It started on a Saturday evening in a small town in South Carolina. The local constabulary grabbed two young men caught raising hell on the streets, landing these young men in front of a Justice of the Peace who gave them a choice…..the military or a stuffy cell in the local lock-up. Junior Johnson, as he was known then, chose the military and the country benefitted immensely by this decision.
This photograph of my father, taken just before he shipped out to the Republic Of Korea, says many things. It reflects a young man who was ideally suited to the rigors and challenges of the US Army. Rather than blend in he became a leader. He wears the stripes of a First Sergeant, unusual for such a young trooper, tiger stripes he called them. Specifically, he was a young Airborne First Sergeant. I have previously written about his record in Korea where he came home a young battlefield commissioned Lieutenant after earning a handful of decorations for valor. Behind the boyish countenance in this photograph was a warrior who didn’t understand the concept of fear. He loved the Army…..and the Army needed folks like him to accomplish it’s mission…..
Our father was taken too soon. Although wounded, earning a Purple Heart and several clusters, our enemies failed to kill this soldier. From experience, I know that luck is critical to surviving combat…..but survive he did. Lung cancer, likely acerbated by his smoking, ended his tenure on this earth. Calculating to the end, when confronted by his eminent demise, he bought a new luxury car and took credit life insurance, knowing full well his exit had been assured by the doctors within just a few months. His courage was such, that after the very poor prognosis, he personally called each of his pall bearers to be sure they would be available. He selected his own casket and carefully briefed the funeral director in regard to the full dress uniform he was to be buried in, with a Green Beret near his head.
Our fathers Achilles’ tendon was his regard for the troops he commanded. He was tough, demanding and mission oriented, but never lost his love for the troops. When we arrived at Ft. Leonard Wood, where he became the installation operations commander, I can remember him stepping out of the guest house on a sleeting, cold, early March morning to the sound of troops being marched in cadence. He choked just a little, turned to me and said, “that, son, is the sound of freedom”.
Memorial Day is a day of reflection. Thanks, dad. You left one hell of a wake and your family will always be grateful. Tiger stripes………..