” and pairing Hepburn and Tracy for the very first time in “Woman of the Year” — would go on to win Oscars for “A Place in the Sun” and “Giant,” both starring Elizabeth Taylor.
He also directed the classic 1953 Western “Shane” with Alan Ladd.
A son’s regret
“I am kicking myself for not getting more information,” Johnson Jr. confessed. “Something as innocuous as, ‘How did you get hooked up with George Stevens?’”
In hindsight, Johnson Jr. chalks it up to the ignorance of youth.
“I’ve got kids,” he said, “who don’t seem to be interested in anything.”
It’s the great mystery how a kid from Dana (pop. 153 in 1940) found his way into an Army unit made up of novelists, Pulitzer-winning playwrights and Hollywood craftsmen.
“These are questions I wished I’d asked,” Johnson Jr. said. “All I have are these snippets.”
For starters, both Stevens and the elder Johnson were members of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
“Most of George Stevens’ unit was straight from Hollywood,” Johnson Jr. said. “My father was the only one who went through and got his commission the hard way.”
Like the other Hollywood titans, Stevens seemingly waltzed in as a major and ended the war as a lieutenant colonel.
The elder Johnson did have experience before the war as a newsreel cameraman in Des Moines. Initially after earning his master’s from ISU in forestry sales/products and marketing, he found work chasing fires and covering college football games with a movie camera.
“I guess they needed people who could drive fast and point it in the right direction,” his son joked.
In London, he eventually was scooped up by Stevens to serve in the Special Motion Picture Coverage Unit, or SPECOU, under Eisenhower, who ordered his generals to stay out of their way.
The elder Johnson, whose own dad was railroad station agent in Dana and then Grand Junction, was an unlikely selection.
Before D-Day, the men in the unit were asked what they previously earned in a year.
Johnson’s answer was $1,500.
Stevens answered $20,000. A month.
The unit included the likes of writer Ivan Moffat, an upper-class English socialite and a product of the London School of Economics who later produced “Shane” and co-wrote “Giant,” and writer Irwin Shaw, who had come to prominence for writing a one-act, anti-war play titled “Bury the Dead” that was on Broadway in 1936. After the war, Shaw wrote the famous 1948 novel “The Young Lions.”
Unit cinematographer William Mellor, who had been in Hollywood since the silent days, later won Oscars for “A Place in the Sun” and “The Diary of Anne Frank” (another Stevens picture).
Johnson graduated from soundman to a director of photography.
From start to finish, Johnson and the other men in Stevens’ unit went where few would dare if given a choice, just to capture a moment on 35mm black and white film and on Stevens’ personal supply of color, 16mm Kodachrome film.
And, yeah, sometimes they missed the moment completely.
“If they missed out on a battle,” Johnson Jr. explained, “they would try to re-create it. He once said, ‘Sometimes, we used German prisoners of war.’”
“These guys were from Hollywood,” Johnson Jr. added.
The bullets, however, were always real.
In February 1945, Eisenhower put them in for a commendation for outstanding service in Normandy and elsewhere in France, writing, “Throughout this period the members of this unit displayed unusual determination and zeal, frequently in disregard of personal danger.”
They initially had come ashore on June 6, 1944, according to Johnson Jr., eight hours after the first wave of troops on Juno Beach. They were aboard the HMS Belfast, of the Royal Navy, when her guns started shelling the beach at 5:27 a.m. — some of the first shots of D-Day.
“They filmed what they saw,” Johnson Jr. said.
But, with that said, there was a war to win at home as well as in Europe.
Director John Ford, shooting for the OSS (which would evolve into the CIA), was at Omaha Beach. His footage was deemed too gruesome to be seen.
One of the few serious stories the elder Johnson volunteered during his lifetime was of coming across a downed pilot trapped in the wreckage of his burning plane who asked to be shot.
“My father just couldn’t do it,” Johnson Jr. said.
After the war, as a civilian, Johnson would continue to write and direct films for the government until his retirement.
“He was doing what he knew,” his son said.
Some were outright propaganda, including films that factored into President Harry Truman’s “Campaign of Truth” in the early days of the Cold War.
Working with the U.S. Foreign Service in Karachi, Pakistan (where Johnson Jr. was born), and Cairo, Egypt, Johnson did his part in the ’50s to counter the influence of “Red lies.”
Unable to remain in the Foreign Service because he failed the foreign language requirement, Johnson worked at the Army Pictorial Center in New York.
Located in Queens until 1970, the Army Pictorial Center was located in the original home of Paramount Pictures. The Marx Brothers had filmed “The Cocoanuts” there in 1929 before the movie industry headed West.
By then a freelance writer and director — albeit with a top-secret crypto clearance — Johnson made training films for the Army, making six-week trips to Vietnam in 1964, 1966 and 1969, his son remembered, to make films on a variety of topics, including how to shoot a mortar.
One of his independent productions can be seen on YouTube to this day. A 20-minute 1965 film titled “The Constitution, Guardian of Liberty,” it was presumably seen by untold scores of social studies students.
Remember the excitement of seeing the 16mm projector set up in class?
“Freedom, liberty,” the narrator explains, “these are magic words.”
“My brother and I are featured in it,” Johnson Jr. said, “throwing a baseball.”
At the time of his death in 1995, Johnson was seeking a credit for his work on “Le Retour” (French for “The Return”), a 33-minute 1945 film about the return to France of prisoners of war and displaced persons.
To this day, his son can’t figure out why he seemed determined at that stage in his life — he was 80 — to get credit. His father’s memory at that time was beginning to slip, Johnson Jr. said, which only deepens the mystery.
The U.S. Army Signal Corps and the Office of War Information produced the film, but commissioned celebrated French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson to direct.
Bresson had made films in France before World War II with iconic director Jean Renoir.
Renoir’s nephew, French cinematographer Claude Renoir, also gets a credit on the film. (Claude Renoir would later serve as director of photography on “Barbarella,” Jane Fonda’s psychedelic cult-classic, in 1968.)
Johnson insisted he was director of photography on “Le Retour.”
The truth is likely never to be known, but in 2010, the film was shown at the Museum of Modern Art.