|Sam Johnson visits Selma’s memorial to those who served in America’s wars.
Vietnam vet invests war experience in family and farm.
by Al Benn
Farming provided lessons in responsibility for Sam Johnson as he grew up in Dallas County, but he wondered if he’d ever see it again after one errant step nearly cost him his life in Vietnam.
He was a lance corporal and fire team leader on May 7, 1967, as he led a group of Marines on a search-and-destroy mission in Quang Nam Province where thick forests dominate much of the landscape.
Then, it happened. Hurrying through the thick foliage with his M-16 rifle at the ready, Johnson stepped on a buried land mine. He knew immediately it might be his last step.
"I waited 30 seconds to die," he would say in the years that followed his close call. "But, I was lucky. I survived."
||Johnson in his USMC dress blues in 1966.
When he opened his eyes after the blast and realized he was still among the living, he reached behind, searching for a first aid kit that would help stem the flow of blood that was mixed with sweat and covered his face.
Lance Cpl. Jerry Henry, his best friend in their platoon, rushed to his side with his own first aid kit. A corpsman was right behind him with emergency treatment to save Johnson’s life.
Johnson’s will to live kept him alive as excruciating pain coursed through his body. He had lost part of his right hand including his index finger as well as serious damage to both feet.
Worst, perhaps, were hundreds of tiny pieces of metal from the land mine that tore through his body. Most remain in his arms, legs and torso.
As he lay on his back in the jungle, wondering if he was going to live or die, memories of his farm in Alabama helped pull him through. He knew his family was waiting to welcome him home one day.
He was airlifted out of the war zone to hospitals for treatment that would last more than a year. Recovery was slow and painful, but he knew it beat the alternative.
In the nearly 50 years since he escaped death in that jungle during Operation Union, Johnson has been buoyed by his time in the Marine Corps. It is, in effect, his second family, one that has always been with him ever since he returned to civilian life.
He hasn’t worn his dress blue uniform since his boot camp graduation picture at Parris Island, S.C., but he doesn’t really need it to express his pride in the Corps. It’s with him almost every minute of his life.
Johnson tried for years to find out what happened to Henry and decided to examine the computerized "Virtual Wall" that contains the names and basic details of those who were killed in Vietnam. When he saw Henry’s name, he was devastated. Henry had died in combat two months after Johnson had stepped on the mine.
"I cannot describe the emptiness that I feel," said Johnson, in a written tribute to his friend on the wall. "You disregarded your own safety to come to my aid."
In a painful haze after being wounded, Johnson recalled Henry’s encouraging words to him as he lay in the jungle.
"Those guys from Birmingham, Alabama, are tough; right, Sam?" Johnson remembered Henry telling him in an effort to lift his spirits.
"I don’t recall responding, but your words will always remain with me. You were a true example of a tough Marine with class and understanding," Johnson continued in his tribute.
After his long rehabilitation period, Johnson was discharged as 100 percent disabled. He knew strenuous farming might be out of the question as far as his future was concerned. Ditto for brick masonry, a trade he gained before joining the Marine Corps.
The sixth of 14 children raised in Marion Junction, 15 miles west of Selma, Johnson stays in close contact with his siblings. Remarkably, they’re all alive and make it a point to get back home for family reunions every other year.
"We raised cotton, corn and other crops as we grew up," said Johnson, during an interview at the Selma-Dallas County YMCA where he works out to stay in shape. "I was a young boy when I started picking cotton. I put it into a little sack I carried on my side from daylight to dark."
He also learned to maneuver horses named Prince and Mary into positions to dig furrows for row crops. They had a single plow, but it got the job done.
When he wasn’t plowing, he was busy early in the mornings collecting eggs from the family’s chicken coop or working in the garden to provide vegetables they’d need through the year.
Johnson, now 68, wasn’t the only member of the family working the fields, of course, but, as the middle child, he soon learned that he’d be a mentor to his brothers and sisters.
"Because of our age differences, he pretty much raised us," said David Johnson, 56, a retired Air Force senior master sergeant living in Atlanta. "Sam was a father-figure for me and the others. He taught us all responsibility. We knew we’d need it to get along in life."
Their brother’s strength and determination to recover from his war wounds as well as his perseverance in the face of persistent pain have been inspirations for everyone in the family.
"Sam made sure we did our homework and pitched in to help around the house," David said. "His service in the Marines also made me want to serve our country."
Damage to his right hand made it nearly impossible for Sam to resume his bricklaying work, so he enrolled at Alabama State University under the GI Bill and graduated with honors in business administration.
After spending five years working for a state agency, Johnson entered private industry at International Paper Co. where he spent more than two decades in the Human Resources Department.
In between commuting to Montgomery to attend ASU and getting periodic medical checkups, Johnson began to "shop" at Sears once he got a glimpse of Thomasene Smith, who was a manager at the Selma store.
"I kept going in pretending to look for clothes, but it developed into a lot more than that," Johnson said, flashing a big smile.
They were married on Nov. 10, 1973, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Selma. It’s the date his bride selected without knowing what it represented to her future husband – the Marine Corps’ birthday.
The Johnsons have two children, a son and a daughter. Michael, a Georgia Tech graduate, has attained a national reputation as a defensive end for the Cincinnati Bengals.
His stellar play not only earned him plaudits as soon as he turned pro, he also signed a contract at one point for more than $40 million.
Father and son have invested in two large parcels of land totaling nearly 200 acres in Selma. Their goal is to increase Johnson and Johnson Farms to about 1,000 acres in the near future.
|Sam Johnson, right, and brother David harvested a pickup truck full of watermelons on Sam’s farm in Dallas County.
They tried producing watermelons this year, but constant heat took its toll. Irrigation should take care of that problem down the road and the Johnsons continue looking for crops and livestock to add to their output.
Through it all, Johnson has never forgotten the moment he nearly died in that jungle. The memory and the pain remain with him constantly, especially losing Jerry Henry.
Nightmares and daytime flashbacks are unwelcome companions he’d rather ditch, but can’t. They keep coming back.
"I’d be thinking of something else and then I’d be back in Vietnam," he said. "It’s been that way ever since. They never seem to stop."
Anger hasn’t entirely left him as a result of his wounds that day in the jungle and he admits that when he’s shopping and picks up a dress shirt, the first thing he does is check the tag to see where it was made.
When he sees "Vietnam" on it, chances are it goes right back on the pile.
November is a month of holidays that include Halloween and Veterans Day in addition to the Marine Corps’ birthday on Nov. 10.
When Veterans Day is observed, he can usually be found at Memorial Stadium in Selma where Veterans Day programs are held.
Sam Johnson can’t be missed – he’s the big guy with the big smile just under his USMC cap.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.