Mr. James Russell Johnson was born in South Carolina on February 7, 1942.
Mr. Johnson is a man of African-descent who grew up during the civil rights
era. He was a member of the Marine Corps from 1960 to 1964. He served
time in Vietnam during his second tour and witnessed many men killed and
severely wounded during his time. Yet he was still able to return home
and live a "normal" life. He is an amazing man who has lived so
much in so little time. He took care of his little brothers and
sisters in a parental role before deciding to join the Marines, making immense sacrifices that truly show what its like
to be patriotic. His interview reveals the difficulties that members of
the Marine Corps faced while in Vietnam and the difficulties they faced
upon returning home.
Q: This is Amanda Pontbriand and Maria Pantelis’ interview
and today’s date is May 6, 2006. Could you please state your name?
Mr. Johnson: James Russell Johnson
Q: Where were you born?
Mr. Johnson: [Luxborg], South Carolina.
Q: Do you know the date of your birth?
Mr. Johnson: February 7, 1942
Q: Could you describe where you grew up and what your childhood
Mr. Johnson: Well, I partially grew up in South Carolina up to the age
of about five years old, and then my mother and my stepfather, they
moved to [Wilmington], North Carolina, and then eventually they moved
from there to Boston, and there I have resided in up until the point
that I joined the Marine Corps.
Q: What did your parents do for work?
Mr. Johnson: My mother, she cleaned houses, she was a housemaid in Brookline
and my stepfather, he worked labor jobs.
Q: Did you have any siblings?
Mr. Johnson: Yes, I had three brothers and one sister. Unbeknown to
me, I had another brother. That was a total of five of us, four boys
and one girl, and unbeknown to me for years because my mother had me
and my next brother over from me at a very young age, and back then
they were not able to support both of us, so she was given a choice
of giving me or my other brother up. Fortunately she gave him up to
a well to do family and kept me because of me being the oldest. And
like I said, back in those days there it was very hard on a black family
and a young woman that was 16 years old; approximately that’s
when I think she had me, and then my brother about another year and
a half later. So it was very hard for a black family to make it back
then so this is why she forced to give my other brother up. And then
I ended up assisting her once we got to Boston, and raising my other
two brothers and sister.
Q: Was it especially hard for you since you were black in South
Carolina or was it just the hard times?
Mr. Johnson: Yeah, well actually I didn’t know hard times as such
as the color barrier after moving here to Boston, but after joining
the Marine Corps, and then going to boot camp in South Carolina, and
then being stationed in North Carolina was the first time I got a shocking
wake-up call, ‘cause it was the first time when I stepped of the
bus in Jacksonville, North Carolina to report into Camp [Legeune], North
Carolina, was the first time I ever seen “white only” here
and “colored only” here.
Q: So do you think that that you were not used to this mostly
because you were in Boston and you would have been more used to it if
you were down South?
Mr. Johnson: Well, yeah. Now you see, down south I wasn’t raised
around there, and my mother always preached that “ I don’t
care what color you are, your still somebody” so consequently,
it was a shocking factor to me when I got down there; and then on top
of that after reporting in, the first time I was allowed to go off base,
well, I found that white had one side of town that they went on liberty,
and blacks had another side, what we call “across the tracks,”
where they went on liberty. And in fact, white marines where on one
side and black marines were on the other side until we had a General
come along in my time being stationed there, and he shut the whole base
down and said “ Hey, if black marines and white marines cant mingle
as marines then I wont allow them to pull liberty out there” in
Jacksonville, North Carolina. This town depended on that base because
the majority of the money that this town made came from that base. So
when he did that, that was about a week, and about a week or so latter
City Council and everybody came marching in there from Jacksonville
and saying “Hey, we’ll open up the town to all the black
and white marines.”
Q: Do you remember his name at all, the General’s name I mean?
Mr. Johnson: No, I know this happened though, for a fact.
Q: Were any of your family involved in any other wars, or where you
the first one?
Mr. Johnson: Well. I had a couple of uncles that were in the Korean
War but to my knowledge, they didn’t see combat. And back in them
days there, and talking to them things were basically a lot harder on
them than it was on me by the time I went in because I was just born
in 1942, and you go back there to the ‘30’s for what they
saw and did and times were really a lot harder, ‘cause blacks
wasn’t allowed to, regardless of participating in the military,
they could still go home but they couldn’t go to certain parts
of town, and so forth and they were hackled when they went overseas,
they were told, by the whites who told the foreigners and so forth that
blacks had tails and so forth, all kinds of off the wall stories. I
mean they really had it a lot rougher than I did and other guys by the
time I came into the service.
Q: Did your family believe in the role of the military at all?
they support you when you decided to go enlist?
Mr. Johnson: Well, my mother supported me all the way down the
line from day one. In fact, one time, she got notification that I had
been killed in combat, and we came to find out that they had the wrong
James R. Johnson. But, they had already sent, you see, the Marine Corps
sends a corpsman, a corpsman is like a doctor to us, for guys in what
we call a line company, and a grunt company. Each platoon has a corpsman
assigned to it, and this guy he’s like a doctor to us and so there
was the corpsman and an officer, or either he was a high-ranking enlisted
man that came and knocked on my mother’s door. Now one of my brothers,
he’s still here in Boston, he still remembers them coming, in
full dress uniform, and knocking on the door and telling my mother that
I was deceased. And my mother she refused to believe it, and she was
right. I didn’t understand till I got back from overseas. So when
I got back, I found out what had happened, but in the meantime, what
they required me to do, I was on a mission, and what we call a mission
back then, I was in recon. And again like I said, we worked in four
to eight man teams so they cancelled our mission out and called us back
in when they found out the mistake had been made. And when I got off
the chopper, they were running around, and I was just a little lance
corporal then, the E-3, and they were running around, and they said
“well which one of you guys is Lance Corporal Johnson, James R.
Johnson” and I said “ Me sir” and he snatched me up.
We had been out for about a week now, been out in the jungle. And our
main mission in that unit, we didn’t go out to get, and find the
enemy, but for them to find us. We went out to find them and to report
back how big a unit they were, and where they where, and that’s
it. We were to small [of] a unit to make contact. Everybody outnumbered
us; four guys, eight guys. So, they said, “well, ok” [and]
they snatched me up, and they took me to the COC Bunker, Command Operation
Center, and said, “ok, sit down, take your pack off, helmet, and
all that.” Although we didn’t wear helmets, we didn’t
wear fly jackets, ‘cause we were light, we had to travel light.
They said, “Sit down and write your mother at least a three page
letter.” “WHAT, what are you talking about?” “Sit
down and write your mother a three page letter, here, you want some
water, you want a beer? What you want?” “First of all, I
wanna know what all this is about.” “Don’t you worry
about that, sit down and write your mother.” So I scrapped out
about a page and a half and they said, “OK, that’s good.”
So they sent the letter off, they said, “Ok, now when your now
mother gets this letter she’ll reply, and her reply will be sent
to you wherever you’re at right quick. But she’s gonna get
this letter here right quick.” And then I left it at that, and
like I said, it was months later, after I came back to the states, before
I found out what they did. They had made a mistake and thought I was
another guy, who was another guy who got killed.
Q: Your mother must have been happy that you were alive.
Mr. Johnson: Well see, my mother refused to believe it, see,
that was the morale of the story. The one person that always stuck behind
me was my mother. You see, to me, she was the heart of me. And this
is why I deeply feel that you young folks today should understand one
thing, you only get one set, one chance at life, with a mother and a
father, you cant replace those two people in life. You know, I’ve
heard people make statements “Well, I’ll be glad when my
mother passes, and when my father passes”, and this is all about
money, ok? “Cause I’m gonna get this, I’m gonna get
that” and these people I look at, and I have to walk away from
them, because as I said, nobody else had faith in me, my mother did,
all the way to her grave. Always to the day I came back home. My great
grandmother, when she passed, she passed in a nursing home about a year
ago. She was 99, and the day that I came back to Boston, and I walked
in that nursing home she looked up and saw me, tears rolled out of her
eyes, and all she could say was James Russell. Southern folks have a
bad habit of, combining your first name and your middle name together,
so I grew up being called, James Russell. That was it. And when she
laid and looked up to see me, then she say “James Russell, Is
that you? ” I say “Yes, ma’am”. That was it.
That made her day right there. But she died shortly after, because they
called me back into service, after, for Desert Storm. And I begged my
relatives not to tell her they called me back into the service. One
of my cousins, girl cousins, because she had an insurance policy on
my grandmother went up there and told her they called me back into the
service. She was dead within two days. Just like that. To this day I
resent my cousin ‘cause she killed her. I firmly believe that
my grandmother would still be living to this day to a certain degree,
or outlived her another year or so if my cousin hadn’t went up
and told her. What’cha got next?
Q: Where did you attend high school, or finish high school?
Or did you? What were your high school experiences like?
Mr. Johnson: What did I do at high school here in Boston? I only
made it to 11 and a half, they say half, 11th grade. I got my GED in
Q: What were those days like for you? You know, your younger
years, your school years?
Mr. Johnson: Well, because of the fact that, like I said, my brothers
and sister were all younger than me, 15 years or 16 years younger than
me. My mother was getting up on Brookline to clean houses, to make ends
meet, and I being the oldest, I get up and I’d get my brothers
and sister dressed and everything and then take them to school, drop
them off at school, then I’d go to school. Then I’d get
out of school, and I’d come back and pick them up from school.
And then I’d take them home, change from their school clothes,
into their play clothes. I’d then take them out to play until
my mother got home. And mother would get home; she’d cook a meal,
and everything, and clean it up. I’d help her clean house and
she’d set us up for the night; pajamas and what not.
Q: They must have loved you as an older brother.
Mr. Johnson: They did. Well see, that was another factor when
I went into the service, they cried. In fact, after I got out of the
service, and then I got back, they followed me for legal, cause they
all looked up to me. I was always the one there for them you see, when
my mother was out busy working. Not to say my mother wasn’t there
for us, but she was busy working, she’d come home, she’d
cook a meal, and she’d clean up the house or whatever. I’d
try and do my best to help her here or there. And uh, she used to take
us shopping down to Haymarket Square, which you guys wouldn’t
be familiar with now, Haymarket Square used to be down near, let’s
Q: Near the old State House, right?
Mr. Johnson: Yea. It’s on, well at one time it used to be all
cobblestone streets, and I mean about a good mile or so, both sides.
And people would go down there and buy their fruit, which they still
do today. A section of it, we used to go down there and my mother would
go shopping, we’d sit up on the throwaway pile. And we’d
call it the throwaway pile therefore if an apple had a bruise on it;
they’d throw it over on this pile. Well me and my brothers and
sisters would sit there and we’d be full by the time my mother
got through shopping. We’d be full by just eating those throwaways.
Q: As a teenager, were you aware of world events that were going
on? What was going on politically?
Mr. Johnson: When I was what, in the service?
Q: A teenager in high school.
Mr. Johnson: Well, I wasn’t that much up on, up to date
on the major events per se, you know. I was aware of you know, when
I say major events, political, I wasn’t really into that. And
even school activities. The Martin Luther King march, and so forth,
I was aware of all that and so on. But I really wasn’t per se,
one way or the other. Because like I said, my mother was always strict
on that. Just cause that person is black, don’t mean that’s
a bad person. Just cause that person is white, don’t mean that
person is a bad person, you see. So it would always, she’d always
push the point don’t judge a person by their color. Or don’t
judge a person by their looks. I came from what you call my grandmother,
my mother, what you call old Southern Baptist. My grandmother, when
she was able to do it, I’d go over every Sunday. Me and her would
go to church. And the old Southern Baptist churches, people would get
up and holler and scream, and they’d fall out, and you thought
they were having a heart attack. But basically, that’s how we
were raised. But in my brothers’ and sisters’ case, when
I left and went in the service, it was like a heartbreak for them. And
just like you said yourself, I was their bigger brother, and they were
used to having me around, or me telling them what to do, or me going
have to track them down, when it was time for them to come home and
Q: I know you already answered this, but just to clarify it,
what were your opinions on the Civil Rights Movement?
You said you were far removed from it.
Mr. Johnson: Like I said, I really didn’t have any, between
what I was raised with at home, and by the time I got in the military,
then being told that politics, religion leave it alone. And to this
day, I prefer to leave it just like that. Because politics and religion
has no bearing for a soldier, per se. In my mind, because this is the
way I have been trained, from home, to a military life. Some people
say brainwash, but no. Just like this you call the border crossing,
what you call it?
Q: Border Control? Immigrants? Immigration?
Mr. Johnson: Immigration. Just like immigration. I have no say so I
don’t know what I have to say about that. No, two things, really.
First, don’t try and change the national anthem. Please don’t
do that. The next one is if you are going to crucify everyone that’s
crossing the border cause the Mexican aren’t the only ones. We
got Irish, we got Greeks, and immigrants of all different nationalities
are coming here illegal.
Q: When did you hear about the Cold War?
Mr. Johnson: The Cold War? I heard about the Cold War during
the Cuban Crisis. I went into the Marine Corps in 1960, the Cuban Crisis
erupted in ’61, ‘62. That’s when I got alerted to
that. I was in Camp [Lejeune] in North Carolina. They flew us from Camp
[Lejeune] North Carolina to Miami Beach. We eventually boarded carriers
there and spent approximately 60 days on ship, floating around Cuba.
And that’s when I found out what the Cold War was all about.
Q: Did you have any fears about Communism? Did you dislike Communism?
Mr. Johnson: Well, that’s just it; I barely knew what we were
talking about there. And when I did have it explained to me in certain
pieces here, I did search and find out what we are talking about here.
I thought Communism… Communists associated with dictatorships.
So again, I looked at it as if you’re taking somebody’s
Q: What do you recall about the general state of the country as you
came of age from teenager to serviceman?
Mr. Johnson: Let’s see, you saying what do I see…
Q: Do you think the country was united in their fight against this?
Mr. Johnson: Well, from Vietnam to this era right now, I would say are
two critical times our country in turmoil amongst our citizens, our
Q: When were those times?
Mr. Johnson: Vietnam and Iraq.
Q: If anything, do you remember the Korean War and your uncles
going? or President Eisenhower?
Mr. Johnson: I remember a lot of it from historical, like I said I watch
a lot of military channels. I get a lot from there. I also read a lot
when I got out of the service about Korea and so forth. Korea is one
of, to me, one of the worst fought wars for our servicemen. I’ve
been to Korea. The ground was frozen, we had bombs hit the ground, and
they just made a little dent. These guys in the Marine Corps, they fought
in the [Calnan] Reservoir. This is why the historical battle took place
in real life. It was so cold that the water in their canteens froze.
They survived for many days off of Tootsie Rolls.
Q: What was the name of the battle?
Mr. Johnson: Chosen Reservoir. Go to the library, I’m pretty sure
you can look it up; it’s listed there.
Q: Do you have any personal views or opinions on President John F Kennedy?
Mr. Johnson: I think he was one of the better presidents that we had.
And when I said that, whom do I compare him with. Going back in history,
I have no one to compare him to. He done a lot, in a way I admire him
for when his term of president. His civil rights were huge. He was a
guy who had his back up against the wall, and that was a big thing then.
It’s amazing that he was able to pull it off as he did. But I
believe to this day that he was assassinated and his brother, Robert
was assassinated to eliminate them from going any further into the presidency.
Q: So you remember the assassinations?
Mr. Johnson: Yeah, I definitely remember them.
Q: Do you remember where you were when they were assassinated?
Mr. Johnson: I was in the Marine barracks. The reason I remember it
so distinctly, there was a detachment of the Marines, of 75 of us, and
200 some odd sailors there. There was a missile sight base they used
to use as a tracking missile shot out of Cape Kennedy. The day we got
the word that he had been assassinated they had to run the holiday flag.
Holiday flag is, lets take this rug here, and put another one that way
there, and put two that way there, and that was a holiday flag. It so
happens that it rained like hell that day. We brought it up and we had
to bring it down at sunset. Now, it had rained all day, and the cloth,
the flag was made out of silk, we had to take this flag down, it took
12 of us we had to bring it down and we had to keep it from hitting
the ground. By rights, if a flag hits the deck, hits the ground, you
had to burn it. You destroy it right then and there, so we had to be
careful not to let it hit the ground. We had a  truck come and put
it in the back of it. We had an arcade in the center of the barracks.
The barracks is like square and the arcade is in the middle, it is open.
It’s covered with plastic gauze, ceiling like. About six of them
laid out on the carpet there in the arcade.
Q: Back to high school, were your plans to finish your eleventh grade
year and go into the army or marines?
Or did you have any other plans?
Mr. Johnson: I never made it to high school. Once I got in the first
tour, I signed up for another six. Unfortunately, after I signed up
for another six, that’s when Vietnam broke out.
Q: When did you first hear about the conflict in Vietnam?
Mr. Johnson: Actually, in ‘64. When I first heard about us having
troops. Actually, we had troops there way before that. When I first
heard about it was in’ 64
Q: How did you hear about it? Do you remember how you learned
Mr. Johnson: I heard it through the grapevine. It wasn’t something
that everyone was supposed to know. Sooner or later that we were going
to be committed into a larger force. At that time, earlier days they
had Green Berets there as early advisors. But they were talking about
sending in larger forces. You see, with the Marine Corps, if you ever
notice, whenever something happens they send the Marines in first, because
the marines can be sent anywhere without a declaration of war. They
can send the Marines anywhere without a declaration of war. You can’t
send an army in though. But you can send the Marines in anywhere. It’s
like the Mediterranean; we used to keep what we used to call in my day,
a BLT, a Battalion Landing Team. This consisted of about a thousand
Marines, attachments; attachments being tanks, artillery and all that.
Today they call it something different. But it is the same thing basically.
We keep a BLT in the Mediterranean at all times. We used to keep one
in the Caribbean. Then we keep a Navel Cruise. Our Armed forces get
together with foreign forces. So back in the earlier days…[taped
Q: Can you describe what Basic Training was like?
Mr. Johnson: It’s a lot rougher then it is now. The requirements
back then, were way more strenuous then they are today. Not to say these
guys don’t have it hard. But it’s nowhere near the training
cycle I had to go through back then, in Parris Island, South Carolina.
Parris Island S.C. is one way on, one way off. There is one way going
on the base, and one way coming off; the same road. To try to escape
other than going through the main gate is almost impossible. People
would try it and didn’t succeed. Because the simple fact that
Parris Island is surrounded by swamps. Ideally, this is why the Marine
Corps bought it. It cost them $1.00. They bought Camp [Lejune], N.C.,
and this is a big base, believe me. This could house over 10,000 marines.
They bought it for a $1.00. From Jacksonville, N.C. they bought it from
the state. It was so easy because they profited from it by staying there.
They profited from it, believe me. This is, these bases, Camp Pendleton,
it was a land grant given to the Marine Corps.
Q: Which camp?
Mr. Johnson: Camp Pendleton. It was a land grant given to the Marine
Corps, only the Marine Corps. This land grant stipulated that only Marine
Corps maintains that base.
Q: Could you give some examples, why do you think it was harder to
Mr. Johnson: Well, let’s see. It wasn’t nothing,
like we used to call back then, the grinder. In Parris Island, S.C.
We marched on that field. And it could be easily be 90, 110 easily,
in heat. On top of that, it’s worse than heat, its what we call,
muggy. Humid, real humid, because you’re surrounded by the swamp.
But it’s real humid, and on top of that, how would you like to
run three times around? Three times around the grinder would be about
3 miles. And then the DI’s would stop you in front of the barracks,
and say, whoever has them, break them out. He’s talking about
cigarettes. Who the hell wants to smoke a cigarette, after running 3
miles around the track? I tried to smoke two or three cigarettes prior
to going into the service and then I didn’t, I drank a little
wine before I went in. I really didn’t pick up on smoking until
21, 22 years old. I really wasn’t smoking that much even then.
Drinking, mostly beer. Hard stuff, I did not drink that much of at that
time. Back to the drill field, it was a totally different think. We
ran in boots, these guys today are running in sneakers and shorts. We
ran in full dress uniform. We lined up for chow, you went into chow,
and you ate anything you got on that plate. At that time, you had a
metal tray. You ate. A DI was standing there at the end of the line
where you dump your tray, and he made sure you ate everything that was
on that tray. You didn’t throw no food away. So they were a lot
stricter. The Marine Corps Boot Camp changed after the McKeon incident.
The McKeon incident happened sometime around the early 60’s. A
DI went out and got drunk, and he came back to the barracks, woke his
platoon up, and had them get dressed. He marched them out into the swamp.
Well, he [was] killed; well he was responsible for about 3 or 4 of those
guys drowning. This is at night, late at night, plus he’s drunk,
these Marines, there in their boots, there doing what they are trained
to do. This is down at Paris Island, SC. It’s called the McKeon
incident. It was named after him. That was his last name. Ever since
the McKeon incident, they’ve been very strict on the DI’s.
What they did was, before that happened, they didn’t have a DI
school. DI’s had to be trained. After the McKeon incident, a DI
had to go to DI school to prevent this from happening again. On top
of that, they had people watching the DI’s. That’s how serious
they got. He got court marshalled, and what not. That did happen.
Q: You talked about, you didn’t start drinking and you didn’t
start smoking until you were 21. Did you see a lot of that?
Mr. Johnson: That was a problem they had, that was because my drinking
and I had really increased after my first tour in Vietnam. And again,
I was in a [Reconnaissance] Unit. And worked 4 to 8 men teams. After
coming back from the first tour, my drinking really picked up then.
Then the second tour, cause I came back, in ‘65 to ‘66.
They sent me back to Camp [Lejune], NC as an instructor. Now I am teaching
Marines about the jungle tactics and the Vietnamese tactics; booby traps
and all that. They have a village that they made up at Camp [Lejune].
OK, a large village complex like they had. Puerto Rican kids that spoke
Spanish, they used them as Viet Cong. So the Marines would get the idea
of the Vietnamese village by hearing a different language. We had [tones],
village [hoopsters]. They’d come in there and they’d get
these kids we had. In fact, there was only me and the Master Gunnery
Sergeant, and another Sergeant. Me and him are on the other side of
[Candelaria]. I just met him last year, I found him after 35 years.
Last time we’d seen each other was on the combat field. But the
first tour was, after the first tour was when I went into heavy drinking.
Q: Did you see a lot of that also in your fellow Marines?
Mr. Johnson: No, I saw guys smoking weed but I didn’t see a whole
lot of Opium being smoked by Marines. In fact, not my first tour and
not my second tour. I did see a lot of marijuana, back then it was so
good, get marijuana over there like a pack of cigarettes over here in
the States. They got, what I used to call, Ready Roll. Now the whole
time, two times I was over there, this is no lie, I smoked one joint,
and I didn’t get one thing out of it. I don’t know if I
was too scared, worrying if I was going to get killed, what not. But
they had, what we called, they came in Ready Rolls, you could see right
through it. It looked just like a cigarette, minus the filter. There’s
about 10 or 20 of them in a pack. I don’t know about how much
they were paying for them. At that time it must have been a lot cheaper.
In fact, I know one guy, who supposedly, he shipped a sea pack before
they clamped down on, a full sea bag full of weed. Because in the early
days, they weren’t checking. Guys were sending back weapons, sending
back marijuana, they weren’t checking. A sea bag is about that
tall, fully packed. Back in those days, the sea bag, guys were not aware
of what was going on, guys were shipping back a number of things, weapons
to marijuana, and so forth.
Q: Had you ever heard of the theory of limited war and did you believe
Mr. Johnson: The Limited War was, you see, I have mixed feelings there,
because in Vietnam we were limited at one time, [litinaries] of shooting.
What they would tell us, there’s no fire zone over here. In other
words, we couldn’t shoot in that area over there. Now we could
see the enemy, but we couldn’t shoot them.
Q: Why did they do that?
Mr. Johnson: Young lady, to this day, I am still shaking my head trying
to figure this out. But there was, the Air Force bombing Hanoi, they
were restricted to certain places they could bomb, [and] they couldn’t
bomb. The same thing with us on the ground; there were certain areas
that we couldn’t shoot. One particular patrol that was on, we
saw what we call a [stet squad]
Q: What’s that?
Mr. Johnson: This is the Viet Cong consisting of anywhere from 4 or
5 or maybe more guerrillas. They go in to blow up a plane on a base,
an Air Force Base. We’re sitting up on a hill, calling them, we’re
telling them hey, we see -- it’s broad daylight-- we see 4 or
5 little guys in black pajamas carrying such and such weapons heading
towards them. No fire zone. At night, the Air Force base gets hit. And
we know cause we’d seen these guys. We know that’s that
same squad. [Salas quad], that would be suicidal. Like you got going
on in Iraq today. These are people that run in there and are strapped
down with all kinds of bombs and explosives on their body and run and
blow themselves up, and you. [Saves].
Q: What was it like when you first arrived in Vietnam?
Mr. Johnson: First off, my first thought was will I make it?
while, some guys would automatically nail you as a new guy. Well, you
stood out as a new guy. Some guys had been in the country, we call in
country, and they had been there for a while. You could tell the difference
between a guy who had just got there and a guy who had been there for
a while. One of the big things about being the new guy the old guy felt
compelled to teach you and show you the ropes, which was good. Which
is more or less like “taking you under his wing” and so
forth. I think back on it, I was very fortunate because being as tall
and big as I was, it was amazing that I never got hit, I’ve been
hit a few times, that I call scratches compared to a guy that is losing
his arm or losing his leg, losing half his head. I didn’t even
bother to feel. If I tried claiming every scratch I got I would half
a dozen Purple Hearts.
Q: When you arrived there did you know what you were fighting for?
Mr. Johnson: Supposedly for the freedom of the South Vietnamese from
the North Vietnamese. They are equated with the situation we have now
in South Korea and North Korea. South Korea don’t want to be a
part of North Korea, just like Germany didn’t have the wall there
dividing Germany. You had your eastern section and you had your western
section. Bottom line is I was there to assist these people into gaining
Q: Did you believe in the “Domino Theory”?
Mr. Johnson: Once I did get to understand the meaning of the “Domino
Theory” I would say no, not necessarily.
Q: So you didn’t believe that Cambodia or Laos would fall?
Mr. Johnson: No
Q: The NVA and VC fought hard against the US forces; did you see them
as primarily as communist seeking to spread their political system,
or nationalist trying to get rid of foreign presence?
Mr. Johnson: I saw them as communist. I viewed it as communist propaganda
all the way down the line. It was like Cuba, the Cuban Crisis. To this
day Castro is preaching communist. He rules the country, so to go back
to this dictatorship deal, and that what he is. He’s dictating
what people will do and what they can’t do. Just like people want
to leave there and come to the United States. They just want to come
here for a short while or even if they just want to come here and stay
here, he’s controlling what they can do and what they can’t
do. That’s dictatorship to me. I was in, unfortunately, we stopped
in the Mediterranean, Dominican Republic, they had a dictator named
[Truolio]. They just ousted him. On this ship that we was on was a troop
carrier. So you could go up on what they called O2, O3, O4 level, now
anything above the deck, the main deck of the ship, and that’s
where it went from 1, 2, 3. You could go up along on the O3, and when
we were tied up on the dock there, look over at the prison yard, and
every day at noon they hung a guy. First day I saw a guy hung, I never
went back up there again.
Q: So you wouldn’t be able to sympathize with the VC then?
Mr. Johnson: No. War is war. I learn, at first I had a lot of
hate, and then I learned to live with it. They were just like us; they
were fighting for what they believed. I learned to get that hate out
of me. Again, I go back to what my mother said. Hate is a strong word,
and it is a bad word to use. If you use it, make sure you know why you’re
using it. “I hate that person”… why do you hate that
person? Just cause he was a Vietcong? Or NVA? I fought against him;
Unbeknown to a lot of people is that we train a majority of all these
foreign forces. Okay, and unfortunately some of them turned against
us. But we, as the free people of the United States, we sacrifice ourselves
to maintain freedom for a lot of other folks.
Q: So, generally you would say you were there to further fight for
Mr. Johnson: It’s been said, you see communist, especially in
Vietnam, my second tour, I was a sergeant then. First tour I was being
lead, second tour I was doing the leading. And there is a big difference.
When you’re leading, and your responsible, your responsible for
their lives, you are more or less making life changing decisions. Who
lives and who dies?
You tend to look back in later years and ask yourself
“did I make the right decision?
Was I responsible for this guy
Q: During down time, how did you spend your time?
Did you count the
days till your departure?
Mr. Johnson: Down time, my first tour, what
we called “down time” that was, we would go out, two weeks
straight with no problem. We would get re-supplied, then we would have
to go from point A to point B, and then get re-supplied at point C.
And then stay out another week or so, and when we got back to camp,
our tent was down here, and the generals tent was up here, and quite
nicely when it rained the rain would come down. Our shower was a couple
pieces of bamboo stuck up there, and a base of a rock, and then you
had a shower. Come back in our clothes and boots that we had on for
a week or two. We were all dead tired and we were talking about sleep,
and we had been out for two weeks or so, and so if you combine we were
lucky if we had two hundred hours of sleep.
Q: So downtime didn’t even exist?
Mr. Johnson: So when we got back we just sleep, basically for the first
day and night when we got up and then cleaned up and shaved our beards
and the next thing we knew we were back out again.
Q: Did that make you…?
Mr. Johnson: Well see, you have to understand when I saw [Recutlis Unit].
We were the eyes and ears of the other unit. Okay, that’s why
we didn’t go out to make contact. We would go out there find out
where they were and report back.
Q: What would you say was the hardest part of combat?
Mr. Johnson: Well, I’d say, a guy got killed that you knew very
well. That was the hardest part, not even killed but wounded. Having
a friend get hurt, that was the hardest part; especially if you knew
that person very well.
Q: Would you say that you more in fear of someone else getting killed
than in fear of you yourself getting killed?
Mr. Johnson: Yeah.
Q: Do you think that when you were in basic training that they were
training you not to have reaction and emotions to things that happened
in the war?
Mr. Johnson: Yeah. They can train you, all they want, but emotion will
always be there. It might not happen right then, in my case, years later
it took effect, and you think about, like I say years later. But, as
far as certain cases, I wished it were me.
Q: What were the “search and destroy” like?
Mr. Johnson: Well the second tour, the platoon sergeant, were just what
they meant. You were searching and then you were destroying. Material
factor was mainly what you were to destroy. Hopefully you wouldn’t
have to come in contact with many civilians. You have to remember that
these people here, just like the people right now in Iraq, they know
that we, as American people, we are very sensitive to two things, kids
and females. They know that we are very sensitive to this factor and
they will use that against us in a heartbeat. They have proven that
in Vietnam and they have proven that now in Iraq. Don’t think
for a minute that that kid that walks up to you in the street, that
could be very innocent and not know what’s going on, could be
strapped down with a half pound of TNT. They will blow themselves up
and then you. Then they say casualties of war. I know you will ask about
it so My Lai, I’ve never seen anything like My Lai. Heard about,
I was around, but I have never seen or participated in it or had anything
to do with it.
Q: Do you believe that it happened?
Mr. Johnson: My Lai?
I’m certain it probably did but not on the
scale it was blown up to be. Now mistakes have been made in war, we
have killed our own in war; we’ve made the mistake of taking peoples
Q: How did you feel about the enemy combatants?
Mr. Johnson: I think that their tactics were wrong, dead wrong. You
see you put the fighting person in a weird situation because how am
I going to be able to trust this women and or kid walking up to me and
asking if they can have a piece of candy or something, am I going to
be able to trust them?
I don’t know.
Q: Did you witness any reasons to not trust them?
Mr. Johnson: At times, they made contact, and we would let them to get
within a hundred yards of us.
Q: So you couldn’t even distinguish between them?
Mr. Johnson: It’s hard, to say who’s who when you know they
say “Everyone whose black looks alike” well it was the same
for them. But then they all look alike and so you couldn’t trust
them. The bottom line was that you couldn’t trust them.
Q: Do you think that compared to the morale of your people in the beginning,
do you think that this affected their morale near the end?
Mr. Johnson: In my two tours of Vietnam, the one thing that I never
had no problem with was with all the marines around me was the morale
factor. I only saw, one occasion and that was when they called me back
from “Desert Storm”, I had one guy refuse, a guy from my
firing range, say “Hey, I ain’t goin', I quit.” I
say, “You don’t quit, you in the Marine Corps son, you signed
a contract, you can’t quit.” And he looked at me, and this
other sergeant, a staff sergeant, took him over and talked to him for
a while, and he said okay I’ll go. Well what happened was this
staff sergeant took him over to the corner and talked to him and he
came back and said “Hey you see that guy over there, that guy
spent two tours in Vietnam, and you are going to stand here and tell
him you aren’t going to fight?
Q: You told us that you were in a position in command during
your second tour.
Mr. Johnson: During the second tour I was a platoon sergeant.
Now normally I would have a lieutenant; I would have him the whole second
tour. I went back, when I went to check in, check in with the company,
they were just coming out of [Lace] City. Lace City was a big battle
for the Marine Corps at that time. We took a beating there, big time.
They were finally able to, they called it the Tet Offense. I was singed
to a platoon. I was supposed E5 sergeant. There was a sergeant already
there, patrolling the platoon, and he was supposed to rotate back to
the states in a couple months. So I was assigned a platoon to get familiar
with the troops. And being on my second tour they were all very familiar
that I had been to Vietnam, and I had been recon, I had been worked,
in what I call and eye core area of Vietnam. So, what happened was to
cut it real short, I was assigned to be a platoon sergeant and this
other sergeant was already there, but when he rotated, or when he was
due to rotate, was in a couple of months. Meantime, we left [Whey] City,
and we went to another area of the eye core. What happened was, there
was another unit that got over run. So the NVA had half the hill and
they had half the hill. So what happened was, they moved us in at night
to try to reinforce that company. And unbeknown to the NVA, the company
that was overrun was on one hill, and we were on the knoll of another
hill and then you got a little saddle in between the two hills, so we
set up over there getting ready to move in at night, to reinforce the
other company. Well, unbeknown to the NVA, a couple of them came traveling
through that night, like they was just ditty bopping right on past us.
Both of them got killed. So now, because of that, they held off on making
a move over onto the next hill, because they figured that this had alerted
the main force of the NVA that we were over there on that hill, but
apparently they didn’t take need to that, so the following night
we made the move to go over and reinforce the other company. And doing
so, and like I said half the hill had already been taken by the NVA,
the platoon sergeant, that I was supposed to be relieving, he was the
second or third man leading into the trench line to reinforce the company.
Well he got hit, and as soon as he got hit, I was on the rear and everybody
past the word back, “Sergeant Johnson up, sergeant Johnson up!”
I got up there and found out that he got hit, in the leg, so they med-evacuated
him back to the rear of the hill. Then I take the rest of the platoon,
lead them at the base of where, the quarter of the hill we had, and
lead them in there. Then the company commanders passed the word that
we were going to stand up and were going to take the hill back. I go
and find the company commander and told him “Sir, that’s
suicide. They’re looking down on us and were going to go charging
up that hill. Were going to look like dogs. Only way we’re going
to go back up that hill is we’re going to have to crawl.”
So what happened was, we started at about approximately nine o’clock
that night to retake the hill. And doing so, one of the bunkers that
the company had was overrun, and now the NVA had it. So now, the right
flank couldn’t advance because they had that bunker. So I sent
out three guys, one of them, a law; a law is and anti-tank weapon; comes
out like that and then the sight flips up and you aim it, and then you
shoot it. I sent three guys up, I passed the word on to the rest of
the line that these guys were going out and coming back to aim down
on that bunker and knock that bunker out, which they did. Then they
came back. When they came back, the two guys were carrying the third
guy in a poncho. He got hit. They killed him. The bullet grazed his
helmet, right across the temple, enough that it killed him, just grazed
him. This kid was from New York, never forget it. I used to tell him
about his helmet. He always used to wear it cocked to the side “Wear
the helmet like it should be.” and to this day I believe that’s
what got him killed. He had the helmet bent to the side, even though
he had to fire that weapon, he had the helmet bent to the side. So when
the bullet struck him, if he had had the helmet on his head straight,
it would have nine out of ten hit the helmet and deflected. So that
was one of a few cases. And regaining the hill that night, unbeknown
to me until daybreak the next morning, we regained the hill, and then
the NVA retreated and then it was a bunker where they had overrun, they
had taken satchel chargers. A satchel charge is about the size of your
recorder there, and they had thrown them in there to explode the bunker,
but they hadn’t exploded. Now we got guys in the bunker yelling
“Hey, we’re marines, we’re marines!” Now how
they got overrun in the first place was that a patrol that was sent
out, down at the base of the hill, got overrun and got wiped out. One
kid made it back to the line, but he was killed right there, under fire.
Now the NVA stripped these guys of their helmets and their [flap] jackets.
And then somehow or another, they were Spanish speaking, they were able
to penetrate the lines and that’s how they overran the hill and
how they got in the lines. Now these guys they were in the bunker, we
didn’t know if they were NVA or if American marines. So the only
thing I could think of, to verify who they were was to sing the Marine
Corps hymn. I’m thinking, “Hey, ain’t to many NVA
know that one.” And these guys started singing the Marine Corps
hymn in good fashion. And that’s how we got around it.
Q: During Johnson’s term of office, which was from 1963 to 1968,
he greatly escalated American troop levels to 520,000 people by 1967
to 1968. Did you think that we, the country were doing enough to win
Mr. Johnson: Well, the biggest problem we had was, again all this I
found out later on, when I was able to get back home and sit down and
really get an understanding of what was going on, what’s been
going on, is that they were controlling the war from back here from
the White House. Nobody was listening to these guys, the generals that
are on the front lines. They were telling them what to do, from back
here. And some guy, some genius that was supposedly supposed to be able
to predict what was going to happen in war and so forth, wrong. He had
no idea, they had no idea what the hell was going on and they didn’t
listen to the generals. Just like Iraq, Colin Powell came out here not
too long ago, a few days ago and he said, “I tried to tell President
Bush to send more troops than we did initially.” In other words
it’s better to send more than less, and if we send too many, then
we can always bring them back. So now, you’ve uncommitted yourself
and now you can’t commit more troops because now everybody’s
hollering that “Hey, bring the troops home.” See?
Q: What did winning the war look like to you?
Mr. Johnson: In which way? We didn’t win Vietnam.
Q: How do you think we could have won the war?
Mr. Johnson: First off, we could have won it had we put forth full force.
Like I told you, we were restricted on where we could shoot and where
we couldn’t. At the same token, the Air Force was restricted on
where they could bomb and where they couldn’t bomb. So we were
fighting with one hand tied behind our backs.
Q: Do you believe it was a war against an ideal or do you believe it
was a war against something concrete, a war against an enemy?
Mr. Johnson: I think it was more of a war, again once I got back and
I was able to get more detail, and more knowledge of what the hell I
was doing over there, and what it was all about, I think it was more
political than anything. Simple fact. But proven fact, if you go back
further than that, if you go back to President Truman and McArthur was
general. When McArthur wanted to go into Indochina and go right through
it, Truman said no and he pulled him back out. Now, Indochina is Vietnam,
as we know it today. Now what’s going to happen here in Iraq is,
basically what I see coming, is basically the same thing. Now, the bottom
line is we are going to eventually end up pulling out of there. It might
not be on President Bush’s watch, but the next President that
takes over is going to pull out, ‘cause we’re facing a big
arch here now. You got Iran, you got Pakistan, and you got Iraq. You
get these three forces from these major countries together, and we got
a problem, and especially if Iran comes up with nuclear capabilities.
Q: Around this time, the civil rights movement was becoming
front-page news and very big. Do you think it created any racial tension
between troops? You said that in boot camp there was tension but did
you see any in Vietnam during combat?
Mr. Johnson: No, well, you had statements made by one marine onto another
marine, black white or whatever, so forth. In fact, when I was a platoon
sergeant overseas or in combat and back here in peacetime, I had that
problem with my troops at one time or another, a racial problem. And
I had to deal with it. So I had to take these two marines and set them
aside, or I just would take the whole platoon really and say, “Hey,
I don’t care what your nationality is and so forth, all I see
is green, and if that’s all I see then all of you are marines.”
So I threw them all in one barrel.
Q: You said there wasn’t down time, but what about leave?
What was that like?
Mr. Johnson: Leave, I would take leave and come back home on occasion,
ten days leave. I’ve taken leave in the station over at [Okinawa]
a couple of times. I’ve taken leave to other military bases while
I was in [Okinawa]. Normally, at least ten days a year I would take
over here and come see my mother and so forth. I figure, at that time,
we got at least sixty days leave on the books annually, for the year.
Q: As of 1967, opposition to the war was increasing at home. Did you
feel that the anti-war protestors were betraying you?
Mr. Johnson: My second tour I came back into the United States at Travis
Air Force Base in California. And unknowingly, I was one of those guys,
nobody told me all this friction, well, we heard there was friction
back here but I didn’t know it was that close to the base. Walked
out the main gate, I got spit on; I got called a baby killer and all
this and that. You know, I was more scared of them than I think I was
when in combat.
Q: Did you here about Kent State and so forth?
Mr. Johnson: Yeah I heard about Kent State. Kent State unfortunately,
to me, was a mistake. First of all, the mistake was, whoever were in
charge, allowing those troops to go in with loaded weapons, armed weapons.
They shouldn’t have had the ammo on them in the first place. They
didn’t need it. There was no need for live ammo. You only goin’
up against stick, stones at the most. So where was the need for live
ammo? There was no need. You can’t convince me that there was
a need for it.
Q: Do you believe that the coverage that was given to Kent State was
unfair and that more press coverage should have been given to Vietnam
and the thousands of men that were dying there?
Mr. Johnson: Well, there was a lot of unfairness in Vietnam. Vietnam
was one of the wars where, the guys that really weren’t given
any credit for the job they did. All the mistakes, of any wrongdoing
they did were broadcast more than any of the right they did. So I mean,
Kent State only boosted the more ignorant factor to a lot of folks that
didn’t really understand. There is a breakdown here, you got your
active duty personnel, you got your inactive duty personnel, which is
reserve and all branches, and then you have your national guard. Unbeknown
to a lot of people, The National Guard is controlled by the state of
that state. Now because of a bad decision made here a while back, when
they took the draft out, which was a bad mistake and I saw it coming
way before as soon as they took it out, is that there is goin’
to be a shortage of troops, which we have run into. Now this is why
they were forced to go to the National Guard. In turn, you drain the
National Guard of the state, so this is why New Orleans didn’t
have enough appropriate people to assist them. See that is just one
of many disasters that happened in the United States because we have
activated the National Guard, which the president can do. The Federal
government can step in and override the State and activate those National
Guardsmen on active duty. But then in turn, they run into another problem,
which they are trying to clear up right now. Once you took the National
Guardsmen and made him active duty, when you got through with him, well
he got wounded or killed in combat or what not or when you got through
with him period, you send him back to the state, but he didn’t
get reap no veterans benefits. Wrong. Very wrong! That guy rates just
as much as the next guy.
Q: Do you think that when troops were over in Vietnam, and they
heard about all the protesting and such, it made them not want to win?
Instead of thinking they were over there and wanted to win, they just
wanted to get out of there?
Mr. Johnson: Young lady, your always going to have, I don’t care
what it is, I look at it this way, your always going to have ten percent.
You’re never not goin’ to please everybody all the time.
There’s always going to be ten percent that you ain't going to
please. You might get ninety but you ain't getting one hundred. So I
don’t care what you go through in life, always look forward to
saying, “Hey, At least I got ninety percent.” Cause you
not going to get one hundred percent, there is always going to be ten
percent that’s goin’ to say, “I disagree”.
Q: When Nixon was elected in 1968, he promised “Peace with Honor”
which was to gradually turn the war over to the South Vietnamese ARVN
forces. Did that seem like a good idea at the time?
Mr. Johnson: By the time I heard about it, it had come and gone. They
were very incapable at that time, of handling it anyway. See, another
lesson that we should have taken heed to is before we ever went into
Vietnam there was two other countries that went into Vietnam. France
went in there and tried to take control and there was China, and both
of them failed.
Q: When all the combat was over and done and you and the forces were
ready to come home, how did it feel?
Mr. Johnson: Well troops, well for me, combat is never over, because
I, its like, to do stuff with these guys every day and one of them gets
killed or one of them gets wounded, I live with it every day.
Q: You told us about how you felt towards the Vietnamese, but do you
know how they felt towards you?
When you were there, how did you see
them react to you?
Mr. Johnson: You could say that the greater population gave me the feeling
that they were glad you were there, but then again you got to understand,
they were being played by two sides. They were trying to please us;
at the same token they had to please the communist side. Just like,
when the lights went out after dark, that’s when the Viet Cong
and the NVA came in.
Q: You told us about the Mai Lai Massacre; did you see this as the
classic example of American presence and our tactics?
Mr. Johnson: Well, see that’s just it. Command, or what I call
command decisions, should be left up entirely to the individual in command
at the time. And, I give you your prime example when we are talking
about ships being taken; the Pueblo crisis. Now this was a spy ship
we had that was taken in by the North Koreans if I’m not mistaken.
And they captured our ship and ordered it, and stripped it of the crew
and all the intelligence equipment and so forth that may have been on
the ship or whatever. And fortunately, we were able to get back all
the crew I believe, but the ship, by the time we found it, I don’t
know if they ever got the ship back, anyway, but I’m pretty sure
it had been stripped. So, now, a lot of people blamed the captain. See,
the captain of the ship, first off, we know he’s the fall guy.
I don’t care what you say, once he gets out to Sea, it’s
his ship and he’s to blame, but he should have never surrendered
that ship. If he had to blow that ship up and abandon that ship, that’s
what’s supposed to have been done, but he didn’t choose
to do that, which cost him his career.
Q: You told us a little bit about the Tet Offensive, you used another
word for it, but what were your perceptions of it?
Mr. Johnson: Well, the Tet Offensive, like I said, I came in on the
rear of it. But these guys, it’s a citadel at the time, you’re
talking about fighting within a compound, and walls were about three
feet thick. You talking about, they were using the sewage, they were
popping out of the sewer system. It’s like fighting within a city,
they very hard to do. Well, any war, when you’re fighting in they’re
territory, which they know way better than you, it harder. Just like
these guys in Iraq today, they catching hell because you’re talking
about going house to house. God knows which one; you kick the door in,
what you might be kicking in.
Q: How did your views of the Vietnamese change over the months you
served there, did it change at all, did you see them differently at
Mr. Johnson: Matter of fact, it was years later, after I got
back here in Boston, that I first had the first couple of contacts with
Vietnamese. In fact, I had a contact with a couple of cleaners living
over on Hyde Park Ave. and the young lady that was serving, she saw
that I had a Marine Corps jacket and she said “Oh, you was a Marine?
” I said “Yeah” She said, “You in Vietnam?”
I said “Yeah” She said, “My father was in Vietnam,
he was Cong in the NVA” Well, at first that didn’t go over
too hot with me, but then, again like I said, why should I hate this
guy, I couldn’t blame him. He was doing what he was told to do;
I was doing what I was told to do. That’s all.
Q: Do you mind if we ask some harder questions?
Mr. Johnson: Go ahead.
Q: You told us about being in command and seeing people wounded around
you, and killing a lot of people, did that ever make you feel detached
Mr. Johnson: Like I said, you know, I’ve seen a lot of guys wounded
and killed, but it is all a part of war.
Q: Have you been to the Vietnam War memorial?
Mr. Johnson: Yeah, I’ve been to the one here; they have a mobile
one. It came here a couple of years ago down on the Boston Commons and
I went down there. Because of the simple fact that most of the guys
that I knew, that were either killed or wounded in combat, I only knew,
basically, by nickname or last name. Unfortunately one guy that I knew
for a fact, me and him left here together, left Boston together and
rode the train down together and checked into boot camp together down
there and then we got out of boot camp, and then we ended up being stationed
at Trinidad, West Indies together. And I was his best man, he got married
down there and his name was [Dudley Jordan], and at the time me and
him were both over in Vietnam the second time, at the same time, but
two different units. And he got killed, and his wife tried her best
to locate me, but not knowing my full name or my Social Security number.
At the time, we didn’t have our social security numbers, we had
serial numbers. They didn’t come up with social security numbers
till the late ‘70’s or ‘80’s, somewhere around
there, before that we had our service numbers. A service number you
could tell, basically, generally what part of the country, the United
States the guy was from. That was a service number.
Q: So was this experience of going to the Vietnam War memorial a good
Mr. Johnson: Well, yeah. It has its bearing on me because, unfortunately,
I was only to pick him out because I had his full name and last four
digits of his social security. So I was only able to pick him out, which
I’m quite sure there were many other guys on there that I had
served with. In fact, I’ll tell you a little short story. My Grandkids,
first time I was, my daughter, she married a Marine. And they spent
six years over in [Okinawa] so then when they came back here they were
stationed in [Quanko] Virginia where they are right now. And so when
I was going down to visit them, because my wife she had just changed
jobs so she couldn’t go, so I was going down to visit them, and
my daughter told my grandkids that I was coming down to see them and
the youngest grand kid, there are two girls and one boy, the youngest
one, [Kiana], she said, “When Grandpa gets here, we can take him
up to the wall, to see the wall, to see if his name is one it.”
See, that’s innocence, that’s how innocent she is, she’s
just a baby. In fact, she’s just eight now, and at the time she
was just seven, or about six. But that shows you just innocence, pure
innocence. She had no idea, other than the fact that she just knew that
there was a wall that she had heard her mother and her father talk about
and so forth.
Q: Have your ideas about the war changed from when you were a young
man till today, now that you’ve experienced more and read more
and thought about it?
Mr. Johnson: When you say ideas, fighting for freedom, or following
Q: Just the war in general, like your perceptions of it, was it correct,
what you did there?
You say you have been watching those military shows,
have they made you think differently about your time over there, why
you were there, and what happened while you were there?
Mr. Johnson: Well, different period of time and different people or
countries that you are involved with now here. So, you know, a different
era of time. But the many issues that back in my days, that we were
faced with, the racial issues, the Kent State issues, the many issues
that we were faced with back then when we were over there, we were really
out of tune to that, because we were too busy trying to stay alive.
Q: What do you consider some of the most important lessons learned
ion Vietnam for you personally?
Mr. Johnson: Well, one for a fact is the dependency on your buddy in
combat. You just don’t know how precious that is until you’re
in a life or death situation. So you know the truest factor that I can
say that was ever said was when me and that guy had to depend on one
another, believe me it was just that. And there is no getting around
it. It’s just like two cops saying, or a firemen saying “Hey,
that’s my second best buddy than my wife.” But, you learned
to depend, your trained to depend on one another. First off, there’s
no if and or buts around it. Your training is key to all of it, if you
get it up here, in your training, then I’m telling you, your goin’
to survive. Now everybody’s not goin’ to survive, somebody’s
goin’ to get hurt. And you know this, you just hoping it ain’t
you, then again you hoping it ain’t him.
Q: What were the lessons that the nation should have learned from the
Mr. Johnson: First off, we got too quick to commit ourselves on our
forces, into areas beyond our control. From Vietnam, we should have
learned the lesson that if we have over committed ourselves in Iraq,
and we are paying dearly. Now, so far we haven’t paid the price
that we paid in Vietnam, cause your talking approximately fifty seven
thousand military personnel that we lost there, that’s military
personnel, we haven’t even gotten into civilian personnel that
were assigned over there and so forth. Now we’re approaching,
last count I got here in Iraq is twenty five hundred I think, twenty
six thousand. Now again, that’s not a break down of killed, KIA
and WIA that might be just a break down of killed. So there’s
a big difference there, if you told about, who’s killed who’s
wounded and whose missing, that’s the biggest thing your goin’
to be confronted with. In Vietnam, we’re still missing, unaccounted
for, a few hundred military personnel. But then again, there is a lot
that hasn’t been said there because a lot of people don’t
want to talk about it. They had a disease, that we called Black Death,
that they purposely, I don’t know how they did it, I don’t
know if they injected the female with it or how they inserted into their
bodies, but anyway, servicemen that had sexual contact with one of these
females, he would come out and, give or take a week or two later, his
whole groin area would turn black and that’s why we called it
Black Death. I only saw one case in my whole time there, but when they
caught hold of what was going on, they were given a choice. You can
either, write home and tell them you ain’t coming home, or we
can list you missing in action. And then they had a little island, outside
of Saigon supposedly, that these guys were sent to, so as not to make
contact with anybody else. So these guys are part of your missing in
action, unbeknown to a lot of people. And you will find very few people
that want to talk about, I probably shouldn’t be telling you right
now because you’ll find very few people want to talk about it,
when it comes to a very touchy subject. Another, you got a lot of guys,
I wouldn’t say a lot, but you few guys that, at their own will,
stay there, cause they married a Vietnamese girl or they just wanted
to stay there, maybe with her.
Q: This is our final question. If there is anything you needed to say
right now, that you could end it, what would it be?
Any message that
you feel is important that we didn’t ask, or we didn’t cover?
Mr. Johnson: To this day I strongly believe in the American way. And
I’ve heard, that probably the biggest topic in life that I’ve
been confronted with is been the racial factor. I’ve been asked
this by rough riding people, “How did you like it over there?
How were you treated over there?” The worst country, believe it
or not, and I didn’t know it till after the fact, that I’ve
ever been in was South Africa. You know why, we stopped there coming
back out of the Mediterranean, and the rock of Gibraltar was over to
my right, and South Africa was over to my left. And I was leaning over
the railing with another marine, and low and behold, the ship pulled
in, and we were pulling a liberty stop there. We were supposed to have
been there for a few days, I think three to five days, something I like
that, I cant remember exactly, but anyway, we ended up leaving a lot
sooner, I think we were only there for two days, about that long. And
then we pulled up anchor and said, hey, we’re leaving. Down the
road, word got out, reason we had to pull out of there, or the reason
the captain says, “Hey, were pulling out.” Is cause the
South Africans didn’t appreciate a person of my complexion, so
its amazing now. So your talking about a race that’s darker than
men and they didn’t appreciate my color, because they thought
I was a mixture of white and black. So that’s all.
Q: Thank you very much for the interview. We really appreciate
Mr. Johnson: My pleasure.