When James Johnson joined the 82nd Airborne Division, an elite fighting force, in the fall of 1955 as a 20-year-old soldier he took part in one of the largest ground maneuvers the Army ever staged in the United States.
Their job: smuggle an atomic bomb past an aggressor force waiting for them at Fort Polk, La. while protecting their volatile cargo.
“They wanted to see if we could keep the bomb away from the aggressor force. Not only was it one of the biggest maneuvers ever held, seven troopers were killed during the exercise, they told us,” the 76-year-old North Port, Fla. resident recalled.
Pfc. Johnson was in the 298th Signal Corps Group attached to the 82nd. Part of the time he worked in the motor-pool keeping the World War II vintage deuce-and-a-half trucks on the road and part of the time he helped run the generators that powered the division’s radio communication equipment.
“I never saw the dummy A-bomb,” he said. “We moved it in one of our trucks.”
The Airborne troopers rolled out of their home base at Fort Bragg, N.C. and headed south toward Louisiana and Fort Polk.
“I was just one of hundreds of troops taking part in the exercise. We were being chased by an aggressor force while protecting the bomb,” Johnson said. “We had tanks and all kinds of mechanized equipment.
“Half way through the maneuver I was reassigned to Fontainebleau, France along with a bunch of other soldiers. We arrived in early December at Napoleon’s summer chateau,” he said.
“My job was to make sure they had power in the field for communication equipment wherever they went. We spent a lot of time in the field putting up radio towers and talking back and forth.
“We arrived along the Belgium border just in time for Oktoberfest. It was a big deal over there. People were partying and having a good time,” Johnson said.
It was the “Cold War” Army. He was part of an honor guard detachment at Fontainebleau when he wasn’t working on power generators for communications equipment. The honor guard would fall in for special ceremonial occasions.
It was at this stage in Johnson’s service career the brass found out he was a better than average golfer. Generals and colonels wanted him to be part of their foursome.
“When I was a kid I grew up next to the Hermitage Country Club near Richmond,Virginia where some of the biggest tournaments in the country were held. By the time I was 14 I could play par golf,” he said. “In the under 18 classification I came in second on two occasions in the City of Richmond Tournament. I lost by one stroke both times.
“When I played tournament golf in the Army, Gen. George H. Decker, Allied Commander in Europe, played in front of me. I played with Col. Smith. He was the Senior Champion in Europe at the time. He won the championship in the Washington, D.C. area when he transferred there.”
Two years of Johnson’s three years in the service was spent in France. A good part of that time was spent on the links beating the brass at golf.
One incident etched into Johnson’s mind happened back in the States at the drop zone at Fort Bragg.
“I was on the drop zone with a captain who was in charge of the zone that day. Planes were flying over and dropping hundreds of troops. It was exciting, much more than working in the motor-pool,” he said. “This one time a trooper’s chute didn’t open properly and he landed on top of another chute while they were still hundreds of feet in the air. The trooper with the defective chute slipped off the parachute he was on momentarily and the trooper below grabbed him as he was falling.
“The captain I was with kept yelling at the two of them, ‘Hold on to that man’s chute until he hits the ground! He said it over and over. They both survived the jump and weren’t seriously injured.
“It was magnificent seeing hundreds of troopers jumping out of planes at Fort Bragg,” Johnson recalled 50 years later.
Shortly before Christmas he flew back to the U.S. and was discharged at Fort Dix, N.J. in time to make it home for Christmas. He was 23.
“I think the Army had a lot to do with my whole life. I bought my first house with a G.I. loan, went to college under the G. I. Bill and get my medical with my G.I. card,” Johnson said.
Just by chance he got a job as a Wrigley’s chewing gum salesman. He started out delivering gum to stories and setting up displays. Thirty-eight years later he retired from Wrigley’s as the top salesman in the southeast with a territory that stretched from Virginia to the Florida Keys with headquarters in Jacksonville.
He and his wife, Connie, moved to the North Port area seven years ago to be near her sister who lives in Venice. They have two sons and a daughter.
Name: James R. Johnson
D.O.B: 8 Jan. 1935
Hometown: Norfolk, VA
Current: North Port, Fla.
Entered Service: 19 Jan 1955
Discharged: Dec. 1957
Rank: Specialist 4th Class
Unit: 298th Signal Corps Group
Commendations: Good Conduct Medal
This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, June 9, 2011. It is republished with permission.