Purple Heart eludes local war veteran
By Vincent Z. Whaley
City Press Staff Writer
(PUBLISHED Wednesday, Nov. 11, 1998)
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. Today is the day
to pay tribute to the men and women of the United
States armed forces, especially those who traveled
thousands of miles away from their homes and
put their lives in jeopardy to keep America
a nation of freedom.
With the new millennium just around the corner,
veterans of one of the mightiest endeavors of
the 20th century are quickly fading into history.
And some World War II veterans feel as if their
valiant achievements have been forgotten by
the government they proudly served so many years
One of these vets is Brownlow Johnson, a 76-year-old
Johnson City resident. But Johnson doesn't believe
the government owes him anything, and he doesn't
even like to talk about the war. Memories of
fallen comrades fill his eyes with tears.
"When you start seeing your buddies around
you getting killed, you don't want to remember,
or even talk about it," he said. "Most
of that stuff, I would just like to forget."
But he can't.
Johnson's story begins in Normandy, France,
where he waded ashore at Omaha Beach about 11
a.m. on D-Day Tuesday, June 6, 1944
with the 202nd Field Artillery Battalion, with
which he had trained in England. Unlike the
more than 2,000 soldiers who met death at "Bloody
Omaha" that day, Johnson survived.
About three weeks later, however, a German mortar
shell exploded near him. Three pieces of searing
shrapnel lodged in his back. Following three
weeks of recuperation in a field hospital, Johnson
was sent to the 772nd Field Artillery Battalion,
with which he served until the end of the war.
To this day in a recessed wooden military decoration
frame hanging in his living room, a medal and
a ribbon are missing those of the Purple
Heart, a decoration awarded to all U.S. armed
forces members who are wounded or killed in
"They said they lost my medical records
during the war, and I guess that's why I was
never awarded the Purple Heart," Johnson
said. "They claimed that some of the records
got lost in battle and that they never did find
them. There was even a little piece of shrapnel
in my leg that came to the surface a few years
back, and I had to have a doctor take it out."
From Normandy to Paris to the Maginot Line defenses
along the French-German border, Johnson served
as a forward observer for the 772nd scouting
to the front lines, pinpointing the enemy and
directing the artillery fire of a 4.5 mm cannon.
Before too long, Johnson found himself promoted
to the rank of sergeant, awaiting orders along
the Elbe River in late April 1945. That is where
he would be included in a famous photograph
of three Americans greeting Russian soldiers
at the wrecked bridge of Torgau, Germany.
Beside the military decoration frame in his
living room hangs an enlarged black-and-white
photograph of three Americans shaking hands
with three Russians along the Elbe River. Johnson
is the American GI in the middle, his smile
adorned with a cigarette.
"I have read stories in books that say
we went in there and partied with the Russians
all night long and got so drunk that they lost
the names of the Russians and the Americans
in that picture," Johnson said. "All
I was ordered to do was go and make contact
with the Russians. After we made contact with
them, we left and went back to our unit. Then
a bunch of guys in the infantry, who were stationed
on the other side of the Elbe River about a
mile back, crossed the river to where the Russians
were. I don't know what went on after that.
"The books I have seen with this photo
don't even list the soldiers' names who were
there. One of the guys I was with was from Kentucky.
The other one was from San Antonio, Texas, and
I was from Newland, N.C. But there was this
guy from Pensacola, Fla., who claimed he took
that picture. He didn't take it. The Army Signal
Corps took that picture, but they never bothered
to put our names with the photo, and we were
the ones who were there," Johnson said.
At the end of the war, the 772nd helped liberate
the ghastly remains of the Dachau Nazi concentration
camp, where Johnson and a few other soldiers
took numerous photographs. The photos Johnson
brought home, however, were destroyed when his
house burned to the ground in 1964. But he says
you can find dozens of his pictures in World
War II history books.
"When we went in the gate at Dachau, there
were hundreds of bodies lying around,"
Johnson said. "Then there were 13 boxcars
on railroad tracks full of bodies. There was
a row of bodies as long as the length of three
barracks, and the bodies were stacked higher
than your head. Those living were all bones,
and some couldn't even move, they would just
"Me and a guy from Pennsylvania
a first lieutenant took a bunch of photos
in Dachau and took the film to the Army Signal
Corps to have it developed. But they kept the
negatives of the pictures we made, then put
the Signal Corps' name on them. I know that
no two people can take the same exact photograph.
The majority of the photos of Dachau you see
in the books and on television were taken by
me and my first lieutenant. We made those pictures.
"It doesn't matter anyway. We had a job
to do and we did it, plain and simple. I know
where I was at and what I did, and that's all
that counts," Johnson said.