Major Harold Johnson: Courage and Endurance Beyond The Call To Duty

Those of us who fought in combat in Vietnam knew the reality of death and injury. Those things are a part of the horrors of war. Like most young men caught up in that reality, we pushed the idea of death or injury as far back in our minds as we could. We had to, in order to be able to do what we were called upon to do. We all finally took on a kind of cavalier attitude about this reality. But we were very aware of the fact that “**it happens.”

There was one other possibility that we did not ever want to have to face. It was the greatest terror of all, the thought of being captured by the enemy. It is one kind of courage to go into battle, but entirely another kind of courage to be captured, to face the unimaginable daily realities of potential torture, loneliness, the constant fear, and the despair of not knowing if you would ever get out of that hell. That demanded courage beyond the call of duty, courage that none of us even wanted to contemplate.

Photo: YouTube/Iowa PBS

But that was the reality for 766 of our American military brothers during the Vietnam War, some of whom experienced being held as POWs for as long as 7 years. Of those, 114 died in captivity.

Most of those POWs were held by the North Vietnamese, but a smaller number were held by the Viet Cong. 80% of these (332) were United States Air Force pilots and aircrew members. There were 149 Navy and 28 Marine Corps pilots. Only a small handful were enlisted men captured in battle, and at least one was a Seaman sailor.

Photo: YouTube/Iowa PBS

This video is about one of those POWs, an Air Force F-105 Wild Weisel pilot, Maj. Harold Johnson. He was flying missions out of an airbase in Thailand against military, supply, manufacturing, and infrastructure targets in North Vietnam. By April of 1967, he had flown 92 successful missions. The F-105s at that time in the war had a 50% survival rate on those missions, so he had beaten the odds.

On his 93 mission, just 7 missions shy of the 100 mark, which would have sent him home, his F-105 was hit by a North Vietnamese ground-to-air missile, and he and his navigator were forced to eject over enemy territory. They were captured shortly afterward, and that’s where Maj. Johnson starts to tell his story of his 6 years as a POW.

Photo: YouTube/Iowa PBS

It is a harrowing story. None of us can imagine the thoughts that went through his mind as he descended under that parachute into a reality that the imagination cannot conceive. But the realities of his long hell as a POW began almost immediately.

He was paraded through a village where the people screamed at him, spat upon him, threw rocks at him, and hit him with sticks. The worst, he says, were the children who could sneak in under the crowds and stab him with sharpened sticks; the scars of those wounds remain on his legs to this day.

Photo: YouTube/Iowa PBS

He speaks about his first eight days of continuous torture, the North Vietnamese demanding that he reveal what he knew about the missions and targets and how, in the delirium induced by the endless torture, he simply pointed at places on the maps he was shown.

Even after his worth for military intelligence was exhausted, the torture continued. He speaks about the POW communication system they developed among themselves to push back the loneliness, to maintain contact, and to pass on information between each other. But what comes across in his comments is the unimaginable resilience, the daily courage, and the determination to survive that these men showed over the course of their captivity.

Photo: YouTube/Iowa PBS

These warriors fought every day, without stint, without relief, against fear, against despair, in support of one another. For the rest of us, even those of us in combat units, war was 95% boredom and 5% abject, intense, rational fear and reaction in the midst of battle. For these POWs, this hell was a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute reality. They displayed a level of courage and determination to survive far beyond the usual call of duty every one of those days, hours, and minutes.

The other reality of captivity is that which the families, the wives and children of those POWs, experienced during those long years. This part of the story is told by Maj. Johnson’s wife, and it is as compelling as his own. The faith that she demonstrated in believing her husband was alive would not be deterred even by the military, who had listed her husband missing in action (MIA), and a chaplain telling her that she should plan a memorial for him. She would have none of that.

Photo: YouTube/Iowa PBS

Years into his captivity, she would have her faith confirmed when a Japanese photography crew was able to get into North Vietnam and take some video footage of POWs. She heard about it and turned on the TV news that night, and there was her husband among a group of other POWs in that footage. He was alive! At the end of this video, you will hear about the coming home experience from both Maj. Johnson’s and his wife’s perspectives.

To Maj. Harold Johnson and all those who were held as POWs in Vietnam, we say, “Welcome Home!” We will never forget you. We will always hold you in the highest esteem for your courage, your commitment to one another, and your sacrifice on behalf of the nation. God bless you all and your families. You rank among the best of us.

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