RICHARD JOHNSON - SP5
- DATE OF BIRTH:
- March 07, 1947
- DATE OF CASUALTY:
- March 04, 1968
- BRANCH OF SERVICE:
- South Vietnam
Richard Johnson was born on March 7, 1947. His home of record is Glassboro, NJ.
He served in the US Army and attained the rank of Specialist 5 (SP5).
Johnson was killed in action on March 4, 1968.
March 7, 1947 - March 4, 1968
SP5, Army Glassboro, NJ
Charles and Virginia Johnson raised eleven children, nine boys and two girls, on Union Street in Glassboro, NJ. Charles worked as a truck driver and both he and Virginia eventually worked part-time for Charlie, Jr. who, with his family, operated the Elite Bakery in Glassboro until Charlie sold the business in December of 1997.
Charlie was the oldest in the clan, and took the role of big brother seriously. He drove the next oldest, Richard, and his date to the Senior Prom, he watched over his siblings as they grew up, and is still looked to as the elder among the children. "Rich was a good brother and a great person," he says. "He put his heart and soul into everything he did."
Charlie enlisted into the Army and was a cook while serving with the 71st Missile Battalion in Vietnam in August of 1965.
"I launched biscuits," he dryly recalls. "But I believed in what we were doing. So did Carl and Rich."
Carlton Johnson has served on the police force in Glassboro for twenty-four years and lovingly remembers Rich. "He was older by a year," he says. "I think I had a really special relationship with him. We seemed to follow each other from job to job growing up. We shared a newspaper delivery route and worked on a farm together as young kids. Rich worked for a small store doing odd jobs and I took over when he found another job. I also took over his job as manager of A&K Pizza when he joined the service. He was someone I always looked up to; someone I wanted to be like."
Rich had wavy brown hair, brown eyes, and was medium built. "He was very self conscience about the way he looked," adds Carl. "He was a neat dresser. He was an average student and not a standout in sports. He liked hanging out with guys from the neighborhood and enjoyed going to concerts with friends. When he had time, he would hunt, and I remember him liking cars a lot. But his main thing was to have a job so he would have money."
Rich was a very normal teenager with typical likes and dislikes. What set him apart was the way others viewed him.
"Everyone loved having him around," his mother, Virginia says. "He was a lot of fun. He would do anything for anyone. He loved life."
"He was more a big brother to me than a cousin," says Joe Porreca, a Vietnam veteran from Glassboro. "He would stand up for me and people looked up to him, even adults."
Porreca, Carl and Rich Johnson grew up in what was the sleepy little college town of Glassboro in the fifties and early sixties. They played sandlot football, stickball and baseball. Rich was three years older than Porreca.
"I would follow him around," Porreca remembers. "He was a hard worker and was always helping others. He was very mature for his age and had high moral standards, but never took himself too seriously. He was a jokester and very popular with his classmates. Whenever his family needed something, Rich was always there. He seemed like a hard-ass on the outside, but was very sensitive and caring on the inside. I can't imagine anyone not liking Rich. I loved him."
Rich graduated from Glassboro High in June of 1965. The high school yearbook indicates his plans to enter the service and contains the quote, "Beware the fury of a patient man." By 1966, he was in the Army.
"He went into the service so he could go places," Virginia says. "He wanted to be a policeman when he got out. He would go to the police station a lot, and would sit up there and talk with the officers for hours."
Gerry Looney, of Glassboro, was the dispatcher for the Glassboro Police Department. He and Rich grew close. They co-managed a Little League baseball team in town. He remembers a ball game they attended together at the old Shibe Park in Philadelphia.
"The Phillies were playing the St. Louis Cardinals," he says. "I am in a wheelchair due to polio, so they put us right near first base close to where the folks came out in the fifth inning to rake the field. They would give whoever was with the wheelchair a wooden chair. We were enjoying the game when I noticed the great Stan Musial about two or three rows to the left of us. I said to Richie, 'Go over there and take his picture.' He was nervous and said, 'They won't let me get near him.' I said, 'Just start walking by him, take out the camera, put it right in his face and take the picture.' Well, Richie tried that, and the two guys sitting next to Mr. Musial stood up. I guess they thought Richie was going to shoot him. He got the picture and ran away. Richie was afraid to come back to his seat, but we left with a picture of Stan Musial."
Rich was trained as an infantryman and served in Korea before getting his orders for Vietnam in October of 1967. He was able to come home on leave just as Carl was beginning his service in the Marine Corps.
"He liked being a soldier and never complained about military life," Carl says. "He wanted to see different things and to travel. I caught a leave after training and was also home for a brief time with him. We shared stories about life in the Army versus life in the Corps. And how he didn't have much longer to go and I was just starting out. He then left for Vietnam and I went to Camp Pendleton for more training. I like to think he believed in what he was doing, though we didn't discuss it much. He knew he had a job to do and was the kind of person who was going to do the best he could."
"Rich was really into it," Charlie adds. "He thought he had a purpose. He was there because he wanted to be there."
Rich arrived in Vietnam from Fort Hood, Texas, with Company E, 1st Battalion, 52nd Infantry, 198th Light Infantry Brigade. After some more training, the brigade was charged with the security of their base camp and an adjoining airstrip at Chu Lai, located in northern third of South Vietnam, near the South China Sea. They became a part of the 23rd (Americal) Division.
Carl was also assigned to Vietnam shortly after Rich and they were stationed about forty miles apart. Virginia and the rest of the family would send "Care Packages" full of baked goods and anything else the boys requested.
"Charlie was the first to go to Vietnam," Virginia says. "We started with sending him goodies. And then it was Rich and Carl. We sure kept busy. And you had to send more than just one person could eat. Their buddies would want a little of everything, too."
Rich wrote home when he could. His unit spent weeks on operations and during one break, he wrote to Gerry Looney. The postmark reads February 29, 1968.
LZ Ann, Binh Son, Vietnam
Received your letter but didn't have time to answer it right away. Well, how's everything going? Great, I hope. Say hello to Kathi for me and that I did receive her letter and card.
I am at our forward fire base right now so it gives me some time to relax. Sometimes, you'll work for 1, 2, 3, months straight. But you do get a rest. Even if it's a small one, it's welcomed. The weather is wet and hot, etc. How is the weather home?
I wrote a letter to Jeff about a job there on the force. To you, it probably sounds stupid but I'd like to give it a try. Besides that, I will get out three months early. Think I got a chance? I'd have to have all the paperwork sent to me, then hand carry it to Division, if I ever get the chance.
We're getting ready to move further up north. I don't know when or where it will be. I hope never. Things are bad enough here.
I bought a movie camera, which is now being sent to me. I'm going to try and take some good flicks. I also bought a projector.
Well, Ger, I'm at a loss for words. Maybe I'll be able to write again soon, I don't know. All these screwed up people ever think about are body counts. Usually, they're our bodies that they end-up counting. Well, take care and say hello to everyone for me.
In 1968, public, and therefore political, opinion about the war changed drastically. And increasingly, the futility of the conflict was not lost on those doing the fighting. In the last letter to his parents dated "Feb ?", Rich writes about his camera, an illness he's fighting and shows some of the frustration felt by soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen all over Vietnam. He also gives a prophetic and tragic glimpse into his near future.
Dear Mom & Dad,
Thought I'd write while I had the chance. How is everyone? Fine, I hope. It's a good idea to wait and check the camera out first and then send the payments. If they don't want it that way, tell them to keep it.
I've been feeling pretty sick lately. I guess I'm just run down. I've had a bad headache for 9 days now and can't get rid of it. I went for tests and all they said was I either have virus parasitis or mononucleosis. They don't know! I've been taking a pain killer but it's not helping much. I'm still in the field.
There's a big buildup going on not too far from here which isn't great. I'm about 20 miles west of Chu Lai right now, about 40-50 miles from Carl. We're still on "Operation Muscotine" which has been going pretty good. Sure glad "Charlie" isn't an expert shot.
They're starting to use Russian tanks and armored carriers not far from us. We've been bracing for an all out attack. Mom, it's getting worse over here. You can't even walk 5 feet before running into a booby trap. We lose so many guys by them. It's just a lousy rotten war.
Well, I guess I've said enough. The more I write, the more disgusted I get. I was put in for E-6 again and I turned it down. They're getting pretty mad at me.
Well, Mom, Dad, say hello to the kids for me and take care of yourselves. Write soon and don't worry about me.
On March 5th, the Johnsons were notified that Rich was killed in action on the 4th, just three days before his twenty-first birthday. Shortly thereafter, Captain Jimmy R. Davis, Commanding Officer of Rich's unit, wrote Charles and Virginia Johnson a letter. In part, it read:
It is with deepest sorrow that I extend to you the sympathy of the men of Company E, 1st Battalion, 52nd Infantry, for the loss of your son, Richard.
On the 4th of March 1968, Richard was in charge of the Reaction Force from the Battalion base camp near the village of Phu Long, 9 miles southeast of Chu Lai, Republic of Vietnam. The base camp had been receiving sniper fire on a daily basis for a month. Richard led his squad out to try to catch the sniper. Approximately 1000 meters from the base camp, the sniper stopped firing at the base camp and started firing at Richard's squad. Because of the large amount of fire, the entire squad was forced to incautiously try to get out of sight. At this time Richard stepped on a mine and death was instant.
Richard joined our unit about seven months ago. During his tour with us, his exemplary attitude and outstanding service gained for him the respect of all the members of this organization. During his tour in Vietnam, he always conducted himself in a courageous manner.
Charlie was engaged to be married in 1968. On March 5th, he and his fiancée, June, were at a travel agency in Pitman, preparing their honeymoon trip. Charlie had to 'run home' for something he forgot. He left June at the agency.
"When I pulled up to the house, I saw the official there, and I just knew it was about either Carl or Rich," he says. "After hearing the news, I had to drive back to the travel office to get June. It was awful."
Eight days later, Carl Johnson was finally notified that his brother had been killed. From his base camp in Da Nang, he was hurried home for the funeral.
"My life came to an abrupt halt," remembers Carl. "I've never felt anything like I did when I learned of his death. It was like part of me dying also. I just couldn't believe it. All I wanted to do was get back to the war and clean up. Get revenge for what happened to my brother. My whole outlook on the war was now a very different one."
Joe Porreca was in Army basic training when his mother visited him, bearing the bad news. "I was devastated," he says. "Rich meant the world to me. The high school had the concert choir in front of the school singing as the funeral procession passed by. He was given a hero's funeral. I still think about him every day, especially when I see the American flag."
Charlie, ever the big brother, shielded the rest of the siblings during the funeral proceedings. He kept them as a group and led them in their own tribute to Rich's memory. "We stayed together," he remembers. "Mom and Dad had it tough enough without worrying about the rest of us."
"His death really hit us hard," Virginia Johnson now says. "Whenever we hear things about Vietnam and the boys who died there, we remember. Every time we hear his name, we think about him as a boy growing up. And the memories...a lot of memories. We have a special place in our heart for him. You never forget about him."
Gerry Looney also has a special place for his memories. With a fond simplicity, he says, "The only thing I can tell you is that Richie Johnson was one of my best friends."
Rich was buried in Beverly National Cemetery on March 17, 1968. Carl wants him to be remembered as a "happy go lucky, easy going kid."
"At an early age, he made the ultimate sacrifice for what we take for granted every day," he continues. "I would say he is a true hero, someone I always looked up to. And he is thought of every single day I live."
Excerpt from They Were Ours: Gloucester County's Loss in Vietnam
by John Campbell
Used with permission of author
Sources: John Campbell and NJVVMF.
Be the first to add a remembrance for RICHARD JOHNSON