This week will be the anniversary of one of the most pivotal moments in our nation’s history. Seventy-three years ago, United States Marines landed on the beaches of Guadalcanal. This marked the first ground action against the Japanese Empire following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Among those first Marines who stepped onto the beaches was PFC John J. Smolka. He would play a significant role in the campaign that ensued. My father met “Johnny” after the war and they became close friends. He would become my friend as well.
I could see his big grin through the open window of his beige Ford Torino as he turned into our driveway. I would interrupt my session of playing in the yard to rush over and say hello. He would get out of his car and say, “Hello Chipper!”, and I would greet him and walk with him into our home.
Throughout my childhood and into my years in high school, Johnny was a frequent dinner guest. When my father would roll in from work, he would announce, “Smolka’s coming over”, as he passed through the kitchen on his way to change his clothes. My mother silently acknowledged his statement by pulling another plate out of the cupboard and setting it on the table.
As we sat around our kitchen table, enjoying the bounty that my mother had prepared for supper, Johnny would entertain us with quips and quotes and comments on the news of the day. His voice was distinct and loud, and his diction was the envy of any college English professor. He could tell a story and capture his audience. As a young boy, I would savor those moments when Johnny would come over and visit with our family. He and my father would often enjoy a Michelob Lite after dinner. The meal and his beer would be his primer before he began the entertainment.
While I was going through my old footlocker to find any memorabilia of my friend, I could only find one photo with Johnny. On the left side of the picture is my mother and father, sharing a laugh about something. On the far right is a skinny kid with a “sheepish” grin on his face. That’s me. In the center of the picture, as he was in many things he did, was Johnny, looking forward with his effervescent smile and an eagle, globe and anchor tattoo on his arm.
Johnny grew up in Niles, Ohio. He was born in 1911 and would come into manhood around the beginning of the Great Depression. I asked Johnny one time what was the origin of his name Smolka. He promptly gave me a brief history lesson on his Bohemian ancestry. His ancestry was Czech. His ancestors had emigrated from the Bohemian lands that were then part of the Austrian Empire.
When Johnny was a young man during the Depression years, he spent time riding the rails of America as a “Hobo”. Listening to Johnny talk about the sights he had seen captured my imagination. Through his eyes, I could experience all of those places and all of his adventures. During those years, I think Johnny also dabbled in umpiring baseball games. One of his dreams and passions was to become a professional baseball umpire.
Johnny was nearly thirty years old when he joined the Marines in 1940. He was trained as a radio operator and would later serve as recreation director at two different Marine bases at Mt. Martha Balcombe in Australia and Puvuvu (Russell Island) during World War II. Johnny was literally “the old man” around his fellow Marine recruits. It may seem that Johnny had the “dream” job as a recreational director on a Marine base, but he paid his dues at Guadalcanal.
Sitting at our kitchen table, I would write down names of people and places that Johnny was talking about between his sips of beer. I wish I had kept those precious notes that held the names of Vandergrift, Puller and then PFC Smolka, but they may yet still be in a lost notebook in my mother’s attic. I remember Johnny telling a story about speaking with Major General Vandegrift on the beaches of Guadalcanal and listening to the discussions he was having with his commanders about the battle. He also talked about a Lieutenant Colonel who led the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, by the name of Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller. Former Marines need no explanation, but many of you who read this essay may not know of the names of Vandegrift and Puller, but students of history, particularly Military history, should recognize these two legendary figures in Marine Corps history.
I particularly remember a story Johnny told about being near the mouth of a river and under heavy fire from Japanese rifles, machine guns and mortars. The Marines on the beach needed some fire support from one of the Navy vessels stationed offshore. I guess being early in the war, radio communications between Marines on the beach and Navy ships was not optimal, but the Marines had a solution. That solution was accomplished by PFC John J. Smolka. In addition to being a proficient radio operator, Johnny was an expert in semaphore communication. Semaphore is the use of hand-held flags to communicate visually by holding the flags in different positions corresponding to letters of the alphabet. The Marine commander, Puller, wanted Johnny to signal a U.S. Navy Destroyer for fire support.
As I sat with eyes wide open and ears tuned in, Johnny spoke with excited tone and animation about being on the beach waving his semaphore flags and watching the sand around him being kicked up by Japanese rifle and machine gun fire. He stood up from the table and showed me how he would shift his feet and move to avoid the gunfire, all the while keeping his wits about him so he could signal accurately. Performing this action once and surviving was against the odds, Johnny did it twice.
Johnny survived that action and would continue on with the battles that followed. When I was a kid, as I listened to those stories of Guadalcanal, I would visualize Johnny squatting in the jungle brush barking into the handset of his radio. As I grew older and learned more of the history of this battle, I pondered the sheer force of will that Johnny possessed to stand out on that beach with Japanese riflemen and machine gunners drawing a bead on his position.
Lieutenant Colonel “Chesty” Puller thought so much of Johnny’s actions that day that he later recommended that he be awarded the Navy Cross, the U.S. Navy’s second highest award for valor. Johnny was ultimately awarded the Silver Star for his actions on Guadalcanal. Below is the citation as it reads in his service record.
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Corporal John J. Smolka (MCSN: 297414), United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity while serving with the First Battalion, Seventh Marines, FIRST Marine Division, during action against enemy Japanese forces on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, 26 September 1942. On two occasions while under heavy fire from hostile machine guns and rifles, Corporal Smolka stood on an exposed stretch of beach near the mouth of the Matanikau River and communicated by semaphore to a United States Navy destroyer off shore. As a result of his courageous act, an officer of the First Battalion was picked up by boat and taken aboard the destroyer so that he might direct the gunfire of the vessel against enemy-held shore positions. Corporal Smolka’s heroic conduct, maintained with complete disregard of personal safety, was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Action Date: September 26, 1942
The war was over. Johnny came home. His background in communications in the Marine Corps undoubtedly propelled him into the business of radio. Not to mention that he had the perfect voice for the airwaves. Johnny found himself in Griffin, Georgia as the station manager for WKEU. From the recollections I have from my father, he was “THE” man in Griffin radio for a number of years. Many who read this will know better than I the impact that Johnny had on the airwaves in Griffin. As I was working on this essay, I did an internet search on Johnny and found a recording that someone had made of one of his last “sign-offs” from the radio station. I played it and suddenly a cascade of childhood memories surged forth in my mind. His distinct voice was great to hear again.
Johnny would later take a role at WJGA in my hometown of Jackson, Georgia. I still have an old LP record that was going to be discarded from WJGA that Johnny gave me when I was a kid. While he was in Jackson, he was also a live-in caretaker for the local golf course in the county, Deer Trail Golf Club, which is called Hickory Hills now. My younger brother’s first set of clubs was a mismatched set that Johnny had accumulated over the course.
As a member of the media, Johnny had his finger on the pulse of local happenings in the middle Georgia area. When Johnny got wind of a movie that was going to be filmed in the neighboring town of Monticello, Johnny persuaded my mother to join him as an extra in the movie. So, my mother and Johnny got to be fans in the grandstands for the movie, “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings”. The movie was about a traveling Negro league baseball team from the 1930’s. My mother met Billy Dee Williams. Johnny and my mother were both featured in a picture in our local newspaper, The Jackson Progress-Argus, for their performance as movie stars.
After graduating from high school, I didn’t see Johnny for a long time. I went to college and my visits home were few and far between so I would miss the occasional visit from Johnny. My parents told me later that Johnny had moved to live with his nephew. To my knowledge, Johnny never married and did not have a big family. In the fall of 1983, I would receive a remembrance from Johnny. Earlier that summer, I was a cadet attending ROTC Advanced camp for students seeking an Officer’s commission. Our newspaper printed a press release that was generated from my college about the Advanced camp. Johnny cut out the clipping from his newspaper and pasted it to a sheet of typing paper and wrote me a note. I would carry those words with me in my heart.
I have taken it as a personal mission to celebrate our veterans from World War II. In my humble eyes, it remains the greatest generation. Johnny was one of a kind. He had been a “hobo”, an umpire, a disc jockey, a Radio station manager, a golf club caretaker and a United States Marine. Johnny’s actions on that beach in Guadalcanal are referenced in two books. The first is “Guadalcanal” by Eric Hammel and the second one is “Chesty: The story of Lieutenant General Lewis B. Puller”, by Lieutenant Colonel Jon T. Hoffman. With his boisterous character, some would either love him or hate him. Count me as one who loved him.
Thank you Johnny for the laughter, the education and for giving a young boy confidence to pursue his dreams.
Dedicated to the memory of John J. “Johnny” Smolka and to those valiant Marines who answered the call at Guadalcanal