Johnson is one of three former NFLers killed in the battle for Iwo Jima in February-March 1945. He was posthumously awarded a Gold Star for his actions on Iwo Jima. In fact, his concern for the welfare of his own men may have contributed to his death. After getting hit by a shell, Johnson directed a corpsman to help others who had also been hit. He died.
A year earlier, Johnson earned a Silver Star for “conspicuous gallantry” during the battle for Saipan.
Johnson’s memory is honored each year during college bowl season. The outstanding lineman in the Peach Bowl is presented with the Smiley Johnson Award.
Johnson was not a star player during his brief Green Bay Packer career from 1940 to 1941.. The guard and linebacker from the University of Georgia never scored a touchdown in the National Football League or earned All-Pro recognition. Johnson was simply a solid young reserve on Coach Earl “Curly” Lambeau’s teams that posted a 16-5-1 record during those two seasons, including a 10-1 mark in the 1941. He played with some of the greatest names in the Packers’ storied history: Receiver Don Hutson, halfback Tony Canadeo, passer Cecil Isbell, and fullback Clarke Hinkle. Yet Johnson holds a special place in Green Bay lore as the only Packer to give his life in service to his country. A display at the entrance to the Green Bay Packers’ Hall of Fame honors Johnson, a U.S. Marine who fought in World War II and was killed in Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945.
According to a Green Bay Press-Gazette story, Johnson was involved in fierce fighting on the South Pacific island when a shell exploded and the flying fragments struck him. “Johnson lay on the ground as Navy corpsmen rushed to his side,” Scott Venci wrote. “Instead of pleading for help, Johnson pointed to the other Marines who had been hit and told the corpsmen to save them first.”
Johnson was posthumously awarded a Gold Star for his bravery and actions during the Iwo Jima campaign. He previously earned a Silver Star for “conspicuous gallantry” during the Saipan operation for defending a flank during a Japanese attack, engaging the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. The 28-year-old Marine lieutenant left behind his wife, Marie, and one-year-old daughter, Jennie.
The idea to create a special display in March 2005 to recognize Johnson came from Ron Wolf, former Packers’ general manager and an avid military history buff. Wolf, who lives in Annapolis, Md., said he was paging through a NFL fact book and found a listing of players who served and died in World War II. “I saw that Smiley Johnson was the only guy from the Packers,” Wolf said. “I thought it would be appropriate to recognize him not only for his contributions to the Green Bay Packers, but to the American way of life. I suggested to Bob Harlan that we put together a display in our Hall of Fame, and the staff got it done. What better place to honor him than in the cradle of professional football: Green Bay, Wisconsin.”
Johnson was a popular player, a conservative and religious man who refrained from smoking or alcohol – a rarity among players of his era. He was one of the first players, along with team star Hutson, to retire in the Packers’ hotel on road trips. “Hutson hits the hay almost every night by eight o’clock,” former Packer line coach Richard “Red” Smith said in David Zimmerman’s book, “Curly Lambeau: The Man Behind the Mystique.” “Friday, however, generally is his night to howl. Then he’ll probably stay out as late as 8:15.”
Johnson’s profile in the Packers’ 1941 media guide reads: “Nobody who has met him need ask twice why Howard Johnson carries the nickname, `Smiley.’ Around the city streets of Green Bay, and elsewhere before and after games, Johnson greets acquaintances with the most cheerful of countenances.”
In a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article in September 2001, sportswriter Cliff Christl gathered the following comments from Johnson’s teammates: The late Pete Tinsley, who joined the Packers out of Georgia two years before Johnson and played through 1945, said a decade ago that Johnson had been one of the most popular players on the team. “I’ll tell you what, he was one of the finest young boys I ever knew,” Tinsley said. “He was honest. He was religious. He was an orphan and he read his Bible every night before he went to bed.” Herm Rohrig, another former teammate, said a year ago: “Smiley was a piece of work. He got along with everybody and was tougher than nails.”
Johnson was born in Nashville Tennessee in 1919 and grew up in an orphanage in Clarksville, Tennessee. When he reported to the Packers’ training camp in 1940, he still faced financial difficulties.
Harold “Hal” Van Every, a running back and defensive back from the University of Minnesota, played with Johnson in 1940-’41. Van Every, 89, lives in Minneapolis and fondly recalled last week his teammate and fellow World War II veteran. “I enjoyed playing with Smiley,” said Van Every, a B-17 bomber pilot who spent nearly a year as a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III after his aircraft was shot down in May 1944 near the Germany-Poland border. “He had a good attitude and personality, and everyone liked him. He was a guard, but played some quarterback, too – a blocking back in our day. Smiley didn’t smoke or drink and he got along well with Lambeau. They didn’t come much better than Smiley.”
Johnson was a solid contributor in his backup roles during the 1940 and 1941 season. A personal highlight was an interception the 5-foot-10, 195-pound linebacker returned for 10 yards.
Life in America changed dramatically on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor triggered the United States entry into World War II. On that fateful Sunday, the Green Bay Packers and Johnson were in Chicago, watching the Bears play the Cardinals in their regular-season finale. It was a must-win game for the Bears to tie the 10-1 Packers and force the first NFL divisional playoff in history.
Early into the game, the public address announcer at Comiskey Park told the crowd that all servicemen in attendance should report to their units; then came the news to the 43,425 spectators that the Empire of Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. The Bears won the game, 34-24, and a rematch with Green Bay the following week at frigid Wrigley Field.
With a nation preparing for war, the Packers lost to Chicago 33-17, with a tenacious Bear defense stifling the Green Bay passing attack, limiting Hutson to a single reception on the day.
Johnson enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 1942 and was one of 32 active Packers called to duty – but was the only one who did not return home. He is not only honored with the display in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, but the former University of Georgia star is also remembered in his home state at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. Each year, the outstanding lineman of the game receives the Smiley Johnson Award. The Marine Corps also named several South Pacific island athletic fields in honor of Johnson.
“He was an American hero,” Wolf said. “What he went through was incredible in Iwo Jima. He paid the ultimate price for his country. It’s a fitting tribute to him in our Hall of Fame.”
Lt. Howard W. “Smiley” Johnson is now at rest in Section C Grave 359 at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
The author would like to thank the Green Bay Packers’ Hall of Fame for much of the content of this article.