Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part series detailing the 1939 Potomac voyage of Warner Johnson and his fellow Sea Scouts. The first article appeared in April 2012.
With Kinsale, VA, behind them, the crews of the Sea Scout catboats Bobcat and Wildcat next headed down the Potomac. A strong northwest wind favored their journey, and according to Warner Johnson's logbook, "boiled down to the Coan (the last tributary of any note along Virginia's Potomac shore) with the spinnaker up."
They tied up at the little post office wharf at Bundix (I believe it is today's Lewisetta.) and considered themselves lucky to be there while a big schooner was at the wharf. The Amanda F. Lewis, built in 1884 by J.W. Brooks, had been sailing 55 years by 1939. Warner wrote that "Cap. Gus's Pundgy (sic) was in. We were fortunateâ€¦.for his is the last remaining pundgy" (in freight service). "These boats were made for oyster dredging in the Chesapeake but the A.F. Lewis used to carry pineapples from the West Indies at one time."
Pungys were, in naval architectural terms, direct descendants of the famed Baltimore clippers, which served as privateers during the War of 1812. What a dramatic sight for those boys!
Capt. Gus enlisted the boys in a shipboard chore that he could not accomplish alone. He hoisted Nick (Henry Nicol) aloft in a bo's'un's chair (a harness used to suspend a person so he could work aloft) to reeve a line through a block for him. To accomplish this, the captain showed the Bobcats how to "point" a line, tapering the end to a stiffly protruding narrow tip that could easily be threaded through the block's dangling sheave one-handed. Once they were back aboard their own boats, everybody wanted to try "pointing a line" as the sudden experts were now able to show them.
The catboat sailors were indeed lucky to meet the A.F. Lewis when they did because later that year its sail rigging was torn down and the craft converted into a power boat. It was sold to a Florida businessman for trade with Cuba, and sent about a decade later to Haiti. No record remains of its end.
(In 1985, an almost perfect replica of the A.F. Lewis was built. The replica pungy, Lady Maryland, is kept in shape and sailed as a floating school-ship and ambassador for the Chesapeake by her owners, the Living Classrooms Foundation in Baltimore. Lady Maryland is 104 feet long, has a beam of 22 feet and, unlike shallow centerboard skipjacks, has a 7-foot-deep keel and displaces 82 tons.)
From there, the boys sailed across the Potomac to the St. Mary's River, where their Sea Scoutmaster, Potomac historian Fred Tilp, met them with "some parents and friends," the parents no doubt wondering how their sons were faring out and away from adult supervision. They toured the then-relatively new brick replica of Maryland's first State House. No lingering with the parents, though. The boys set off for nearby Carthagena Creek, where they anchored for the night, as Warner nautically entered in the log book, "at 7 bells in the second dog watch."
They next sailed to Leonardtown, a long trip up from Breton Bay, hoping to see a movie. They viewed this a wasted trip, the town was of no interest, and, movies were only shown twice a week back then; this night was not one of those.
On they went, some-times under spinnaker, sometimes double reefed down for heavy squalls and rain. Their anchor at one stop fouled on some unknown wreck in 30 feet of water but they freed it, after almost severing the anchor rode from the strain.
Sailing up the Potomac and becalmed south of Alexandria, VA, they bathed in the river, which was freshwater that far upstream. They reached their home port at the District of Colombia's Corinthian Yacht Club on July 23.
The Sea Scout cruise was transformative for Warner Johnson, and turned him into a lifelong sailor. In fact, most of the boys repeated this cruise the next summer..
Meanwhile, the clouds of world war began to mass across Europe. When the United States declared war against the Axis powers in December 1941, Warner's two brothers, Dave and Fred, quickly enlisted in military service - Dave was called up within two days.
Warner inherited the sailboat Dave had purchased after his college days and sailed it actively during the summer of 1942. He, too, was eager to enlist, but his parents pleaded with him; in the event his siblings were killed, he would be their only surviving son.
Instead, Warner, then a strapping young man, joined the Merchant Marines. German submarines were inflicting heavy losses on oceanic merchant convoys, so this was hardly a safe alternative.
Johnson still chafed to fight for his country, though. In September 1942, at the age of 18, he reported to Marietta, OH, for training to become a U.S. Navy pilot. By December 1944, he had earned his wings as a Navy dive bomber, qualifying in the (Grumman) SB2C Helldiver at Miami. He was aboard the U.S. Carrier Fleet at Newport, RI, ready to advance to combat.
His parents thought that Warner was the least of their worries at that point, their other sons being embroiled abroad. But just two days after Christmas, in the middle of the night, their doorbell rang. A telegram from the Navy Department read: "STOP urgent STOP come immediately STOP your son Ensign Orville W(arner) Johnson is in critical condition STOP".
The previous morning, Warner and his fellow pilots were ordered to report in full gear and helmet to the flight line for a shipboard drill. Warner was walking down the line of planes when another pilot, who did not see him, turned over his engine. The rotating propeller sliced into Warner's head, making an almost 6-inch gash in his skull, exposing parts of his brain, which were spilling out.
A young, relatively inexperienced surgeon on duty did the best he could, literally returning all the visible brain mass back inside Warner's skull: "Some of the cells might regenerate," he later told Warner's father, Orville.
Damage to the left brain impacts the right side: Warner's right side was paralyzed, he could not form words, read or write. The wound was closed and dressed.
One could imagine that with the terrible consequences of wartime injuries flooding back to the United States at that time, Warner might have been shunted to a "back burner." Instead, he quickly received rehabilitation, a program that remained constant until 1945. He slowly recovered some functions. His brothers emerged from the war in Europe and the Pacific, got married and went on with their lives.
Hospitalized at St. Albans Naval Hospital in New York City, Warner refused to give up. He had what are called Jacksonian seizures, which progressed up limbs to the brain. They gave him anticonvulsive drugs. He slowly gained the ability to walk with aid, and his sister-in-law Libbie Hanover Johnson took him to a Broadway musical, "On the Town." (The management arranged to have a wheelchair available for him.) He couldn't clap, but he smiled broadlyâ€¦and he could laugh, according to Libbie. Back at the naval hospital, he got a titanium plate for his head and was on the road to a life again.
Warner was transferred to the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, where he received speech therapy, walked with a leg brace, taught himself to write left-handed and, pleased with himself, began to travel alone.
After he was discharged, Warner entered the University of Maryland and his professors helped by tailoring exams to true/false responses. But he fell, breaking an ankle, and was re-admitted to Bethesda. Warner had to leave college, his dream of being a history professor quashed. Concerned family asked among themselves where he would - or could - go in the future.
Warner Johnson's life message was clear: "Tell them to take me as I am, not as I would have been."
In 1948, with his wartime aviator's pay still squirreled away in the bank, Warner called a sailboat broker and, sight unseen, bought a New Bedford 29, a sound and safe cruising sloop. His family was concerned, but there was no stopping him. Warner had the boat delivered to Hartge's boatyard, in Galesville, MD. He couldn't drive but family and friends delivered him to the boatyard.
After a few shakedown cruises with Naval architect Bob Hartge, a lifelong friend, Warner simply said: "Set the mainsail, I want to sail across the (Chesapeake)Â Bay."
"You can't handleâ€¦." replied Hartge, reciting a litany of things Warner couldn't do. But off Warner went â€” and did.
He later owned the first Raven - a smaller racing class boat - on the Chesapeake, and enough other boats were purchased by competitors that a racing class was formed. Warner mailed this review to his brother Dave: "Raven, the Boat that Sails Like a Birdâ€¦at the same time a veritable planing sensation."
His young nephew said after a visit, "He is not nearly so sick as he was because he talks really good, and his leg is so much better."
Warner's brother Fred, then in medical school at the University of Maryland, met a brilliant neurosurgeon who without pause asked, "How's Warner?" It was Dr. R.K. Thompson, who'd shoveled back the aviator's brain that fateful shipboard day.
Warner was amazing. He traveled to Nova Scotia to look at boats, and out West to see natural monuments, California, Mexico, Belize. But he was never long "between boats," as we sailors say.
He met an Englishwoman, Bea Lawrence, in New York City. His surprised family reported that she "looks very pleasant and attractive." They couple were married in 1955 and honeymooned at the Robert Morris Inn at Oxford, MD, close to the sailboats Warner adored. Then they booked passage on the Queen Mary, so Warner could meet his bride's family in England.
The Johnsons settled down on a tributary Potomac creek at Kilmarnock, VA, with Warner's 1939 Potomac voyage souvenir, the name-board from the ship Federal Hill, hanging over their porch.
Their first child, Peter, was sailing with Warner by the age of 29 months in August 1956. Johnson's daughter, Jennifer, born in November 1959, remembers as a tot taking daily, if slow, walks with her father down to a nearby boat yard, where he was constantly in touch with a wider sailing and racing community. While his verbal expression may have been halting, Warner's brain was clearly functioning all those years since 1944.
A news clipping from around 1960 shows Warner's later sailboat, Black Arrow, a Dutch-built, 22-foot midget ocean racing class sloop moored outside the back door at Kilmarnock.
His nephews Mike and Paul Johnson had just completed their own 150-mile Potomac cruise aboard the Black Arrow.
It was not an easy marriage, though, and Bea, with a scrappy personality herself, grated under the still serious problems lingering from Warner's injury and his frustration with them. They eventually divorced.
Sailing and the Bay were the loves of Warner's life. Libbie Harrover Johnson, Warner's sister-in-law, chronicled his life - somewhat against his wishes! - in 2000, and quoted Aldous Huxley on the flyleaf of her book: "Experience is not what happens to a man: it's what a man does with what happens to him."
Warner was diagnosed with cancer and doctors estimated he had about two months to live. He received this news matter-of-factly and opted for no draconian treatments, accepting only palliative care. He lived well over a year, still in love with the Chesapeake and passed away at age 81 in May 2004.
Kent Mountford is an environmental historian and an estuarine ecologist.