Welcome to VZW's Military Tributes

Purple Heart eludes local war veteran

By Vincent Z. Whaley
Johnson 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 ago.

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 action.

"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 lay there.

"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.

Story Copyright © 1998-2004 by Vincent Z. Whaley and the Johnson City Press,
204 W. Main St., Johnson City, Tennessee 37605, 423.929.3111.
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596th Signal Support Co., 97th Signal Battalion
47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division
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