On the 640-acre Alabama farm he grew up on, 16-year-old Joseph R. Johnson told his father he wanted to join the Army after World War II broke out.
Being underage, Johnson needed his father’s signature to go off to war. His father didn’t like that idea. Johnson persisted.
“We had a world to save,” he said last week. “If we left Hitler alone he would take over the world.”
His father finally relented and his youngest son went off to war. On June 6, 1944, Johnson took part in the Invasion of Normandy in France. Thousands died on that beach, but the Allies won the battle and, roughly a year later, the war.
“You’re looking at a miracle,” Johnson said while talking about the battle. “And I’d do it again.”
Today, he’s an 88-year-old Columbus resident living on Lehmberg Road. On Tuesday, he will receive the French Legion of Honor during a ceremony in Jackson. The distinction recognizes contributions and acts of bravery. It is France’s highest military honor.
In all, 11 Mississippi residents will receive the honor Tuesday.
“These gentlemen risked their lives to bring liberty and freedom to the French people,” Heather Clave, who works in communications for the Consul General of France in Atlanta, told The Sun Herald. “They deserve that highest honor.”
Denis Barbet, the consul general of France in Atlanta, will be at Tuesday’s ceremony at the Old Capital Museum in Jackson. It begins at 2:30 p.m.
Johnson, wearing a hat that read “General Patton’s Third Army,” sat on his backporch last week talking about his service. When he joined the military he was Pvt. 1st Class Joseph R. Johnson, assigned to the Third Army.
He was trained to shoot a 40mm Bofors gun. He was a decent shot.
“I was good,” he said. “I lived and was raised on a farm and I could shoot a squirrel’s eye at 40 yards.”
After boot camp he crossed the Atlantic in five days with 1,500 other soldiers on an English ship. They eventually made their way to England, where he remembers the Nazis’ relentless bombing.
“They were fairing bad,” he said of the English. “Those bombs made a terrible noise.”
At Normandy, he was part of the fifth wave of soldiers who rushed the beach. The first, second and third wave were nearly completely lost. What he remembers the most was the noise. He said four American battleships turned longways in the sea and shot at the Germans.
The French had hedgerows everywhere. Germans were dug in behind them. Johnson and a few others were ordered to remove the hedgerows. He took a 50-caliber machine gun, he said, and “we mowed them down like weedeaters.”
He laughed and said, “They’ll never get all the ammo off that beach.”
Later, Johnson was assigned to a unit that picked up SS troops — those who had played roles at Nazi concentration camps. Telling that part of his story, he said, “If I cry, I’m sorry.”
He talked about the smell of human bodies at the camps. He talked about being ordered to blow up a gas chamber. He put dynamite beneath it.
“The last time I saw it, it was going up toward the moon.”
After the war he married his wife, Olivia, and they’re still together. They had three children. Johnson worked at Air Force bases in Alabama and Utah. In 1985, he retired from Columbus Air Force Base, where he was traffic management officer.
A few weeks ago he got a phone call telling him about the Legion Of Honor. Asked how he responded, he said, “I told them O.K.”
He gave 42 years of his life to the U.S. military as a civilian and soldier. The awards are just part of doing your job, he said.
He plans on putting the Legion Of Honor in the room where he keeps his other awards, including four Bronze Stars.
The other Mississippians who will be honored Tuesday are James F. Robinson of Aberdeen, Jack Carver of Belzoni, Thomas Creekmore of Ocean Springs, Gerald Campbell of Gulfport, William S. Fuller of Vicksburg, Edsol Wells of Lauderdale, Joseph Coscia of Southaven, Malcolm Jones of Hazelhurst, and Harry C. Quinn and William W. Correll, both of Madison.
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.
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