Battleship USS Idaho sailor's diary found in Arizona

History Corner

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Thanks to the Coeur d'Alene/Post Falls Press, a series of unlikely dots were connected, uniting a son with the history of his U.S. Navy father whom he never knew.

Last April, the Press published a story about the USS Idaho, a battleship that distinguished itself during World War II.

In Oro Valley, Arizona, north of Tucson, Salvatore A. Montegino opened a shoebox stored for years in a closet, containing a personal diary written by Jack Van Horn, a boson's mate second class, serving on board that ship.

Along with the diary, covering two years from July 16, 1943 to July 31, 1945, were two sets of flashcards, one to identify Allied and enemy warships; the other to learn pennant signal flags, semaphore and Morse code.

Also in the box were four newspaper clippings and a postcard-size photo of a group of sailors aboard a ship, none identified.

In 1972, Montegino met John (Jack) Raymond Van Horn in Los Angeles, where the retired sailor was working at the May Company department story at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax. Jack was a friend of Montegino's mother-in-law.

The two men chatted about their careers, and Jack told Sal about the diary he kept while serving aboard the Idaho. "Would you like to have it?" he asked Sal, because he had no family or anyone to leave it to. Sal accepted, promising that it wouldn't be lost.

They only saw each other once again. Jack died in Los Angeles at age 73 on July 19, 1984.

Forty years after the two men met, Montegino again looked through the long-forgotten shoebox holding Jack's mementos. With a rekindled interest in the Idaho, he called his son Steve, a construction project manager with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, to help find out what happened to the ship.

An Internet search produced the article in the Press, which Steve sent to his father.

Next, Sal Montegino called the Press regarding the story, wishing to talk to the writer.

The ensuing phone call triggered a surprising series of events:

Informed that Coeur d'Alene entrepreneur Richard G. LeFrancis is building the Pappy Boyington Field Museum near the airport, which might be an excellent repository for the Van Horn artifacts, Montegino agreed and sent the material to the writer. They arrived a few days later.

Next, museum consultant Dale Childers of Coeur d'Alene ran an Internet search of Jack Van Horn, USN, serving on the USS Idaho. The search produced his full name, service record and a website about the Idaho.

An email to that address, resulted in a return phone call from James P. Johandes of Arroyo Grande, Calif., bringing another amazing twist to the story:

Jack Van Horn was James Johandes' biological father - not his mother's husband who helped raise him - a discovery he learned only late in life.

Filled with emotion as excerpts of his father's diary were read to him, Jim Johandes asked if he might have his father's diary and mementos, having never before found anything that belonged to his real dad.

The Press promised that the family heirlooms would be given to him.

The Boyington museum offered to take care of the memorabilia, should the sailor's son ever decide to contribute them.

In gratitude, Johandes is donating two significant World War II military artifacts to the museum: A Japanese Arisaka rifle and an Italian Carcano rifle.

"We will be honored to accept and keep these historic items in perpetuity," said LeFrancis, the museum's founder. "Too often, these treasures are lost or destroyed by people who don't know what to do with them. We're grateful to Sal and Jim for helping to preserve our history and culture."

The USS Idaho has long gone to the scrap heap, but in Jack Van Horn's hand-written diary its memory lives on, telling about the historic events of which he was a part:

August 18, 1943: "Tokyo Rose claims the Idaho is sunk. I don't believe it!!"

Oct. 25, 1943: "Entered Pearl Harbor..."

Oct. 27, 1943: "The (USS) Oklahoma is being raised after nearly two years, but the Arizona is sunk for the duration."

Feb. 13, 1945: "Underway for Iwo Jima!! Where the hell does Rosie get her information? Maybe the Jap fleet will come out this time - I hope. I'd like to get this business over with & go home."

Feb. 14, 1945: "Another kid jumped over the side last night. So far all these guys who have cracked up are in their teens. Maybe they haven't lived long enough to know that what they are fighting for is worth all the discomforts we have to put up with."

Feb. 16, 1945: "Commenced bombardment (of Iwo Jima). Funny looking island with a dead volcano on one end called Surabachi."

Mar. 3, 1945: "Received ammunition off Iwo Jima from ammo ship. They finally changed the little flag on Mount Surabachi for a big one - looked like they couldn't get her up for a while but they did."

Mar. 25, 1945: "Arrived off Okinawa during the night - all quiet.

Apr. 12, 1945: "We got it today. Terrific suicide attack by God knows how many Jap planes - 55 were shot down in our immediate area. We got 5 in 4 minutes & received a suicide plane in our port blister ... When that guy hit us he really raised hell - I've got port stack, & the pieces of plane covered the entire platform - I pulled 5 pieces of Jap pilot off my clothes - the largest about as big as my hand - the explosion sure scattered him."

Jack Van Horn's last entry: "July 31 - Out for practice firing - can you imagine that!!"

Six days later, the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. On Aug. 15, Japan surrendered and World War II was over.

On Sept. 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay, Gen. MacArthur and the Allies accepted the formal Japanese surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri.

Nearby was the USS Idaho, with Jack Van Horn on board to witness the historic event.

Syd Albright is a producer/writer/journalist who lives in Post Falls. He is chairman of the Kootenai County Historic Preservation Commission.

Editor's Note: Readers wishing to donate historic artifacts to an appropriate repository, are invited to contact Syd Albright, chairman, Kootenai County Historic Preservation Commission. silverflix@roadrunner.com

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