At long last, honor guard to play taps for Valley WWII casualty

The Fresno BeeJanuary 18, 2014 

TULARE — Kevin Johnson was only 4 years old when his father, hoping to rescue a brother from Japanese-held 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 killed in action in the 1944 invasion of Guam.

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

Kevin 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, and just a single Marine who had escorted his father's casket on the train and presented the casket flag 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 on Monday.

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 "battlefield 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 grew up here — and the Am Vets post boasts 2,000 members.

After Johnson's retirement from the liquor business, he joined the Am Vets post. For the past three years he has been a rifleman in the honor guard, which does dozens of military funerals a year for veterans, mostly in Tulare and Kings counties.

The Am Vets in Tulare have been performing the military ceremony at veterans' funerals since 1963.

"These guys are our guys," Post Commander Tom Donwen, an honor guard member, said after a recent funeral in Visalia. "I get a personal satisfaction out of being here."

Composed of about 13 older men, the volunteer honor guard conducts about 120 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. Being in the military is "a tough life. You are away from your family."

After each funeral, the honor guard stops at a restaurant to visit and talk. At one, 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!' "

Johnson turned to the other guys: " 'Would you do that?' And they all said yes, everyone of them said yes, they wanted to go."

Monday's service will honor a man whose only son has but fleeting memories of time spent with him.

Johnson was born in Oklahoma when his father was 19 and his mother was 18. The family farm 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 his father's parents 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."

He last saw his father in Oklahoma, where his mother and her family had briefly returned. TJ Johnson was on a detail with an AWOL prisoner and stopped to see the family before shipping out to the Pacific Theater.

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

After being raised by his grandparents in Chowchilla 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 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 in Northern California.

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

He will 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.

 Overdue honors

What: Military funeral for Cpl. Thomas Jefferson Johnson, 1918-1944

When: 10:30 a.m. Monday

Where: Chowchilla Cemetery, 23359 Road 141/2, Chowchilla

 

Lewis Griswold covers the news of Tulare and Kings counties for The Bee. His column runs Sunday. He can be reached at (559) 441-6104, lgriswold@fresnobee.com or @fb_LewGriswold on Twitter.

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