Fayetteville man learns story of father's D-Day heroics

By DREW BROOKS | Stars and Stripes | Published: July 13, 2014

Joe Johnson was just a boy when his father went to war.

Seventy years later, he is learning something new about the war hero who never came home.

Friends who recently visited France as part of the 70th anniversary of D-Day were able to find the battlefield where Johnson's father earned the nation's second-highest award for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross.

There, in an otherwise nondescript field overlooking a river, they found a plaque honoring the man who died in World War II.

Pictures of the plaque and the battlefield were presented to Johnson on Monday, bringing a look of astonishment and a broad smile to the man's face.

"Nobody has ever told us about that," Johnson said after being pulled from a workout at Bordeaux Spa for the presentation. "Thank you very much."

Col. Howard R. Johnson was the first commander of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, a unit that was then assigned to the 101st Airborne Division.

Today, the unit lives on in the form of two battalions. One is part of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, at Fort Richardson, Alaska. The other is part of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, at Fort Bragg.

After training the unit at Camp Mackall, Johnson left his family, then living in Pinehurst, to fight in the European theater of World War II.

He played a key role in the invasion of Normandy, France, on D-Day and would later fight and die during Operation Market Garden in Holland.

The younger Johnson, now nearly 85, has heard stories of his father's heroics.

Those stories are what inspired the younger Johnson to serve.

Joe Johnson had an accomplished career in his own right. He served with the original 10th Special Forces Group and volunteered to train guerrilla fighters in northern Korea in 1953.

He later deployed to Vietnam with the 5th Special Forces Group and to Laos with the 7th Special Forces Group.

Johnson retired in 1971 as a major, then spent 37 years with the North Carolina Forest Service. He retired as county forest ranger.

Now living in Fayetteville, Joe Johnson is friends with former Mayor Tony Chavonne and George Rose, an amateur historian.

When he learned the pair would be traveling to France for the 70th anniversary of Normandy, he asked a favor of them: Could they find the spot where his father fought?

Armed with a photocopied map and an old black-and-white photo, Chavonne and Rose said the search took trial and error and "a lot of well-meaning Frenchmen."

On D-Day, Col. Johnson was among the thousands who jumped into Normandy with the 101st Airborne Division. Soon after landing, he gathered 150 soldiers to storm a key objective, la Barquette lock near the town of Carentan.

The lock had been used in an attempt to flood the fields that served as the drop zones for paratroopers and was a key access point to the beaches, where Allied soldiers would soon land.

In France, no one appeared to know the location of the battlefield, Chavonne said.

"We tromped every battlefield there," he said. "We tried to find it. But none of us speak French."

Eventually, the pair turned down a random path on a hunch and soon found themselves looking at a colorful copy of their black-and-white photograph.

"We pull up and all of a sudden, we were right there," Rose said.

Johnson beamed while listening to the story.

"Oh, wow," he said. "I'll be."

Chavonne said initially the men could not get to the battlefield, which is behind a fence. But they found two French boys and, through broken English and pointing, were finally led to the plaque marked with French and English accounts and a photo of Johnson's father.

A recent photograph of the site, paired with the black-and-white version, shows little has changed over the past seven decades.

No member of Johnson's family has ever been to the site, he said. But now that he knows what is there, he hopes his children can one day visit.

"I don't know what to say," Johnson said. "What you're telling me is the first I've heard of this. I knew that he did very well. I didn't know this was over there."


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