Like many draftees to the United States Army, Johnston was placed with a National Guard unit being federalized for wartime service to bring them up to strength. He was assigned as a machine gunner with Company G, 2nd Battalion, 180th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division, Oklahoma National Guard.
The 45th Infantry Division was landed on the Anzio beachhead in Italy as a reinforcements in late January 1944. The attack on Anzio had been designed to outflank Nazi defenses to the south, but faced heavy opposition.
On February 17, 1944, Johnston manned his Browning M1919 machine gun and from his position both held off German counterattacks and covered the withdrawal of his unit. A second day of fighting on February 18 saw him repeat the same feats. After his position was overrun and he was known to have received a grievous wound, Johnston was thought killed in action. On February 19, he managed to crawl back to friendly lines and give detailed information about the enemy positions that enabled his comrades to succeed in their own counterattack.
About seven months later, Johnston was decorated with our Nation's highest honor for his incredible three days under fire.
From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (G-L):
|Photo from Military Times' Hall of Valor|
Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, Company G, 180th Infantry, 45th Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Padiglione, Italy, 17-19 February 1944. Entered service at: Colchester, Conn. G.O. No.: 73, 6 September 1944
Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy. On 17 February 1944, near Padiglione, Italy, he observed and fired upon an attacking force of approximately 80 Germans, causing at least 25 casualties and forcing withdrawal of the remainder. All that day he manned his gun without relief, subject to mortar, artillery, and sniper fire. Two Germans individually worked so close to his position that his machinegun was ineffective, whereupon he killed 1 with his pistol, the second with a rifle taken from another soldier. When a rifleman protecting his gun position was killed by a sniper, he immediately moved the body and relocated the machinegun in that spot in order to obtain a better field of fire. He volunteered to cover the platoon's withdrawal and was the last man to leave that night. In his new position he maintained an all-night vigil, the next day causing 7 German casualties. On the afternoon of the 18th, the organization on the left flank having been forced to withdraw, he again covered the withdrawal of his own organization. Shortly thereafter, he was seriously wounded over the heart, and a passing soldier saw him trying to crawl up the embankment. The soldier aided him to resume his position behind the machine gun which was soon heard in action for about 10 minutes. Though reported killed, Pfc. Johnston was seen returning to the American lines on the morning of 19 February slowly and painfully working his way back from his overrun position through enemy lines. He gave valuable information of new enemy dispositions. His heroic determination to destroy the enemy and his disregard of his own safety aided immeasurably in halting a strong enemy attack, caused an enormous amount of enemy casualties, and so inspired his fellow soldiers that they fought for and held a vitally important position against greatly superior forces.
Johnston survived the war and returned to his Connecticut home. He was employed by the Veterans Administration and Department of Veterans Affairs in civilian life.
On May 19, 1990, the Colchester Public Schools named their middle school for their local hero. The school educates about 700 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, who hopefully are taught as part of their education about the brave man whose name is on the building.
Just nine days after the school naming, William Johnston passed away. He today rests in peace at the State Veterans Cemetery in Middletown, Connecticut.
The 45th Infantry Division is currently inactive. The unit's legacy is maintained by the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Oklahoma Army National Guard. The 180th Infantry Regiment has been reflagged as the 180th Cavalry Regiment and provides one squadron to the brigade.