Joe Bonham feels nauseous and hears a ringing that sounds like a telephone. In a dream-memory, he stumbles through the shipping room of the bakery where he used to work, trying to reach the telephone. His mother is on the other end of the line. Joe tells Jody Simmons, the night foreman, that his father has died and he must go home.
Another worker drives Joe home through the Los Angeles streets, wet in wintertime. Joe's house is quiet. His father lies dead with a sheet pulled over him. Joe's oldest sister is crying in the corner, and his mother greets him. Joe takes the two women into the kitchen and then hears the men at the door who have come to remove the body. Joe takes one last look at his father's tired, 51-year- old face and feels pity for him. Joe returns to the kitchen and listens as the men place his father's body in their wicker casket and carry it downstairs. Joe wonders if the men are carrying it carefully and gently as his father would have.
The memory ends. Joe wonders how many times he will have to relive it in his state, with the endless ringing of the phone. Joe slowly realizes that he is not hung over, but actually sick. He realizes that everything is still and quiet aside from the recurring ringing. The telephone sounds particularly lonely, unlike any other telephone he has ever heard.
Joe becomes afraid, realizing that he is awake although he cannot see. As he begins to sweat, he is able to feel the bandages in which he is wrapped from head to toe. Joe soon realizes that he is deaf, as he cannot hear the pounding of his heart. Joe wonders what it will be like to communicate by writing on paper. He is thankful not to have to hear the sounds of war any longer.
Joe sinks back into memory. His mother and father were happy together and used to reminisce about their own courtship. Before they were married, his father used to telephone his mother on a party line from eighteen miles away. Neighbors would listen as his father would tell his mother that he loved her and as he would ask her to play a song on the piano. His mother would play a song for his father, while others would listen in and soon make their own requests. Joe feels sick as the sounds of the telephone and tinkling piano play in a lonesome fashion over a heavy silence in his mind.
Joe's mother would bake bread twice a week and would can fruit all autumn. Joe remembers her singing while she worked. On Saturday nights, when he was young, he used to run down to the store where his father worked late. His father would give him thirty cents from his paycheck, and Joe would order three hamburgers from the hamburger man and meet his father at home with them. In the fall, it would begin to snow, and Joe would play with his sled all day. In the spring, he and other kids would gather primroses.
One year, the aviator Lincoln Beechy came to town; it was the first airplane that Shale City ever saw. Mr. Hargraves, the superintendent of schools, gave a speech about the invention of the airplane bringing people together and bringing peace to the world. The whole city mourned when Lincoln Beechy died in the San Francisco Bay several months later.
For Joe's birthday in December, his mother would always cook a big dinner for his friends, and then his father would take them to see a show after dinner. In autumn, everyone went to the County Fair. In summer, they would swim in a local ditch and talk about girls. When Joe was old enough, he and the other boys would take girls on dates to the pavilion and dance with them and smoke cigarettes.
In the Shale City cigar store, the old men would sit and talk about the upcoming war, but it was not until his family moved to Los Angeles that Joe first became conscious about the war. Then Joe's father died and America entered the war and he himself had gone to war, too. Joe thinks back regretfully about his entry into a war that turned out to have nothing to do with him in the end.
Chapters i and ii introduce us to the technique Trumbo uses to present virtually all the material in Johnny Got His Gun. Everything happens inside the head of the protagonist, Joe Bonham. The description and dialogue that fills out the novel occurs within Joe's flashback memories. Within the first book, memories are often triggered by Joe's bodily state. The ringing in Joe's newly deaf ears in Chapter i, for instance, melds into his memory of phone ringing on the night of his father's death.
When Chapter i opens, Joe has clearly been unconscious for a period of time, and he is now trying to evaluate his health and surroundings. The novel begins with Joe's reentry into conscious life. This rebirth is marked by the accompanying memory of his father's death, thus introducing one of the main themes of the novel—the confluence of birth, or life, and death.
Joe's memories, which alternately overtake his consciousness and then fade away, highlight his current deadened state. The memory of the night of his father's death is full of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile feelings, while Joe seems not to see, smell, taste, or hear anything in his current state. His only remaining sense, that of touch, reveals bandages covering his entire body. The memory of his father's death also depicts Joe in a position as authority and caretaker, which again highlights the helplessness and isolation of his current position. The memories stress connections between people—some of them long-distance, as with the telephone courtship of Joe's mother and father—that further highlight the isolation of Joe's present condition.
Joe's bitterness about the circumstances of his participation in World War I is already apparent in Chapter i. Joe's underlying sense of betrayal becomes clear in his anger over the apparent lack of protection afforded by "bombproof dugouts." His language, which refers to "they"—as in "where did they get that stuff about bombproof dugouts"—already points to an "us"-vs.-"them" distinction that informs Joe's relationship with authority. The extent of the anger and fear Joe experienced during his service becomes clear when we see that his first reaction to realizing his deafness is relief—relief that he will never again hear the sounds of warfare.
Many of Joe's memories are nostalgic and overly positive about his American boyhood. However, we must examine and evaluate this nostalgia in the context of Joe's current condition. Furthermore, while nostalgic, some of the memories do reveal a sense of skepticism or irony, as with Joe's memory of the superintendent's speech about Lincoln Beechy. The superintendent, along with the people of Shale City, uphold the airplane as an instrument of peace—a tool to bring the people of the world together and collapse their differences. However, the context within which the memory is relived—Joe's recent experience of being bombed by airplanes—highlights the naïveté the citizens of Shale City, including Joe himself, enjoyed before the war.
At the end of Chapter ii, Joe, full of regret, speaks to himself in the third person. This technique, which Trumbo uses only rarely in the rest of the novel, establishes Joe not as an unfortunate, isolated victim of war, but as a figure of larger significance—a figure being contemplated and spoken to by a larger group of people.