Vietnam Memories: 'Your gung-ho thing goes out real quick ... people are getting killed'
By JAKE ABBOTT | Appeal-Democrat, Marysville, Calif. | Published: November 5, 2016
MARYSVILLE, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Just off the beaten path near Loma Rica, on the 3 acres he and his wife call home, Bert Johnson can be found making art.
He's a quiet person, spending his days either painting, writing songs on his guitar or sitting on his patio drinking a cup of coffee, enjoying the remote landscape.
But as bucolic as the setting seems, Johnson has a background filled with interesting twists and turns.
For as long as he can remember, he has been picking away on his guitars. After being taught as a young boy how to play by a family member and becoming a professional musician at the age of 16, he took his skills and traveled around the States playing at some of the biggest concert venues the country has to offer.
"I love it, that's my therapy," Johnson said.
He has graced the stage at different bluegrass festivals across the country, headlined a concert at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, played a show at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., and even played a country/bluegrass gig at San Quentin State Prison for the inmates shortly after Johnny Cash did so.
"We didn't want to do tunes like Merle Haggard's 'Mama Tried' or 'Sing me back home,' you know, stuff of all places to be but prison," Johnson said. "We were laughing while we were there because we didn't want to do those, but it went good."
Growing up in Hayward, Johnson developed his guitar skills inside his parents' house learning how to write and perform songs with his close friend from Palo Alto, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.
"It was great. He was a very nice guy, very humble," Johnson said. "He used to come over to my folks in Hayward and we practiced there. He was so nice to my family."
The two of them would play for hours, honing in on a craft that later made both men professional musicians.
While their paths took them in different directions, they kept in touch for years and considered each other close friends. In fact, in one of the biographies written about Garcia, "Dark Star," a photo of the two of them playing inside the Grateful Dead singer's home at a young age is on the first page.
It was the war that separated them. Johnson went into the Army and was sent to Vietnam. Among his memories, now are his fellow soldiers.
About seven years ago, Johnson, 69, wrote a song called "The Wall" about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. The song was about his experience serving in Vietnam and then returning home to see all of the names of the men and women who lost their lives in the war.
"In 1967 got a letter from Uncle Sam; wasn't long before I knew it I was headed for Vietnam," Johnson said in the song. "They flew me into the jungle with a rifle in my hand. I prayed to the lord I'll make it home from this forsaken land. I see a thousand names around me, your names I still recall, you gave your life for freedom and you're written on the wall."
Serving in Vietnam
Johnson went into the military at the age of 20, serving in the II Field Force of the Army. After finishing his training, he went to Vietnam in 1967 in the 101st Airborne Division as a machine gunner on a military truck— nicknamed a "Deuce and a Half for how much it weighed in tons. He served for more than a year overseas. While training at jump school, he broke his foot, keeping him out of the air and on the ground.
"I had some training on automatic weapons, a little larger than 40mm guns, but I ended up a machine gunner in Vietnam, using 50-caliber machine guns and M60 machine guns — those are on the Deuce and a Half trucks," Johnson said.
Even while serving in Vietnam Johnson held firmly to his counterculture roots. No matter where he was or what he was doing, Johnson was known to have the most stylish pompadour in the group, eventually being nicknamed the "rock 'n' roll Vietnam veteran."
The men in his company thought he carried around pomade wherever he went, but Johnson said it was more authentic than that.
"My hair was full with dirt," he said. "Where I was at, nobody cared. I had a three-week beard. It was that kind of thing, and the pompadour — it was all dirt and caked in. It wouldn't go anywhere."
Unable to Sleep
Johnson arrived in the jungle during one of the most bloody parts of the war.
"1968 was the worst — I was there during the Tet Offensive," Johnson said. "That was when the North Vietnamese — and they almost did — run over from the North to the South."
He wasn't able to sleep. After being exposed to a tremendous amount of combat his entire time overseas, he said his nervous system was affected. Johnson keeps a positive attitude and a smile on his face — a visitor would never be able to tell he fights those demons on a daily basis.
"It still affects me really badly; people just don't see the other side of me," Johnson said with a smile.
He said no one battle stood out as a defining moment during his time overseas, but that he still remembers the feeling he had during conflicts.
"Being in this chaotic combat is something that is so different than Hayward or San Francisco," Johnson said. "You are in a different planet — a different world — but you can't believe it. It's not even real when it's real."
Nothing could have prepared him for what he experienced, he said.
"Back in my era, there were the John Wayne movies and during the training you are gung-ho," Johnson said. "But when you get into the real thing, your gung-ho thing goes out real quick because people are getting killed."
The most difficult part of serving in Vietnam was the test it put on his spirituality, he said. It was the main thing that helped him get through the war.
"You are constantly hoping and praying that you won't get killed, praying you'll make it back home alive," he said. Johnson still remains spiritual. He says it keeps him going.
While overseas, he said, he met one person who stood out to him and helped him get through his time in battle.
"We had a chaplain come out with us for a very short while," Johnson said. "This guy — I think he served in Korea — was a major. We really looked up to him because he was right in the middle of all the crap, he was right with us through it. I've thought a lot about this guy."
Johnson can't recall what the chaplain's name was but said he still looks up to him to this day.
Johnson was as unprepared to come back home as he was for combat. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which affected some of his relationships with others and made it hard to go back to the life he led before his service.
"It's sort of like when you come back home, you still aren't back home," he said. "You are left with this package of chaos, and your whole life is altered totally."
Unlike other soldiers who served in Vietnam and experienced backlash upon their arrival, Johnson said his was fairly uneventful. He wasn't spit on or called names like some of his colleagues, but he also didn't receive a warm welcome.
He took a few weeks away from the outside world to adjust to life back in the states. He would eventually start playing music with friends again but rarely spoke about his experience in Vietnam.
"It took me a little while," Johnson said. "It was like a vacuum in a way. There was not much interplay in that. You are left with this package of war."
After a few years, he joined a band called "A Touch of Grass" and went back to his profession of music.
A few years later he joined a band called "Smoky Grass Boys" with David Grisman and Rick Shubb and Herb Pedersen. Johnson played with them for a few years before leaving on good terms and going his own way. The band eventually replaced Johnson with a young guitar player named Vince Gill, who later became a country star.
Johnson now spends his time with his wife and enjoys the quiet life. The two of them frequent a music studio in Grass Valley, where they record songs that they wrote together. He said he doesn't have the same urge to play live shows like he once did, but enjoys the recording aspect of music.
Johnson does his best to remain active in the veteran community, frequenting the Museum of the Forgotten Warriors in Linda, where he has photographs of himself during his time in Vietnam, as well as paintings he has contributed.
He said not much has changed when it comes to the younger generation's willingness to serve in the military. He said it reminds him of his era, when he and his friends admired the World War II generation of soldiers who fought for their country.
"For the young people, (I want them to know) we gave our best for our country," Johnson said.
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