Every Memorial Day weekend, a crowd gathers at Lands End in San Francisco to stand in ceremony beside the gray, shell-pocked bridge of the heavy cruiser San Francisco, which served valiantly at the desperate naval battle of Guadalcanal during World War II.
Chief Petty Officer Richard Jongordon, known to his shipmates as Chief Johnny, stood with his fellow sailors to the last man — which turned out to be him.
Among 1,200 men who fought aboard the “Frisco” in the great sea battle of Nov. 12-13, 1942, against a vastly superior force of the Imperial Japanese Navy, Chief Johnny is believed to have been the last survivor, and was definitely the last among the 50 who regularly attended the ceremony.
Jongordon, who always gave the opening remarks at the Memorial Day ceremony, died March 6 at a hospice facility in Alamo near his home at Rossmoor in Walnut Creek. He died of natural causes, said his daughter, Cidnee Lusk. He was 98.
“Chief Johnny was a national treasure,” said John McKnight, president of the USS San Francisco Memorial Foundation. “He inspired generations of sailors and veterans through both his actions during his years of service, and the remarkable life he lived afterward.”
Postwar life included many years as founder and owner of the Neptune Society of Northern California, an Emeryville cremation service. But the accomplishment he was most proud of was the creation of the monument at Lands End, which was built after Chief Johnny, among others, found the remnants of their heroic ship’s bridge in a Mare Island scrap yard.
The memorial contains the names in brass of all 100 sailors and seven Marines who died in the battle, and is inscribed with a stirring commendation by Commander-in-Chief Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“I talk to people out there every year, and they are immensely moved by it,” said McKnight, who organizes the ceremony, usually attended by a crowd of 300. “They stare at the names on the plaque and they stare at that piece of ship and the look on their faces is hard to describe, and then comes Chief Johnny to tell stories about that night of battle.”
Richard Gordon Johnson — he later legally changed his last name to Jongordon — was born Dec. 6, 1922, in Wheaton, Minn., where he grew up on a farm, the second-oldest of eight children. He shined shoes in town, starting at age 5, and also worked in a butcher shop — anything to help his family through the Great Depression. At age 17, he dropped out of high school to join the Navy, an impulse that required a waiver signature from his mother.
Because he was a farm kid who had worked in a butcher shop, he was a mess specialist, organizing and distributing three meals a day aboard the Frisco, a 588-foot treaty cruiser with a displacement of 11,000 tons. Chief Johnny turned 19 on Dec. 6, 1941, and one day later he was aboard the Frisco while it was docked at Pearl Harbor. It was a sitting duck as the bombers flew overhead, but they were intent on the ships at anchor.
Saved from destruction, the Frisco left the yard Dec. 14, 1941, to serve in the War in the Pacific and at the Battle of the Coral Sea before multiple actions in the long battle of Guadalcanal. It was in a task force of U.S. Navy vessels that headed off an enemy fleet intent on bombarding the U.S. Marines who had landed. A gunbattle at close range ensued after midnight.
Chief Johnny’s main duty was getting the meals out, but when all hands were ordered to battle stations, he was enlisted as a medic in the confusion.
“I was trying to find the men who were wounded. They were scattered all up and down the decks,” Chief Johnny recalled in an oral history. “The men dead, we could not help, but the wounded needed attention immediately. In this dark night a flashlight in my hand would have been great.”
The communication and electrical systems were shot out. Chief Johnny went below deck in the pitch black darkness to look for survivors and found himself in water up to his waist. A crew stacked mattresses against the shell holes and secured them with tables from the mess hall.
The ship took 45 major hits, but the crew saved it. For its valor, the Frisco received the Presidential Unit Citation and was sent home to Mare Island for major repairs.
By late February 1943, when the Frisco returned to the War in the Pacific, the bridge was left behind for scrap. The Frisco saw action during the landings at Okinawa and Iwo Jima.
It was preparing to support the planned invasion of Japan when the war came to an end. The Frisco was awarded 17 battle stars, making it one of the most decorated warships of World War Two. Chief Johnny was involved in all 17 of its battles.
Chief Johnny left the Navy in 1947 and returned to his original name of Richard Johnson, until he decided the business world was lousy with Richard Johnsons. So he legally changed his last name to Jongordon.
He entered business in San Diego, with Prudential Insurance. He also developed custom homes in Santa Maria (Santa Barbara County) before finally making his way to the Bay Area to enter the mortuary business, by starting the Neptune Society, and expanding to the San Francisco Columbarium, along with a chain of crematories.
“Richard really disrupted the industry back in the day when cremation was considered a disposal service,” said Frank Rivero, owner of Pacific Interment Service. “He was the first person to offer direct cremations without any frills, saving families a ton of money. He had a lot of guts to take on the funeral industry. A smart guy and a good guy, too.”
In 1978, he married Felicia Mehler, whom he met on a blind date. They lived in Concord, San Francisco and Lafayette before moving to Rossmoor 12 years ago. Then, as always, he told stories about the war with great flourish. The bell from the San Francisco is in the Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco, and he could tell stories about that, too.
“He was without a doubt a most unusual man,” said Lusk, oldest of his four daughters. “He was always thinking of a new way to do things. That started when he was a boy during the Great Depression and continued on to when he was in the war. He finagled a handmade coffee machine so that sailors always had hot coffee.”
Survivors include his wife of 42 years, Felicia Jongordon of Walnut Creek; daughters Cidnee Lusk of Goodyear, Ariz., Lia Trocano of Sebastopol, JoJo Youngs of Kailua, Hawaii, and Pamela Ellis of Pleasanton; stepsons Kenneth Mehler of Half Moon Bay and Brian Mehler of Long Beach; sisters Mary McGowen of New York Mills, Minn., and Alice Durham of Nixa, Mo; brother Carl Marxen of Minneapolis; 12 grandchildren; and 19 great-grandchildren.
The USS San Francisco Memorial Foundation’s ceremony will be virtual this year, with a special program dedicated to the life of Chief Johnny. Donations in his honor may be made to the USS San Francisco Memorial Foundation.
This article is written by Sam Whiting from San Francisco Chronicle and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
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