Tricounty News

History Matters: He was there for FDR

(Last published in Tri-County News Feb. 13, 1997 - 1941 event.) By Joyce Burgstaler The inauguration parade for President Bill Clinton on Monday, Jan. 20, brought back long ago memories for John W. Johnson Jr. of Kimball. During the parade, the Honor Guard was appropriately dressed for the bitterly cold weather with overcoats, etc. Such was not the case when John was a member of the Honor Guard for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. John was a member of the U.S. Army Cavalry Reconnaissance troop during World War II. The troop, which began as the horse cavalry, was a small mechanized unit known as the 3rd Infantry Division Snoop Troop. Its job was to obtain valuable information in its forays into enemy-held and contested areas. At times, they were 15-20 miles inside enemy lines. They made seven landings during the war - in Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, Germany and Austria, with very few losses of life. On Nov. 8, 1941, they made a landing in French Morrocco, North Africa. The 3rd Infantry  Division was present at the making of world history on Thursday, Jan. 21, 1942, in North Africa. On this day, President Roosevelt reviewed troops of the 3rd Infantry and 2nd Armored Division on the main highway leading north from Sale. He was accompanied by many dignitaries, including Lt. Mark W. Clark, commanding the Fifth Army, and Maj. Gen. George S. Patton Jr., commanding the 1st Armored Corps.  John recalls the day vividly. The President's visit was such a closely-guarded secret that no one, with the exception of those concerned with the planning, knew he was to see the President until shortly  before his arrival. The troop was up at 3 a.m. They were in dress uniforms with no overcoats. There was a strong, chilly wind blowing and everyone was well chilled by the time the President arrived. They were told they couldn't build fires so close to the highway, where they were positioned, although the units behind them had fires to keep warm. The President, wearing a gray business suit and gray felt hat with a black band around his left arm, in mourning for his mother, rode in the front seat of an army jeep down the long line of troops, which extended about one mile along the tree-lined highway, and which represented all separate units of the Division. Soldiers were in full field uniform with bayonets fixed, and heavy weapons and some organic transportation from each unit was lined up behind the troops east of the highway. After passing the length of the column, the President met and congratulated heroes of the  November landing operation from both the 2nd Armored and 3rd Infantry Divisions, and ate lunch at a mess prepared by Service Battery, 39th FA Battalion. Bands of the 7th Infantry Artillery took part in the ceremonies. P-40 pursuit planes were over the line of march much of the time. As he passed, the President returned the salutes of the units and spoke words of greeting to those along the way. John was positioned about five feet to the left of the President when the now-  famous picture was taken. His unit had also served as 24-hour bodyguards for General Patton in Casablanca. He recalls that the general always had a big bowl of candy sitting outside his door for those on guard, probably to keep them awake. His group was among the first to come home after the war. John is the son of the late John W. Sr. and Molly Ethel (Albin) Johnson of Kimball. His father was the depot agent at Kimball, where they lived in the back part of the building along the railroad track. The depot stood to the west of Highway 15, just west of where the former Fullerton Lumber Yard building now stands, which is now part of the Gannon Elevator complex. He attended Kimball High School and entered the Army in 1940. He did his basic training at Ft. Lewis, Tacoma, Wash., then went on to commando training out East at Chesepeake Bay. While there, he remembers one time when they were practicing a landing. They used blocks of wood to simulate hand grenades. He threw one into a foxhole. Later, he learned that he had hit General George Patton on the head with the block of wood and Patton wanted to know who had thrown it. John was discharged from the Army in 1945. He married Ione Steele, daughter of Guy and Eva Steele of Kimball in 1941 in Washington. They lived in California and Utah after the war. He has one daughter, Judy Noorda who lives in Bountiful, Utah, and two grandchildren. His sisters and brothers, all of whom have now died, were Edyth Haupt, Opal Faye Anderson-Walde, Verna Johnson,  Gladys John, Harold, George E. and Charles. His brother, Chuck, served in the same unit in the Army. He died only a few weeks ago, on Jan. 4, 1997.  John and Ione returned to their roots in Kimball in 1994 from  Fresno, Calif. She died Jan. 21, 1995. He just celebrated his 79th birthday on Jan. 8. ********** We're unable to confirm that John's father was the depot agent at Kimball, but his father owned and operated the Kimball Telephone Co. many years, farmed and later worked for the Kimball Water Dept, until he retired. If anyone from the area knows whether John's father was the depot agent or not, please contact the Kimball Historical Society.  John passed away April 22, 2008, at age 90. A memorial service is expected to take place in Kimball July 26. Watch for details in this paper closer to that time. As the above story recalls, many of our hometown boys fought for the freedoms America enjoys. Their courage and honor will endure for all time. We are grateful for the opportunity this Memorial weekend to remember and appreciate the bravery of all our military, then and now. ********** On Memorial weekend - Saturday, May 24 - Kimball Area Historical Society historians will greet visitors with information, assistance and refreshments at the Maine Prairie Cemetery between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. ********** It's not too late to join or renew memberships and it's not to late to pledge or pay toward Kimball's historic City Hall restoration. A special celebration is being planned for the 100th birthday of this "centerpiece" of our town. Watch this column for details and other coming events. ********** Did you know? One of the largest organizations of its kind in the United States, the Minnesota Historical Society, is actually nine years older than the state itself. Celebrating 150 years of Minnesota Statehood - 1858-2008. ********** The Kimball Area Historical Society can be reached about all of the above and more at Box 100, Kimball, Minn. 55353 or (320) 398-5743, (320) 398-5250 or toll-free (800) 252-2521. ********** "The future will be here before you know it."