“I just felt like someone would want to know when these people had died”

| January 2, 2014 | 17 Comments

Not all heroic acts occur on a battlefield.  And not all are recognized at the time; some are not observed, or otherwise slip through the crack.  Some are even ignored or forgotten for a while – sometimes permanently.

Sixty-plus years ago, an act of heroism occurred.  It was one among many that occurred during the Korean War.

It’s a story you’ve likely never heard.  I hadn’t either – until today.

It’s a story worth hearing.  But you might want to grab a tissue or two first.

. . .


Wayne Archer “Johnnie” Johnson
16 December 1931 – 1 June 2011

 

PFC Wayne A. “Johnnie” Johnson was an 18-year-old soldier.  His first permanent duty assignment was occupation duty in Japan.

In July 1950, he received his second assignment:  Korea.  It wasn’t pleasant.

Johnson’s unit was part of the Army’s 24th Infantry Division.  In early July, they were deployed from Japan to Korea.

After arriving at the front, Johnson’s unit was committed to the Battle of Chochiwon.  On his sixth day at the front, near Chochiwon, Johnson was taken prisoner.

Not long afterwards, as part of a group of 758 POWs and civilian internees Johnson was moved to North Korea.  The group was moved under the command of a brutal North Korean Major referred to as “the Tiger” – giving rise to the name “Tiger Group”.  At least one straggler was executed in cold blood during the move as an example for the other prisoners.

Of the group, nearly 500 died before the end of the war.  The first occurred, tragically, from friendly fire.  A building in which the POWs were held during the move north was strafed, killing several US personnel.

Conditions for POWs were abysmal.  Record-keeping of any type by POWs was forbidden by their captors.

Johnson knew that, and the risks involved.  He decided to ignore the prohibition.

He began recording POW deaths.  Just the basics:  name, rank, date of death, unit, and hometown.

Johnson used stolen supplies to record his lists.  He was discovered once, and severely beaten.  His list was confiscated as “propaganda”.

Johnson wasn’t dumb, though.  He’d made a second copy of his list and hidden it in another location.

He continued keeping his list.  At the end, Johnson had documented the deaths of 496 members of the original 758 “Tiger group” of POWs.

After the Korean War, Johnson was repatriated.  Shortly before he was to be released, the Red Cross gave all returnees a small bag of supplies.  In that bag was a metal toothpaste tube.

Johnson removed the toothpaste, washed the tube, and used that to store his list.  It was in that tube that the list returned to US control with Johnson.

The list was noted during Johnson’s debriefing.  The debriefer wrote a memo recommending Johnson be commended for his actions.  But for whatever reason, the memo – and Johnson’s list – was then forgotten for 40+ years.

But it wasn’t to stay forgotten forever.

. . .

The “Tiger Survivors” periodically held reunions.  In 1995 (or 1996; accounts differ), Johnson attended such a reunion.  He mentioned his list to other survivors.  A DPMO staffer at the reunion also heard of the list.

Johnson’s original debriefing files were rechecked.  The original memo recommending him for commendation was forwarded to HQ, Department of the Army.

In 1996, the Army corrected a 40+ year old oversight.  Johnson was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery in keeping the list as a POW.

Johnson’s list survives in digital form here.  Though not all 496 names were recoverable from his original list, the vast majority were.

After the Korean War, Johnson became a resident of Texas. Sadly, Wayne Archer “Johnnie” Johnson passed away in 2011 at age 79.  He’s buried in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, San Antonio, TX.

. . .

Years later, Johnson was asked why he risked his life to maintain his list.  After all, his list couldn’t really help the dead, and could well get himself (and anyone else who knew of it or helped him) severely punished or killed.  Indeed, it had gotten Johnson severely punished on one occasion.

For Johnson’s response, see the title of this article.

Well done, my elder brother-in-arms.  Well done indeed.

Rest in peace.

—————————

Notes on sources:

1.  The DPMO web page concerning Johnnie Johnson’s list is linked above.

2.  The LA Times published a good article concerning Johnson and his list when he was awarded the Silver Star in 1996.

3.  A second source with additional details may be found here.  Numerous others also exist.

4.  Information on the Battle of Chochiwon may be found here.

5.  Johnson’s memorial page may be found here.

Category: Historical, No Longer Missing, North Korea, Real Soldiers

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Comments (17)

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  1. LIRight says:

    You made my day, Hondo. Great story.

    Happy New Year!!

  2. Sparks says:

    All of my respect for PFC Johnson. Thank you for your service my brother in arms. Well done Sir. Well done.

  3. Ex-PH2 says:

    Durn it, Hondo, now my nose is running again. Dusty in here.

    Well done, Mr. Johnson.

  4. 2/17 Air Cav says:

    I got chills reading this. He risked his physical well being, his very life, so that others would be remembered, so that their loved ones would know what day they died. He was all of 18, with the dead and the dying all around him. But he never lost his sense of decency or his care and concern for those who would not make it back. Silver Star or no Silver Star, he has earned the most profound respect we can muster and reminds us all that to remember the Fallen is both a solemn duty and a welcome task.

  5. rb325th says:

    Damn… RIP and his sense of duty to his fellow soldier is one only another soldier can truly understand.

  6. 3C3P says:

    Very brave man indeed. RIP.

  7. Veritas Omnia Vincit says:

    Thanks once more for a much appreciated history lesson regarding a little known situation.

    As is often the case someone of great moral courage doing the right thing at great personal risk and then asking no accolade or recognition. These people are the embodiment of duty, honor, sacrifice.

    So many fools in this great nation have no idea and no desire to learn that such people walk among us every day quietly living their lives. In a nation that worships inane celebrity above all else, my heart is lifted to know that there are these diamonds among us willing to do the heavy lifting when it is required.

    Rest in peace Mr. Johnson, may your eternity be one of joy without the memory of all that death.

  8. Grimmy says:

    Doing anything other than going along to get along in such horrible conditions/situations, is a good working definition of courage, imo.

    Well done, Mr. Johnson. The nation is poorer for your absence.
    Rest In Peace, Sir.

  9. Fjardeson says:

    Wow. Made my day.

  10. Richard says:

    Maybe I’m crazy but I think that this is a story that should be passed on to other PFCs. I forwarded it to the active duty NCO that I know best. Maybe some of the rest of you know someone who can spread the word. I suggest that you take a look at the article in the LA Times. POW stories are difficult to read. I have a pretty good imagination but it doesn’t go that far.

  11. Sam Naomi says:

    Thank you Hondo for posting this about PFC Johnson. It’s to bad that we don’t have more members in our KWVA as you that will take the little extra mile to bring out the untold storys about our Korean Veteran’s, and being one myself I can only say, Job Well Done Hondo, and Pfc Johnson, you just rest in peace, you are not forgotten. Well Done.

    Sam Naomi (Where the tall corn grows)

  12. Jabatam says:

    Very moving Hondo…thank you

  13. Just An Old Dog says:

    What a great man. I really need to bone-up on my study of Korea. Whats really eye-opening is that the Norks realy had their shit together when they rolled south. They had excellent coordination of supporting arms, armor and manuevering Infantry units. Time and again they would fix a US unit in place, then flank it, infiltrate the supporting units and kick the crap out of it. It didn’t help at all that the initial US units were “garritroopers” who spent no time training properly.
    I heard several times that the performance of our leaders and troops was so bad at the outset that a “gag-order” was issued to officers to prevent them from letting the press and American public know how soundly we got our asses kicked.

  14. OWB says:

    It is almost impossible to find appropriate words to recognize such honor and courage. Thanks, Hondo, for spurring us to make the search.

    Rest, finally, in peace, Mr. Johnson.

  15. B Woodman says:

    GROUP! ATTENTION!
    PREE-SENT ARMS!
    OR-DER ARMS!
    DISMISSED!

    Damn, it’s dusty in here again. May I be able to do 1/10th as much as PFC Johnson. RIP, SIR! RIP

  16. Sporkmaster says:

    Wow, I should go and see if if I can get a photo of his headstone.

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