A soldier's story

Decorated veteran of all-black regiment perseveres through physical, emotional pain

gmartin@islandpacket.comFebruary 25, 2012 

All he could do was wait.

Benjamin Johnson stared up from his cot in a cargo plane carrying him across the Pacific, his bandaged hands pressing a gauze wrap against his belly to hold his intestines in place.

He was not alone.

He was surrounded by fellow soldiers, all of them gravely injured in the Korean jungle and on their way back to the United States for medical treatment.

Now, at 92, he can still remember each stop the plane made to refuel, labeling them like stars in a constellation, celestial beacons guiding him ever closer to his family.

Waiting as he flew from Korea to Tokyo, from Tokyo to the Marshall Islands, from the Marshalls to Hawaii, he wondered if he'd ever see his three boys again.

They were in Philadelphia with his wife, Ardell, unaware of his wounds, his waiting, as the plane hopscotched east to California, then Massachusetts and finally, to Maryland.

He'd met Ardell when she was a student in Coosaw, just north of Beaufort. He was four years older and had grown up across St. Helena Sound in Bennetts Point.

He'd been shy in his pursuit, passing notes to her through mutual friends. She relented finally and let him take her on a date.

She'd never been far from his mind since, even as he served in two wars as a member of one of the U.S. Army's few all-black regiments.

They'd married during a time when it was impossible for two children of the Lowcountry to imagine the global developments that would keep them apart for most of the next 20 years.

He thought of her as he flew south. In Maryland, he was finally unloaded into the fresh air and driven to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

His journey home was over.

But how did it begin?

'BUFFALO SOLDIERS'

He worked as a laborer in the fall of 1941, fastening sheet metal to the roofs of new barracks on Parris Island at a time when rumors of war were everywhere.

From his perch he watched Marines training.

He never imagined he would one day be a warrior, too.

That changed early that winter, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. He and his fellow workers listened to President Roosevelt's radio address.

Johnson knew immediately his country needed him.

He'd been dating Ardell for a few years by then -- she was 18, and newly pregnant with their first child.

He wanted to marry her before enlisting. They wed on Dec. 21, 1941, two weeks after the attack at Pearl.

Three months later, he waved goodbye to her as he boarded a bus for Fort Bragg. The time he spent in North Carolina in basic training followed the first of many reluctant farewells for the couple.

More than a year would pass before he first saw his son.

He was assigned to a segregated division and served alongside other relatively untrained blacks, called "buffalo soldiers," the name given to all-black regiments since the Civil War.

Like him, most of them had enlisted in the angry days following Pearl Harbor. Despite being marginalized by many of its policies, they felt obliged to defend their country.

CONFLICT AND WAR

After Fort Bragg and subsequent training in Texas, Johnson shipped out to England, where he drove trucks that carried bombs to battalions throughout the country.

He drove the roads of London, Liverpool, and Ipswich and recalled with a smile his confusion the first time he tried to drive on the left side of the road.

He loved the people he met there -- though he says he could barely understand their accents -- and remembers countless meals of fish and chips.

His job kept him largely out of harm's way, though at night the sky sometimes flashed and rumbled as Luftwaffe bombers dropped death in the distance.

In the nearly two years in England, he never once used his rifle.

While he was away, Ardell bought a 10-acre plot near where they'd both grown up, on the northern tip of Lady's Island by the Coosaw River.

She knew he'd return home, and saw the land as a place to raise a family with her husband.

While he never saw combat during that war, his efforts behind the front lines helped win it.

But even in the relative safety of England, there was conflict.

Johnson said his regiment not only resented serving under segregated conditions, but also felt cheated because they weren't seeing combat.

All of that would change five years later -- in Korea.

IN KOREA

He stayed in the Army after the war ended as a way to provide for his family.

Ardell was by then living in Philadelphia with the children so she could be closer to her extended family.

But another war intervened.

Johnson's regiment, which had been stationed in Japan, was among the first ordered to South Korea to push back Communist forces in 1950.

Outnumbered and ill-equipped for combat or the onslaught of Chinese mortars and Soviet artillery, the regiment managed to hold the Pusan Perimeter on the Korean peninsula's southeastern tip for weeks before pushing into the jungle.

Some of the landscape reminded him of the Lowcountry -- dense woods, rain at night and thick fog each morning.

Crouching in his foxhole, Ardell was often in his thoughts.

One early morning, after about a year in the jungle, the buffalo soldiers were ambushed by an entrenched platoon that fired on them from the thick brush.

Bullets raked Johnson's hands and torso, shattering his wrists and splitting open his stomach.

His next memory is of that long journey home.

His time in Korea was over.

His suffering was not.

COMING HOME

At Walter Reed, doctors discovered other injuries -- four fractured ribs -- and sedated him so they could operate on his exposed stomach. It took 62 stitches to close the incision.

When he awoke, the doctors showed him a photograph of his wound prior to the surgery.

As a soldier, Johnson was all too familiar with gruesome injuries.

He fainted when he saw his own.

Nine months of in-hospital rehabilitation separated him from his family.

Back in Philadelphia, Ardell's time was spent raising the children. She was determined to bring them up the way her husband would if he were able.

She played baseball and board games with her sons, prepared their meals, taught them manners -- gave them all the things both parents pass to their children.

"Boy, she was tough," her oldest child, Joe, remembers. "She was glad to have company over, but told them right away they couldn't smoke or cuss around us."

After Johnson recovered, he returned to the Army but never served in combat again. He was stationed overseas -- save for a few cherished visits home -- until he retired in 1962, 20 years after he enlisted.

He said he earned at least one Purple Heart -- he can't remember how many, and long ago misplaced those he received -- and one Bronze Star for valor.

But his greatest rewards are his children. In the end, there were seven -- five boys and two girls.

In 2004, he and Ardell decided to spend the rest of their lives together where they first met.

They left Philadelphia and returned to the Lowcountry to build a house on the plot of land she had bought more than 60 years earlier.

MISSING ARDELL

Ardell passed away earlier this month in that house, some six weeks after the couple's 70th anniversary.

She died peacefully, Johnson at her side, following a long battle with Alzheimer's.

Now, when Johnson speaks of her, he closes his eyes, searching for the right words to express his thoughts. He believes their life together was a good one.

He still bears almost all of the telltale signs of a lifelong soldier -- jagged scars, close-cropped hair, crushing handshake -- but when he speaks, his voice belies all that.

It is disarmingly high and surprisingly soft, particularly when Ardell is the topic.

"I missed her," he says of his time away in the service.

He says he misses her now.

But the old soldier is calm when he talks about her.

He knows he'll see her again.

All he can do is wait.

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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