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.