Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series published each Monday between Memorial Day and Veterans Day honoring local veterans.
LORDSTOWN – Richard B. Johnson aimed the truck up the rough road, hauling another load of ammunition to the five howitzer canons his artillery company supplied on the front lines in Korea.
”You don’t go too fast up those mountains with a load of 105s,” Johnson said.
Beside the squat, 5-foot-8 Johnson sat his buddy Burch, a slender, 6-foot-6 kid from Philadelphia. Johnson figures their faces weren’t much more than a foot from the windshield as they jostled up the trail.
”All of a sudden, PING! That bullet comes through the windshield …”
Johnson, 83, sitting in his recliner last week in his Lordstown living room, traced a path with his finger starting from above the left side of his head, across his body, and plunging past his right hip.
”… and landed next to me in the seat. My buddy jumped out and ran. I kept going. If I’d jumped out, the truck would have rolled back down the mountain.”
Johnson reached a checkpoint and directed the patrol toward the shooter and Burch. He was sent on to deliver the shells to the front.
”When I came back down, they had this 16-year-old North Korean soldier in their custody. I jumped out of that truck and had my hands right around his neck, and he was gasping from air before the military police could get me off of him.”
Burch was there too.
”I asked him, ‘Where’d you go?’ He said, ‘Man, when that thing hit the windshield, I was gone!”’
When they got back to base, Johnson dug the bullet out of the truck with a screwdriver, and mounted the jagged round onto a belt buckle after returned home in 1953 at the end of the war.
”I had some scrapes that would scare the devil out of anybody,” he said.
Johnson was born Aug. 16, 1930, in Monroe Township in Ashtabula County. Most of his life was spent in the Monroe and Conneaut areas, where his occupations were, at various and sometimes overlapping times, a rodeo rider, farm mechanic, dairy farmer, Corvette parts maker, sawyer, milk tester, school janitor, bus driver, cemetery sexton, and farm and veterinary supply dealer. He also spent 10 years hired on at then-Franchester, now-Miceli Farms, south of Cleveland, in one of the dairy barns.
”I couldn’t stand still, that’s for sure,” he said.
About five years ago, Johnson moved to Kibler Dairy Farms Inc., operated by his son-in-law Garry Kibler. Johnson’s daughter Rita, who died in 2011, was famous locally as the ”Pink Tractor Lady.” In support of cancer research, Rita Kibler drove a pink Farmall tractor in area parades and tractor-pulling contests.
One of Rita’s pink Farmall caps is now displayed in Johnson’s living room, perched atop one of the pitcher and bowl sets that her late mother, Marjorie, collected. Johnson’s dog tags from Korea dangle from the ceramic pitcher.
Dick and Marjorie Johnson were building a house and barn in Monroe when the Army called.
He began training in Fort Jackson, S.C., in January 1952, went home on furlough, then shipped out of Washington state to spend May 1952 until July 1953 – the end of the war – in Korea.
”My dad and Marge finished the house. She sent me photos in Korea.”
While his house was being built in the states, Johnson marveled at the living conditions in rough terrain and rocky mountains.
”I can’t see how those people lived there,” he said. ”I don’t see how they made a living.”
If one person built a house, the next person would start add three sides onto one of the outside walls, and now he had a house. The next person built three sides onto that. ”They had whole rows like that.”
Rice paddies were terraced up mountainsides. Crops were planted where they shouldn’t be able to grow.
”Here I was a farmer and I hadn’t seen anything like this. But they grew good crops. It was way beyond me, boy, I’ll tell you that.”
Johnson said he took care of his truck so it always was ready to run. The backdrop of explosions from the front could go on all day and night, and they’d be called out at any time to replenish the stock of shells.
He recalls one night when the call came and he was asked, ”Dick, you think your truck will start?”
”You know it’s 40 below out there.”
Johnson said after fortifying himself with coffee, he climbed into his truck, which started right up, and made the run.
”By the time I left (Korea), I had some men under me. Sometimes I made trucks run that they couldn’t make run in ordnance.”
Eventually, the skills he learned back home earned him the job of lead mechanic.
”My dad and I had a garage in the country where we’d fix anything they brought in – tractors, trucks, anything,” Johnson said.
Over his life, Johnson’s made a point of enjoying whatever he does. It was no different in Korea, where he was known as ”Johns” to his buddies.
”I had a lot of fun. There were times when it was fun. We had an area cleared out where we played ball. And there were times we wondered if we were coming back.
”I feel this way about it: I supported my country.
”I had a wonderful life. I enjoyed it all the way through,” Johnson said. ”If I had it to do all over again, I’d do it straight through. Maybe not Korea. I came too close to getting killed.”