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Jim Johnson, USMC

R. E. Sullivan, Colonel, USMC ('43/'67) (Ret.)

The citation reads:

The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to

Sergeant James E. Johnson
United States Marine Corps

for service set forth in the following
CITATION:

"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a Squad Leader in a Provisional Rifle Platoon composed of Artillery men and attached to Company J, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines, First Marine Division (Reinforced), in action against aggressor forces at Yudam-Ni, Korea on 2 December 1950. Vastly outnumbered by a well-entrenched and cleverly concealed enemy force wearing the uniforms of friendly troops and attacking his position, Sergeant Johnson unhesitatingly took charge of his platoon in the absence of the leader and, exhibiting great personal valor in the face of a heavy barrage of hostile fire, coolly proceeded to move about among his men, shouting words of encouragement and inspiration and skillfully directing their fire. Ordered to displace his platoon during the fire fight, he immediately placed himself in an extremely hazardous position from which he could provide covering fire for his men. Fully aware that his voluntary action meant either certain death or capture to himself, he courageously continued to provide effective cover for his men and was last observed in a wounded condition single-handedly engaging enemy troops in close hand-to-hand fighting. By his valiant and inspiring leadership, Sergeant Johnson was directly responsible for the successful completion of the platoon's displacement and the saving of many lives. His dauntless fighting spirit and unfaltering devotion to duty in the face of terrific odds reflect the highest credit upon himself and the United States Naval Service."

s/HARRY TRUMAN



That's the way the citation reads. Those of us who knew Jim Johnson well, can tell, as Paul Harvey says, the rest of the story.

The citation stresses that Jim had the skills required by a platoon commander down cold. He should have. Just eighteen months before Jim had been a Second Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps and completing his mandatory nine months of training with the 5th Basic School Class before departing into the Fleet Marine Force as a regular, unrestricted officer. Jim, as did 248 of his peers that year, had come from the ranks. Many of us had been Staff Non-Commissioned Officers, and Jim must have been one of the younger of the officers commissioned. Odds are that he had attained the rank of Sergeant in an enlisted status, although I have no exact memory of that. I look at his grainy picture among my other classmates from the 5th Basic, and do not recognize him. That was not the Jim Johnson I knew.

1948 was a tough year to try to convince any college graduate that a commission in the U. S. Marine Corps would be a great career move. Won't bore you with statistics, but in order to fill the billets then existing in the Fleet Marine Force the Marine Corps turned, as it always did, to what was called the "Meritorious NCO" program. In my case, recommendation to commissioned rank under this program was my eleventh. When promoted to Second Lieutenant, I was, from my date of rank 4 June, 1948, seven months shy of my 21st birthday. I couldn't go into a bar and legally order a drink, nor could I be married without the permission of one of my parents. But I'd served during World War II and the North China Campaign, and was about to get my first hashmark when I became an officer. The reason I cite the foregoing is that it was typical of my classmates in the 5th Basic.

The Jim Johnson I knew had a quirky little smile on his face at all times, and you always knew that he was planning some deviltry or other on one of his classmates. Yet it was impossible to be but briefly annoyed with him. He had not a mean bone in his body. Mischievous, yes. Lots of them. Every month we students were forced to complete what we called a "F____ Your Buddy" list. This meant that we had to rate from #1 to the low man on the totem pole our various classmates on various personality and professional characteristics. Every man jack of us hated this process, but there was no choice. Without a doubt Jim Johnson emerged #1 or very close to it in the popularity ratings. Some of the other matters, most having to do with off duty foibles, I'm afraid that Jim would have rated toward the top--or the bottom, if you want to look at it that way. We took turns being Fire Team, Squad, and Platoon Leaders of our classmates during field exercises. These exercises gave us a chance to strut our stuff, or lack of it. Jim was a standout. When I read the citation above, I can just see Jim running about shouting encouragement, while a light snow is falling on Samsky's Ridge, as an acting platoon leader, with that grin on his face, in the face of "blank" fire from an Aggressor Squad hidden on a ridge 100 meters to our front. That was what he was credited with doing that black night at Yudam-Ni when he joined the many other Marine heroes who had gone to that great Marine Barracks in the sky. That he would die so that his fellow Marines could live was typical of the man.

But how, you ask, could a man like that have been deprived of commissioned rank and returned to the enlisted ranks? Well, the Basic School had a system. You were literally graded on everything you did, from the way your pack was hung on your bunk, to whether your fingernails were clean. There was constant pressure to perform. Most of us laughed it off and recognized it for what it was-- to see how much pressure we could take.

One of our DDIs, sort of a Drill Instructor for Second Lieutenants and I had been together for three years prior to our meeting again at Quantico. We were friends long before I had attained commissioned rank. We sat at the bar in the O Club one Saturday afternoon at old Waller Hall, an ornate, impressive, and historic watering place for years for Marine Officers. In the process we engaged in some serious drinking, and I chided him gently about the "chit" system, and we discussed the entire Basic School system of harassment thoroughly, and departed later that afternoon somewhat the worse for wear, but fast friends. The following Monday morning I went to my mailbox, and I could see him closely observing me while sitting at the DDI table at the back of our classroom. As I pulled my mail out, a "65 "Unsatisfactory Chit" fluttered to the floor signed by my old friend. As I picked it up I could see the broad grin on his face as I read it. Seems that I had dust on the top of my wall locker that morning. Had it not have been that it would have been something else. And that's how the game was usually played. I held up my well deserved "Bad Chit," shook it at him, and grinned back.

Bad chits, however, were not always a matter of grinning. One of my classmates tied a string around a dud 60 mm mortar round and dragged it into an assemblage of his classmates and instructors who were critiquing the mortar shoot we'd just completed. The Instructors took umbrage at such inconsiderateness, and the student officer was gone like a bad dream the following morning. Our course work was divided into five subject areas. Two of the areas that required satisfactory completion in all sub-areas were, understandably, map reading and infantry weapons. Not a few of my classmates were washed out simply because they could or would not learn nomenclature and functioning of various and sundry weapons. As I recall, those who had come from the Air Wing had the most problems in these areas. Obviously, those of us coming from an infantry background were way ahead of the game.

One of the beauties of being an officer back in the 40s was that your word was considered your bond. You could get anything you wanted anywhere you wanted by just signing a chit. If you've read much of Kipling and the 19th Century Indian Army, the system was the same. Unfortunately, one of the places you could sign "chits" was Waller Hall, mentioned earlier. This lead to a few of my classmates ending up with a larger bar bill than their salaries for the month. This caused not a few to be dropped from consideration for eventual promotion to Commandant of the Marine Corps. My recollection is that Jim Johnson had problems along this line. But he was not alone. We chided him about it, but all we'd get back was a big grin, and a promise to reform. Next month.

No one could stay mad at Jim for long. He was too good natured. But each of his escapades added another bad chit to the pile. And there would come the time when the accumulation....

Then there was the officer, a bit of the worse for wear, who departed Washington, D.C. one Sunday night by train in plenty of time to make his 0800 Monday morning formation. Problem was that he slept through the station at Quantico, and didn't awake until the conductor was shouting his "All off for Richmond." A definite faux pas, that. By the time he had worked his way back to Quantico early that afternoon the Marine Corps had made up its mind. This was not a first for this particular young officer, and the Marine Corps recommended that he find a line of work that didn't require him to ride trains.

My memory is that about a month before graduation, Jim Johnson disappeared. What probably happened is that he was called in and notified that he had exceeded the number of bad chits or whatever we were graded on, and that his commission was to be revoked. I'd guess that he was given the option of returning to the ranks as a Staff Sergeant, or being discharged.

Jim was but one of the 25% of my classmates who didn't make it to graduation. But he came very close.

I don't recall seeing him again until probably the night or possibly the night before he was killed. I'd been told he was at the Chosin Reservoir by a classmate who had talked to him, and that he had joined the Marine Corps Reserves after his commission was revoked and been recalled to active duty with the rest of our Reserves during the summer of '50 when we needed them desperately. When I saw him I recognized him at 50 paces, and went over to say hello. Same old Jim, same grin, same good cheer that belied the fact that we were operating in temperatures of 35 below zero at night and some of the days hardly warmed up at all.

And so, Jim, you climbed the hill and found your glory and went to glory all in one fell swoop. How typical of you, my friend. And let it not be said that the Marine Corps wasted one red cent on training you to be a Platoon Commander. They, and the taxpayers got their money back in spades, that freezing night of December 1, 1950. You were a superb Platoon Commander, as good as they get, and that fact, as opposed to all the "Bad Chits" you acquired in Basic School is as a mountain to a molehill.

The situation at Yudam Ni was not one that we could always withdraw our dead for proper burial. I know that Marines usually say that we always withdraw our dead. That's baloney for civilian consumption only. I was told, although the citation is moot on the point, that Jim's body was not recovered. So tonight Jim maintains his vigil on that lonely hilltop some 11,000 miles away. Some of his buddies rest in eternal peace in that valley to his east he can look down on. So I'm not going to tell him to sleep, because I know that he's now, and always will be, on 100% alert.

We have a saying in the Marine Corps that we fight on the shoulders of those who went valiantly before. Marines don't fight for motherhood, the flag, or apple pie. Our sense of history and those who preceded us is ingrained. We fight for our buddies, for our Corps, and because we always have fresh in our memories those who went before to show us the way. At every Marine Corps Birthday we stand and chant the liturgy of the famous battles that Marines have fought in for the past 225 years. One of these is always the "Chosin Reservoir." So we stood on the shoulders of Marines like Jim Johnson in Viet Nam 15 years later, and Grenada, and Panama, in Desert Storm and in Somalia. And what shoulders to stand on!



Sully, USMC, (Ret.)
Wed, 12 Jan 2000
Semper Fidelis


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