Jerry Johnson of Rushford, Minnesota, was one of the first soldiers from southeast Minnesota to be killed in the Vietnam War. The family left behind still feels the scars over a half century later. (Contributed photo)
It’s been over half a century since the end of the Vietnam War, but the scars for some are still as fresh as the day it ended. For those families whose relatives didn’t make it home from the war, they feel the void that is left as big as it was all those years ago.
Rushford native Jerry A. Johnson was one of the many men who didn’t make it home from his deployment to Vietnam.
He grew up in a military family, and some of his earliest pictures as a child showed him wearing miniature Navy sailor suits. Johnson’s story is a true picture of sacrifice. Medical reasons should have kept him out of the military but he went anyway.
Family history of service
“He came from a family of soldiers,” said Rosemarie Morken, Jerry’s sister. “His father, Harvey, served in World War II in France, Germany and Austria. He had two uncles – Clarence, who served in the Army, and Wallace, who served in the United States Air Force.”
On his mother’s (Bernice) side of the family, she had three brothers who served. Two of them served with one dying in service to his country. Her brother, Kenneth, was in the Army, and her brother, George, was a pilot in the Army, serving in Africa during World War II, where he was killed. In addition, Johnson’s brother, Harold, served in the Navy from 1956-1962.
“When his father was in the Army,” Morken said, “even then, Jerry was a little soldier. He and his brother, Harold, often wore little sailor suits or Army uniforms while growing up in Rushford.’
Johnson’s love of country and family
“He loved to play baseball, go fishing and hunting, and would often spend time with his sister and brother-in-law to help take care of their eight kids,” Morken reminisced about her brother.
Johnson was born on Oct. 15, 1941, to Harvey and Bernice Johnson. His siblings included sisters Yvonne, Marilyn and Rosemarie, along with his brother Harold.
Johnson died when he was only 23. Morken described him as a quiet man. When he first went to enlist in the service, they wouldn’t take him.
“He had a heart murmur,” Morken said. “But, then they turned around and drafted him when ‘Nam broke out. He was a quiet man, so he did what he was told. Jerry entered the Army in 1964 and was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where he was in the First Infantry Division.”
Johnson had only been in Vietnam around two months when that knock came at their front door. It was the knock no family wants to hear.
“He was one of the first soldiers from southeast Minnesota to die (in Vietnam),” she said. “Then came a letter from one of the soldiers with Jerry in Vietnam. He said Jerry had been sick and that they took him to a hospital for an X-ray of his lungs, which came back clear.”
The letter said Johnson had recently been sent out on detail to someplace near Saigon shortly before his death.
“Another soldier called Jerry’s mother and said he was with Jerry when he died,” Morken explained. “He said that he (Jerry) died from shrapnel on Aug. 9, 1965.” A year later, the family received a document from the military saying Johnson had been killed in action.
Johnson posthumously earned the Medal of Honor, second class, from the Republic of Vietnam.
In 1986, the family received Johnson’s Purple Heart and certificate. He also earned the Gold Star lapel pin, Vietnam Service Medal with two bronze and two silver stars, an expert badge with ribbon bar, the National Defense ribbon, and the Republic of Vietnam campaign ribbon.
In 1965, Johnson’s mother inquired about becoming a Gold Star Mother through the Veterans Administration. Women are eligible to become Gold Star Mothers if their sons are killed in the line of battle. She became a Gold Star Mother in the Winona Chapter, where the names of her son and brother are in a book that Rosemarie has.
Johnson’s service to country is honored in several locations.
The First Division was also called the Big Red One. The museum in Wheaton, Ill., has his name up on its memorial wall. He’s also listed on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C.
There’s also a Big Red One Memorial at the Executive Building across the street from the White House where his name is listed. He’s mentioned in other locations like the Fort Snelling Book of Remembrance.
“He could have fought the draft,” Morken said. “He didn’t. Jerry did what his country wanted him to do.”