Kenwood Press

Serving the communities of Kenwood, Glen Ellen and Oakmont

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Forum Oakmont: 10/01/2011

A Marine Veteran returns to Korea

Dave Johnson, member of the Board of Directors of the Oakmont Village Association, received an unexpected phone call last spring. He was to join four other Marine Veterans to fly to South Korea as the honored guests of the Republic of Korea Marine Corps. The occasion was a three-day Korean Marine Battle Memorial Festival, commemorating the recapture of Mt. Dosol (“Punch Bowl”) one of the five major battle fields during the Korean War (1950-1953).

The honorees were recognized during a continuous series of galas, parades and visits to battle theaters. At an official reception at the headquarters of the Korean Marine Corps, the Commandant, his division commanders and the entire General Staff lined up to welcome them.

Arriving at the infamous “Punch Bowl,” they found a battle monument honoring the fallen Korean and U.S. Marines. A poignant moment occurred when one of the returnees located the name of his brother, killed during that action.

Heading north, the five Marine Veterans were shown around the Demilitarized Zone, where they were briefed on the security and forces maintaining the border between North and South Korea.

On their last day, a tour of the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul was arranged. A special hall is reserved for the recording of every soldier from the United Nations countries who was killed during the war. Dave Johnson found the name of his squad leader; yet another moment of emotional resonance.

Johnson sums up the singular distinction of having been invited to attend the ceremonies, during which they were treated like royalty – each Veteran was given his own personal interpreter – as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Johnson is the national vice-president of the “Exclusive Fraternity of Honor – The Chosin Few,” which is comprised of the survivors of the battle of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, described by historians as the “most savage” combat operation of modern warfare.

The engagement took place in the North Korean mountains, near the Manchurian border, where the temperature drops to 40 below zero. Vastly outnumbered, the allied ground troops of 15,000 faced an army of 125,000 Chinese. In this epic encounter, during which the Allies prevailed, China suffered 28,000 casualties, while the Allies lost 3,000 men and another 6,000 were wounded.

According to Johnson, the American military grew somewhat complacent after the end of WWII. Nobody anticipated another war and the armed forces were virtually stripped of everything. The nation’s attention was focused on a rapidly growing economy and a life of normality.

The Marine Corps was reduced to 60,000 troops, who mostly served on ships and embassies around the world. As for the infantry, not even a full division was available.

When the Korean War broke out, the Reserves were called up and had to contend with 1943 equipment that was used in Europe and the South Pacific. Thus, the soldiers fighting the most savage battle in the annals of modern warfare, at sub-zero temperatures, had to cope in uniforms and boots designed for moderate and tropical climates.

Most of the troops sustained massive frostbite, wounds with lifelong implications. The freezing not only affects the skin, but muscles, tendons, blood vessels and nerves. Many veterans lost their limbs due to gangrene. Their circulatory systems never fully recovered. Johnson, who was evacuated from Chosin Reservoir with a grenade wound to the spine, suffered from stage four frostbite. He has walked since then, five miles every day, to keep his circulation in proper condition.

Fortuitously, the horrific memories of brutal combat and physical agony have been softened by his recent and extraordinary experiences in Korea, whose people have never forgotten the heroic assistance they were given by the American and allied forces, 61 years ago.

Returning from the war, Johnson went back to school, taking courses in financial management, which led him to become, at age 27, CEO of a Labor-Management Benefit Trust Fund Office in San Francisco. Under his stewardship, the endowments, at his retirement in 1988, amounted to one billion dollars.

Not ready to sit in a rocking chair, he served for five years on the Santa Rosa Planning Commission and, subsequently, on the Community Advisory Board that represented the South of Santa Rosa, including Oakmont.

As a member of the Board of Directors of the OVA, Dave has definitive thoughts and opinions, which, unfortunately, space does not allow us to expound upon. One overriding desire, however, is worth highlighting, namely the importance of involving the entire residency in a public dialogue over planned projects and their development, which will affect our village of Oakmont.

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