Chowchilla WW II serviceman to receive overdue honors

The Fresno BeeJanuary 19, 2014 

— Kevin Johnson was only 4 years old when his father, hoping to rescue a brother from the Japanese-held island of Corregidor in the Philippines, enlisted in the U.S. Marines during World War II.

The brother survived a Japanese POW camp, but Cpl. Thomas Jefferson Johnson, “TJ” to his family, was not as lucky. He was killed in action in the 1944 invasion of Guam.

Two years after the war, TJ’s remains were dug up and returned to the United States for burial in Chowchilla.

Johnson was about 8 or 9 and remembers the family gathering around the grave to bury the father he barely knew. There was no bugle playing taps, no color guard, no gun volley, just a single Marine who had escorted his father’s casket on the train and presented the flag on the casket to his family.

So many were killed in the war that it was impossible to bury every casualty with all honors, Johnson said. But the lack of a full military ceremony at his father’s funeral is a shortcoming he intends to set right today.

Johnson, now 75, and fellow members of the volunteer honor guard of American Veterans Post 56 in Tulare will travel to Chowchilla to perform the military ceremony left undone 67 years ago.

They will set up a “soldier’s cross” of rifle, boots and helmet, fire three volleys from seven rifles and play taps.

“I want to give it to him because he deserves it,” Johnson said.

Tulare has a proud history of military service – the late Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, who was chief of naval operations in the early 1970's, grew up here.

After Johnson’s retirement, he joined the AmVets post. For the past three years he’s been a rifleman in the honor guard, which does dozens of military funerals per year for veterans, mostly in Tulare and Kings counties.

A while back, he asked the post commander and fellow honor guard members about doing a military funeral for his dad.

“Every one of them said yes, they wanted to go,” Johnson said.

The AmVets in Tulare have been performing the military ceremony at veterans’ funerals for several years.

“These guys are our guys,” Tom Donwen, an honor guard member and former post commander, said after a recent funeral in Visalia. “I get a personal satisfaction of being here.”

Composed of about 13 older men, the volunteer honor guard conducts more than 100 graveside services each year.

“They do it out of respect for the guys who gave up part of their lives for their country,” Johnson said. “It’s a tough life. You are away from your family.”

After each funeral, the honor guard stops at a restaurant to visit and talk, and Johnson had a brainstorm.

“I was just saying, ‘You know, my father never had this,’ ” Johnson said. “I just turned to Tom and said, ‘Do you think we could do that?’ and he said ‘Sure.’

“He turned to the other guys: ‘Would you do that?’ And they all said yes, every one of them said yes, they wanted to go.”

Johnson was born in Oklahoma when his father was 19 or 20 and his mother was 18. The family farm in Oklahoma was wiped out in a flood, so parents, children and grandparents from both sides of the family came to California, worked the fields, saved money and bought a farm near Chowchilla.

“I remember my dad buying me a little red wagon,” he said. “One day, he brought me a pocketknife from work, and he dulled the blade so I couldn’t cut myself.”

Johnson said he last saw his father in Oklahoma, where his mother and her family had briefly returned, when he was on a detail returning an AWOL prisoner to the Army and stopped to see the family before shipping out to war.

“Everyone who knew him said he was one terrific guy,” Johnson said.

After being raised by his grandparents and later by his mother in Tulare, Johnson, following the family tradition, joined the military after graduating from Tulare Union High.

Before most Americans had ever heard of Vietnam, he was assigned to an Army Special Forces unit sent into the jungle to monitor the enemy.

Two men in his unit were killed, and after getting shot in the leg, Johnson was discharged with “two steel bars in my left leg where bone used to be.”

Despite being a teetotaler – “I didn’t drink and never have” – he worked more than 40 years in the wholesale liquor distribution industry.

Johnson has relatives in Chowchilla who will be at the cemetery today, and friends from Fresno and other parts of California are coming.

He’ll be in uniform, standing with the honor guard, ready to fire his rifle three times in succession. This time, it will be for his own father, who gave his life for his country.

Lewis Griswold covers the news of Tulare and Kings counties for The Fresno Bee. He can be reached at (559) 441-6104, or on Twitter @fb_LewGriswold.

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