Monday, November 12, 2012

Veterans Day becomes personal: general and I worked the same terrain in Vietnam

Retired Lt. Gen. James H. Johnson Jr., left, with county commissioner Larry Bustle, a U.S. Air Force veteran of Vietnam. (Herald photo Jim Jones)
Back in my day as a junior officer in Vietnam, lieutenant generals were well beyond my pay grade.I started out in Vietnam as a first lieutenant.

That, of course, would have been one silver bar on my collar, compared to an officer with three stars on his.

I might have briefed a general or two, or answered a few of their questions back then, but my knees would have been knocking. Truthfully, I  went out of my way to avoid an encounter with a general.

Sunday, I was covering the Manatee County Veterans Day activities in Palmetto, when the honored speaker, retired Lt. Gen. James H. Johnson Jr., was introduced.

My ears perked up when I heard that he had been a MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) adviser in the southern Mekong Delta, among his many other assignments.

He was a 1960 grad of West Point. I was a 1967 grad of Signal OCS at Fort Gordon. So by the time I arrived in Vietnam, he was probably already at least a major.

Sunday, however, any trepidation about approaching a senior officer was long gone.

I sought out Gen. Johnson after the observance ended.

Where had he been in the Mekong Delta? I asked.

He responded that he had been far south, in Soc Trang and Bac Lieu.

I responded that I knew the area well, had been a company commander there in 1969, and in fact my wife was from Bac Lieu.

He looked mildly surprised.

We established that we had both served the same folks: the 21st Infantry Division of the South Vietnamese army. My other customers as a signal company commander were Special Forces, MACV advisers, American helicopter companies and engineers.

Gen. Johnson might well have talked over one of my radio relay links, or sent a classified teletype message through my communications center. It was not clear, however, if we were in the area at the same time. But my unit had most probably provided the communications he needed to stay alive in a very dangerous area.

The general said I should return to see how the country has changed. He related how he had made a recent visit, and attracted quite a crowd in the Mekong. The police came  and scattered those who gathered around him.

I replied that I had been back to Vietnam twice since the war, once in 2006 and again in 2010.

Now, there was a look of recognition as we talked the same talk.

I mentioned to him that I had so badly wanted to revisit the Soc Trang Army Air Field where I had worked long ago, but my wife's family talked me out of it, saying that it was a risky idea to even approach the air field, now a Vietnamese army training center. In the end, I dropped the idea.

There was so much more I would have liked to have discussed with Gen. Johnson. But there wasn't time.

There were others waiting to talk to him, but I felt privileged to have those few moments with Gen. Johnson.

As I prepared to depart, I drew myself up straight as possible, and gave him my best salute. I held it, waiting for him to return it. He did, crisply.

It was a unique experience for me, my journalistic present colliding with my military past.

It seemed the right thing to do. After all, it was Veterans Day.

-- Jim Jones

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