Robert Johnson was the oldest of six, growing up in a farming family during the Great Depression. He didn’t get the opportunity to graduate high school, needing to help his family on the farm. He was drafted into the Army in 1951 where he went to mechanics school in Japan for two months before he was sent to Korea where he used those skills. He describes how he was badly injured in a fall and was able to save some machinery while in Korea. He also details living conditions and other dangerous experiences during his time there.
Paralyzed for Days
Robert Johnson describes the details of his work on a Caterpillar machine in Korea when it becoming stuck. As it was stuck, he describes how he fell off and became paralyzed in the back for five days. He describes his hospitalization and recovery.
Share from this page:
A Burning Truck
Robert Johnson recollects on a dangerous experience in Korea when he was in a truck filled with TNT and how it led to a fire. He also describes seeing constant planes fly over his station. Although he didn't engage in combat, he was near much of the fighting.
Share from this page:
Surviving the Elements in a Tent
Robert Johnson describes his living conditions while in Korea. It was extremely cold during the winter as they lived in tents. He also recollects on the food. After winter, they had to prepare for the floods due to all the snow melting and the monsoon season beginning.
Share from this page:
[Beginning of Recorded Material]
R: Robert Johnson, and now what else, uh serial number or
I: No. Um, when’s your birthday, and where were you born?
R: Born in Sturgeon Lake, Minnesota.
I: And when were you
F: Talk kind of loud. He doesn’t hear very good.
I: Okay. I’ll talk, I’ll talk a little bit louder. Could you talk about your family at the time?
I: At the time of, uh, when you were born, when you were younger? Can you talk about your family?
R: Well, I was the oldest, and there were six of us altogether. Uh, I don’t know.
F: Where were you born?
I: Where did you grow up?
R: In, uh, northern Pine, uh, Pine Country, Minnesota., Windemere
township most of it.
I: And did you graduate high school?
R: No. Didn’t, didn’t make high school.
F: You made it near the end.
R: I was milking cows instead.
F: Didn’t you go a year and a half? Didn’t you go a year and a half to college, I mean high school. Didn’t you go a year and a half to high school?
R: But I didn’t graduate.
I: Okay. Um, alright.
So, let’s see. Did you, um, enlist, or were you drafted?
R: I was drafted.
I: In what year?
I: And where did you go for basic training?
R: Fort Riley, Kansas.
I: And when did you leave for Korea?
R: Well, um, I think it was the 20thof November of ’51 when I got on the boat,
and then I spent two months in Japan at a Mechanic’s school and then went to Korea. I got to Korea either the last day or the next to the last day of January in ’52.
I: And why were you at Mechanic’s school in Japan, and do you remember where you were in Japan?
R: At Ajima, and that was a Japanese Navy base,
and I, I’ve never found it on a map, so I don’t know where it’s at. But it was off of, off of the main island. It was a smaller island out in the ocean someplace.
I: And what branch of the military were you a part of? What branch of the military were you a part of?
R: The Army. I was, well, in Fort Riley, I took, uh, Infantry basic.
Then I got over there and got Mechanic’s School, and I got in Korea Combat Engineer outfit, and they had more truck mechanics than they could shake a stick at. So they put me on the heavy equipment service, mechanic. And, well, uh, October
of ’52 they gave me Motor Sergeant position.
I: Do you remember where you landed in Korea and when?
R: Well, uh, what is it, Pusan on the south end?
R: And then, uh, went up more or less east coast to Chorwon I think the name of the town was, and then from, that was the reception center,
and that’s where I was designated to go to, uh, engineering outfit, 378 Combat Engineers.
I: So what was your specialty?
R: I don’t know. I had so many numbers that it’s hard to figure out which one is. [LAUGHS] But I was, um,
uh, Heavy Equipment Mechanic or Serviceman or whatever for the mobile from, from, uh, February until October when they give me Motor Sergeant. And, you know, that was 36-point rotation business, and, uh,
I had my 36 points in October, didn’t get out of there until February, uh, April the next year.
I: So what was your daily routine like?
R: Uh, just seeing that that the equipment was greased up and running decent, and then in the motor pool I had to
check with the Commanding Officer and see which trucks were available for different jobs they would have to do, and, uh, and we were out where they were building roads, you know, with the, with the Caterpillars,
and, well, Caterpillars in the, in trailers and trucks. That’s about all I worked on when I was over there.
I: Did you interact a lot with the civilians?
R: No. We had a houseboy. We were east of Seoul, and they were cleaning a minefield east of Seoul and, and this boy
come around and well wanted to do something I guess. So we just kept him with us. He was still with us when, when I left, but we had moved a couple times after. When we, uh, moved from east to Seoul and we went back up north,
and for, Lee, Lee Capsill I think his name was, and we went up past that 38thParallel sign, the poor kid didn’t know if he should go with us or not.
I: So you arrived in Pusan, and you were around Seoul, but then just said you also went up north.
R: Well, from Pusan I went up to Chorwon I think it was,
and then that company, we moved, oh must have been five, six times, and we helped move, uh, C company and the Korean Service Corp., but I didn’t know where I was going most of the time I was over there so.
I: Yeah. So tell me about your impression of Korea.
You say you don’t know where you were. Did you know about Korea before you came?
I: You had never heard of it before?
R: Probably heard of it, but I didn’t know nothing about it, no. I know it’s, uh, pretty near all mountains, either mountains or rivers.
I: What was Korea like when you were there?
R: Well, pretty well blowed up after they, what the Chinese and North Koreans
went south, then the U.S., well it was United Nations I suppose you’d say, drove them back north, but that was to, to the 38thParallel, and they weren’t supposed to go any further north than that I guess. They had been up to the border, Chinese border
before they were driven back.
F: Did you tell them about the cat that got stuck?
R: You did what?
F: Did you tell them about the caterpillar that got stuck and they couldn’t get it out?
R: No, well, they wanted me a Caterpillar operator. That was, oh, I’d been there three weeks after I was there. So I decided to try it, and
of course I was on, on the Caterpillar with the operator to learn to, probably knew how to do it anyway. But, uh, you gotta take that training, and we were, we went out on a Monday morning, I think it was 4:30 when we started in the morning, and they brought the noon meal out at, at 11:00,
and we ate the noon meal and went back out to the Cat so it was going on noon, and got on the Cat and was pushing the blasted rocks off the, and there was a rock wall about 20’ high, and up at the, up at the top, and they’re all like see an opening about 3, 4” and so I pointed it out to the operator,
and he said that’ll never come down. So made, I think it was the second or third pass, and I fell off, covered the front end of the Cat, busted the pony engine and the manifolds and, and, uh, I got hung up in the winch lever, so I laid across the seat,
and I had a rock a couple hundred pounds hit me in the back, and, and behind the seat in the fuel tank there was a rock that was probably 12, 14” deep and about, just about as wide as it, as the Cat. We had laid our helmets behind the, the seat so that you couldn’t wear them. Everything’s riding you. And they were about an inch deep, and just.
So a couple feet either way I’d have been a grease spot, you know. But I, I didn’t operate Cat after that. I told them there was other jobs.
I: Did you go to the hospital?
R: I laid in the 25thEvacuation Hospital for
F: A tent.
R: Uh, five days paralyzed. I couldn’t move from the waist down.
I: How did you regain movement?
R: I don’t’ know. Laying on the bed I guess or caught and, uh, it hurt. Boy that back hurt something awful.
F: Still causing him trouble.
I: Um hm. Did you feel any resentment for the fact that, you know, you got injured and you were wounded and you were
R: No, not that, no.
When, uh, when I come home, went to work for father-in-law for the summer and finished harvest and then went to work for the neighbor, not the neighbor but the he was up there until they got him. Uh, we worked there a year, and then, uh, somebody
wanted us to take over a farm, so we, we spent the year or a little over, figure two years there, and then we bought the one that we’re living on now in, uh, Spring of ’56 and been there ever since.
F: You should tell them how they pulled the Caterpillar out when it got stuck over there in Korea. How they pulled the Caterpillar when it got stuck in Korea. They asked you how to get it out.
R: Uh, they come and asked me if I knew how to get one out. They,
I: Oh wait, sorry. When did this happen?
I: Can you give us, uh, context? Was this the same Caterpillar that you got injured
R: No, it’s a different Caterpillar. The one that I was on, they, they worked on three different times, and it broke down about an hour afterwards each time, so they jumped it. But, uh, this guy
running the Cat at that time would go until that Caterpillar balanced, and sometimes it balanced too much and they went down the hill. Well, he went down on the hill there one day and, and uh, hit a spring, and the Cat sunk in that spring, and they had, I think, a dozen of the Korean Service Corp. digging mud out from under it, and I think
they were two days digging in and, and, uh, the Lieutenant, oh what would he be, he would be, um, platoon leader I suppose, come to me and asked if I had any ideas, and I said I’d have to see it, you know. So we got out there and, and, uh, they were still throwing mud from under the Cat,
and I told the Lieutenant, instead of shoveling that mud to, to, uh, get as big a log as them guys could carry and bring it back. So they went and got a, got a pretty good sized log and carried back, and while they were gone, I and my helper bolted chains to the pad on the, on the tracks, and
when they got back with the log, we chained a log to that pad, started the Cat up and put it in reverse and backed it out of there, and, they couldn’t hardly believe I, what, what we had done but they, it was out of there. So,
I: What was it like being in this foreign land doing all this work while, you know,
your family and your friends are at home?
R: I don’t know. It was a job is about all that I got out of it, you know. Uh, there was a lot of them that, that, uh, went to drinking. Some of them got mixed up with the dope.
I don’t know. Just glad to get home again. See, we got married on Thursday night, the 8thof March, and we got snowed in on Friday
I: Of what year?
R: ’51. And I think it was Wednesday or Thursday before they got the road opened up for the mail, and that’s when I had
my greetings and salutations to go, and that was, it was set up for the 25thof April, and I don’t know why, but they, they later sent a 30-day deferment, so it was the 25thof May. Anyway, we were in Kansas when that, uh, river flooded
out there. The barracks that I was in, well you know, they got the barracks about 3’ off of the ground, and the water was in the ceiling joists. So there was at least 10’ of water where the barracks were at. And there was about any kind of gopher or mice or rats or snakes or frogs or whatever you wanted to mention, drowned,
and then in the building and in the yards around it, whatever. I finished the basic training, and then, then went to Seattle, waited at Fort Lawton from the 25thof, of October until the 20thof November. We went
from, uh, Seattle to Adak, Alaska, and t hen from Adak, Alaska down to Yokohama, and somewhere along the line, we hit a storm. I was guard on C deck, and I was toward the rear end of the boat when the really hit good, and the water was coming over the side, and
there was three or four days you couldn’t leave inside the boat, and they said at one point, that thing was within 4 degrees of capsizing. So, you know, pretty rough condition. That was one of the biggest boats they had at the time, the H.B. Freeman.
I: Did you write back to your wife?
I: Did you write back to your wife when you were in Korea?
R: Tried to write every day. There was those days I laid in the hospital, I didn’t write.
I: What went through your mind when you were laying down in the hospital?
R: Wondering if I was gonna be able to walk again. Uh, at the company, the barracks,
the rest of the guys there put all of my stuff together. It was already for the, for them to send home to me, you know. They figured I would, I would be home. But I surprised them when I walked in.
I: Were they glad to see you?
R: Yeah. They said I should have went home in, instead of back over there. But
that wasn’t what the Army wanted, so [LAUGHS].
I: What were the most difficult or dangerous times that you experienced when you were in Korea?
R: I think about the, what I thought was the worst, we had one of the Caterpillars that had a clutch go bad, and they wanted that fixed during the night.
So we went out there with a ¾ ton Dodge, and I forget how many light stands, and there was four of us that was working on that Cat, and it was known guerilla country. So there we were, the four of us under the lights, you know, with the
pick up running, you couldn’t hear nothing. And, uh, I was sure glad when that was over. We got her fixed for them during the night. But I think that was most scary part that I was at.
I: Do you remember where this was?
R: No, I don’t remember where it was. I know that, well, when, when I got hurt,
that was the first part of, of, uh, well, in February 20th. They had started building a road. They had five Cats I think, in different places up on the hill, and up on top you could see the planes bombing the enemy on the other side of the valley, and, uh,
where we was, where we were at when, when I went down, I think it was just to get another road across the country then. One time they had, uh, one of the truckers go and pick up a bunch of TNT,
and, uh, the Korean Service Corp. helped them load it, and then they rode on the truck and gonna unload it, and somehow or another some of that, you know, that, that, uh, TNT was cords, uh. I suppose burning cords or whatever you want to call them, uh, dynamite, blasting cord.
They were, I think, six in a string, and somehow or another one of them got down and wrapped around the drive shaft and started a fire and burned up a whole truckload of explosives in the truck and the
I: That’s amazing. Was anybody hurt?
R: No, nobody was hurt. But, uh, that stuff was hot. That TNT was hot, and it melted that, a lot of that truck.
I: Were you ever attacked as you were traveling, or did you ever participate in combat?
R: I never got any combat, no. I crossed a, I crossed, um,
oh, what’s that valley?
I: Let’s see. I can show you a map.
R: Anyway, going across that valley, there’s signs that said that you were under enemy observation going across there. We had hauled, moved C Company one time, and
when I was on the way back, one of the, well, I was the last one leave, when that run, uh, one of the, one of the trucks, our trucks, had the front, front wheel, they had a bell housing on, and that bell housing it broke, and he couldn’t drive it. And I, well, I didn’t wanna leave him there,
and, uh, he wasn’t supposed to leave the truck, you know. So we decided to try and get it hooked up on the. So I raised the box on the, on the truck I had and tied the winch, his winch to the frame, and, uh, he raised his truck with a weight stand and pulled it
up the front end on the back of the truck I had. Kumwa Valley, wasn’t it?
I: Um. Can you look at this map and
I: Was it, it’s south, right, South Korea, under the 38thParallel?
R: What was that?
I: Is it under the 38thParallel?
R: Eh, it must be just about on it.
Might be on the north side of it. But, um,
I: Okay. Can you say that to the, say that again? So you were in what valley?
I: You were in what valley?
R: I think it was Kumwa Valley, and I had that truck hanging on the back end of mine, and we went across that, we didn’t get shot at, so we made it home.
I: Do you recall any comrades or friends that you were close to?
R: Well, I worked with Rodney B. Sipple. He was from Fond du La, Wisconsin, and our youngest girl went to college over there in Wisconsin, and we was over there visiting
and I don’t know why, but I was looking in the telephone book one day and I saw Rodney B. Sipple, so I called and I asked if he knew a guy by the name of Bob Johnson, and, uh, yeah, he did, and he come over there to us, and then we went and had a meal and, what did there, four times?
F: Maybe. You saw your brother over there, too. He’s gone over to Korea.
I: Your brother was in Korea?
F: Yeah, and I forget when he got over there, and he didn’t take my address along, and when I was
I: Sorry, could you start because her, when she, when she helps us, uh, to remember stuff, we, we can’t include her because it’s your interview. So
just pretend like they don’t know what you’re talking about. So say, you know, my brother was also in Korea and then start.
R: And, um, for a while I was going
I: Oh, could you say your brother was in Korea?
R: Yeah, my brother was in Korea, and, uh, for a while I was driving by the unit that he was with. He was with, uh, telephone or signal or whatever, and, uh, if
I’d have known his address, I could have stopped, and he didn’t have mine, so he didn’t know where I was at. The day after I left the company, he stopped up to see me. That was that, that close, you know.
I: How did it feel to have a family member fighting with you in Korea?
R: Uh, there was several guys that did, either
right there or, you know, the Navy or the Air Force or some other part of it.
I: Did you worry about him a lot? Did you worry about him a lot?
R: No, never really worried about him.
I: Why not? He’s your brother.
R: Yeah. I
didn’t have any idea where he was at, you know. There was, I was hitting up basic training with a lot of guys that, that never went over there. Some of them went to Europe. One of, one of the best friends I’ve had since was in, uh, uh, what’s that Japanese outfit down there?
Big, big island down there? Can’t think of it now. Uh, a couple of the guys that I was in Mechanics School were in the same outfit as I was.
I: So did you travel around the Peninsula a lot?
R: Not that much, no. Uh, other than where we were working on the roads, you know. From the company area to where, where they were working.
I: And you were mostly in South Korea, right?
R: Well, actually, uh, by Seoul would have been the only part of South Korea. The rest of it was north of the Parallel.
I: So did you run into any Chinese or North Korean soldiers at all?
R: Not that I know of.
I: What were your living conditions like?
R: Living in a tent, yeah. And well, the whole works was tents, you know, the cooking and the supply and the whole ball of wax was
in the canvas tents, squad tents.
I: Didn’t it get cold up in North Korea?
R: Kind of. One morning, well, they were building a lookout on top of the mountain where we were working on the road below. But one morning
we got up, and it was 27 below zero where, where they were building that lookout station, and it was 14 below in the company area.
I: Do you remember where you were last before you went back to the States?
R: No, I don’t. I know at one time we were across a river from
9thCorp. Headquarters, and the 9thCorp. Headquarters had been dug into a mountainside. They were in cave, and I and another pal from the motor pool were over there welding a eave trough together.
I: What is that?
R: Eave trough for the houses? For the roofs? So they catch the water and, and run it over? Well it,
the water was coming out of the mountain, so we tied them to the wall, got., drilled holes in sticks and bolts or wherever, you know, in the wall, and then welded those together to drain the water so it wouldn’t run in their offices and what have you. I was, I was helping there two to three days, uh. They had a rain,
I don’t remember what month it was, but it was flood conditions, and every hour we had to go to the bridge and check the water levels, and it got pretty deep.
I: Did you ever get flooded completely?
R: Not over there, no.
I: So when did you leave Korea, and where did you leave from?
R: Well, I left, I suppose it would have been the 4thof, of April in ’50, ’53, and I’m sure it was Inchon. That’s by Seoul, isn’t it? They don’t have a fort. They had to haul us out to the ship and then load into the ship.
I: How did it feel to leave Korea? Did you have any hope for Korea?
R: Well I guess it was just like another job, and, and I was glad I could get out of there, get home again.
I: Did you think that Korea would, what do you think was going to happen to Korea after you left?
R: I don’t know. I was hoping that they would be able to hold the position, which they have. But, uh, they’re still, still fighting over there in different times. The cease fire didn’t do much good.
I: So when were you discharged from the military?
R: Well, the second of May, I think it is.
I: About ’53?
R: ’53, yeah.
I: And have you been back to Korea since?
R: No. But they tell me it’s an altogether different country than when I was there.
I: Do you want to go back?
R: I don’t care that much for that boat ride or the plane.
I: Are you aware of, uh, Korea’s status as the 11thlargest economy in the world?
R: Well, everything I’ve read about it, they have done great as far as that part goes.
I: How does it make you feel about your service, that a country, the country that you saw in 1952 has become such a large and transformed country now?
R: Well, it’s a good deal [INAUDIBLE]. Better than going backwards.
I: Are you proud of your service?
R: Uh, I don’t know if I’m proud of it. I, uh, I’m glad that I’m done served it as far as that goes. But there’s some guys that wished they could have served and
couldn’t get in. And there’s some that were there and didn’t want to be there. And hey, as far as I’m concerned, if they, if they give them two years of military training right out of high school would, would help a lot of them, you know. They don’t know what they want to do
or where or get into trouble.
I: What do you think about the fact that North and South Korea remain divided today?
R: I don’t think Communism is the way to go. From every country that’s tried it, it’s gone backwards.
So if they can, if they can keep the peace and make it work, good for them.
I: Would you be in support of a reunified Korea?
R: Under certain terms, I suppose. Yeah.
I: What do you think the legacy of Korean War veterans and the Korean War are?
R: About the what?
I: What is the legacy of the Korean War?
R: I don’t know. Don’t know if I ever heard what the legacy was.
I: Well, what came out of the Korean War do you think?
R: The expense, no, I don’t really know.
The Communists didn’t take it over. That’s one thing that didn’t get them.
I: Does it make you happy to see that what you did in Korea resulted in South Korea’s success?
R: Uh, yeah, it does.
I: If you could go again or if you had to go again, would you go?
R: Not if I could help it. A little bit too old now.
I: Is there any final message that you want to leave with our audience about the Korean War and about your service?
R: No, none that I can think of.
I: Any last thought about Korea in general?
R: I didn’t get around that much when I was over there, so I don’t know.
I: Well, thank you so much for being with us and for your service. It was a pleasure getting to know you and interviewing you today, um, and thank you again.
[End of Recorded Material]