Sunday 15 May 2011 by Dianne Rutherford. 5 comments
Military Heraldry and Technology, News, Personal Stories, Second World War, USS Mugford, AHS Centaur


Talmadge Johnson in 1940 (Photograph courtesy of L Johnson)

The Australian War Memorial recently received a significant donation associated with an American sailor, Gunner's Mate Talmadge Johnson, who served aboard USS Mugford, when she rescued the survivors from the sinking of AHS Centaur on 15 May 1943.

The items are two emergency lights with their battery cases. They came from one of the Centaur survivor’s life vests collected by Talmadge after the rescue. He managed to keep these two lights throughout the war even though the life vest itself deteriorated due to humid conditions and the oil coating the vest.

Emergency lights collected by Talmadge Johnson from an AHS Centaur survivor's life vest. The wires are more recent additions as the original wires rotted away. Emergency lights collected by Talmadge Johnson from an AHS Centaur survivor's life vest. The wires are more recent additions as the original wires rotted away.

The Memorial has a very small collection of items associated with some of the survivors. This is the first donation to be associated with one of the rescuers and we are thrilled to add the emergency lights to the National Collection.

USS Mugford USS Mugford

Talmadge Nelson Johnson was born on 24 December 1919. He enlisted in the American Navy in 1940 and was posted to USS Mugford, a Bagley class destroyer. He was serving aboard the Mugford,which was docked at Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese attacked on the morning of 7 December 1941. He was asleep in his quarters below the #4 gun when the attack began and was woken by a shipmate who told him Pearl Harbor was under attack. Talmadge was one of the few Gunner’s Mates on board at the time and had a set of keys to the ammunition magazines.

Talmadge ran the length of the ship to open the magazines. He then broke into the storeroom where the firing locks were kept for the 5” guns. He returned to the other end of the ship, passing the firing locks to each of the four gun mounts. Johnson’s battle station was the forward starboard 50 calibre machine gun, located below the bridge. At 8.05 am the Mugfordopened fire and within ten minutes, two Japanese torpedo planes had been shot down by the destroyer’s aft guns. Over an hour later a third aircraft – a Japanese dive bomber – was shot down by Talmadge himself. He never spoke of this after the war and his family did not discover this until they read his war diary after his death.

After America’s entry into the war, USS Mugford served in the South Pacific, taking part in convoy escorts, patrols and assaults. The Mugford’s base during much of this period was Brisbane in Queensland. On 15 May 1943, Mugford departed Brisbane, escorting the British steamer Sussex, when they came across and rescued the survivors of the Centaur.

Australian Hospital Ship Centaur Australian Hospital Ship Centaur

During the rescue, Talmadge was at the #3 gun on top of the after deckhouse. He observed the rescue of the survivors by his crew mates, while he kept an eye out for any sign of the enemy. The rescue was conducted swiftly due to the threat of enemy submarines. The survivors’ life vests were initially left on the deck and he collected one with the lights attached. The survivors received medical treatment and were clothed, fed and put to bed. The Mugford's crew also donated clothing, cigarettes, soap and other essentials, as well as about £239 for the survivors’ immediate needs.

Talmadge did not keep a diary from the end of November 1942 to the end of December 1943, however he later recorded about this period that ‘...the last year has been full of harrowing experiences, hard work, and plenty of hell.’ and, in relation to the Centaur rescue, ‘...One day out of Brisbane we picked up the survivors of the hospital ship Centaur, about 57 [sic] men and one woman at from 1 to 4 in the afternoon.  Everyone else out of 325 [sic] aboard were lost. They were sunk by a Jap sub at 4:30 in the morning before.’.

Whenever Talmadge took leave at Brisbane he visited an Australian family - Fred and Olive ‘Mom’ Watson of Herston Road, Kelvin Grove and spent time with their family, including their three children, Fred [Jnr], Dawn and Cherrell.


Talmadge Johnson with Olive Watson and Fred Watson. Johnson is wearing a borrowed jumper showing the rating of Fire Controlman. (Photograph courtesy of L Johnson)

Talmadge Johnson with Fred Watson (Jnr) and with Cherrell (front) and Dawn Watson. Talmadge is wearing a borrowed jumper showing the rating of Fire Controlman. (Photograph courtesy of L Johnson)

 After serving in the Pacific, Talmadge was transferred to the Naval Gunnery School in Washington DC in 1944. He was promoted to Chief Gunner’s Mate and retained by the gunnery school as an instructor for the rest of the war. Talmadge was discharged in March 1946.

Talmadge Johnson in 1946 (Photograph courtesy of L Johnson)

 Talmadge Johnson died on 26 June 2002. As a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, he was entitled to have his ashes scattered there, which they were. His name is commemorated on a memorial plaque at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (the Punchbowl), Honolulu, Hawai’i.

Memorial plaque at the National Cemetery of the Pacific (the Punchbowl), Honolulu, Hawai'i (Photograph courtesy of L Johnson)



Mama always loved Talmadge!!

Sherry Greeson

I enjoyed reading this very much. I am a niece of Hugh Jordan who was also on the Mugford when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He was from Indiana.

denis connelly

What a great story, I'm glad that it was recorded before it was 'lost'

M.B. Murray

Thank you so much! Fascinating reading. My grandfather, Philip Murray, was a shipmate of Mr. Johnson. He was, to my knowledge, the only officer on board the Mugford when the Pearl Harbor attack began. It's indeed an amazing experience to read accounts such as this. He spoke fondly of the brave men he served with throughout the war. He was especially proud of the assistance Mugford's crew provided to the survivors of the Centaur. My grandfather passed away in April, 2000. With the US Navy's help, we spread his ashes on the site of Mugford's berthing, exactly 60 years to the day after the attack. I have a profound respect for every "tin can sailor" who served during that time. It's impossible for people in my generation to fully appreciate the sacrifices those men made for their country.

Steve Bradford

I had the privilidge of growing up with Talmadge's son Larry. They resided behind Sylvan Park Elementary School in Nashville, TN. I have fond memories of visiting after school with Bub, as Talmadge called Larry. I was always anxious to see what project Talmadge was working on. Whether building, repairing, gardening, or tinkering, the projects were always facinating to a 6 to 12 year old such as myself. Talmadge never spoke of his war days. One thing I remember is that he always wore long sleeve shirts, even during the hot, humid summers we experience in Nashville. However, on one excessively uncomfortable summer day I got to witness the elaborate forearm tatoos while he donned a tee shirt. That's when I deduced that he must have been in the Navy. Both Talmadge and my Dad were in the Navy during WWII. That's one reason both Bub and I were inspired to join the Navy during Nam. I visited Talmadge while on leave from Sonar School in Key West, FL. I mentioned that Key West was so isolated, that it was like being at sea. Talmadge responded "That would be paradise compared to our extended time at sea." That is the only time he ever mentioned the hardships that they endured during the war. Thanks so much for giving me an additional insight to a man I considered family.