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Band of brothers

Band of brothers Band of brothers

Greenwood clan together again for recent Freedom Honor Flight

by Dean Lesar

Leonard and Lois Johnson had four sons. They all enlisted in the U.S. Army. They all came home. The Johnsons were one of the lucky families.

Now, some 30 years or more since all of those Johnson boys came back to the farm near Greenwood, they’re still around to talk about their service days and to compare notes about time in Korea, or during the Berlin Crisis, or Vietnam. Earlier this fall, they took their Army brotherhood a step farther and participated in a Freedom Honor Flight to visit the various memorials to veterans in Washington D.C.

Dale, Sam, Harry and Ray Johnson were joined on their September trip by a fifth “brother,” one Danny Rossow, who grew up a few miles from Leonard and Lois’ farm and knew the Johnson family since he was old enough to tote a shotgun on family hunting trips. The Johnsons and Rossows have hunted deer together up north every year for decades, so it was only natural that Danny would come along when the Johnson quartet went to Washington.

The service story of this band of brothers dates back to 1956, when Dale graduated from Greenwood High and was the first Johnson son to enlist in the Army. He was stationed in Germany in 1957-58.

Ray came next, and the Berlin Crisis came along during his stint. Harry, a 1959 GHS grad, enlisted a few years after school and did his time in Korea as that country still simmered from the repercussions of the war from 1950-53. Finally it was Ray’s turn, and he served his duty stateside during the Vietnam War, from 1964-66. Rossow also enlisted in 1964, as an Air Force airplane mechanic who saw first-hand the carnage of Vietnam. One by one the brothers came home from their enlistments, and moved on with life. Harry and Rossow stayed in the Greenwood area, while the other brothers spread out around the state. Dale is in Eau Claire now, Sam is in Crandon and Ray lives in Tomah. At a family reunion a few years ago, they started talking about a Freedom Honor Flight. Available free of charge to all veterans of the World War II/Korea/Vietnam eras, the program has shipped hundreds of service women and men to see the nation’s Capitol and iconic sites like the Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam Wall. Older veterans have first priority.

“I knew through the Legion that this was available but I never really pursued anything,” Harry said.

Because the Johnsons wanted to take the trip as a group, they had to wait for a flight that had enough available seats. Each veteran gets to take along a guardian, so that meant 10 spots on one flight.

“It took us about three years before we were selected to go,” Harry said.

The large jet was filled with veterans from all branches of the service, each with his own story of times and places long ago. There were a few World War II veterans, Harry said, but very few of them remain alive. Most of the men on this trip had been to Korea or Vietnam or served their time while those conflicts were raging overseas.

The Johnsons did not follow a father’s

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO military footsteps. Leonard was in the state militia, but had not joined any of the armed forces.

The draft was in effect when Leonard’s sons came of age. Harry said he worked for a few years at Midland Co-op in Greenwood and was offered an employment deferment that could have kept him out of service, but he chose to enlist anyway.

“I said, I was gonna fulfill my duty,” he said.

Harry’s assignment took him to Korea. Hostilities had ended there, but Harry said he was stationed just a short distance from the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

“We were more or less on the alert if the North Koreans would pull something foolish,” he said. “Once in a while we’d be on alert. I pulled a lot of guard duty.”

Rossow’s 4-year stint in the Air Force started a few years later, in 1964. He had gone to high school for two years in Loyal and then two in Greenwood and had worked at the Loyal Canning Factory until he enlisted.

“I decided I wanted to fix airplanes,” he said. “I volunteered. I signed up for the Air Force. They wanted to make me a sniper, but I didn’t agree.” Rossow did train as a mechanic, and that landed him in 1966 at an airport near Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. But they didn’t need any more mechanics there, Rossow recalls, so he was assigned to transit alert duty. Most of his days were spent at the airport driving a “follow-me truck” onto the landing strip to guide incoming planes to where they needed to go. He had some other duties, too, one of which was one day driving comedienne Martha Ray to various stops as she visited the troops.

Rossow worked with all types and sizes of incoming aircraft at the busy landing strip. There were fresh troops and supplies coming in, other troops going out, some alive, some not.

“The toughest part for me was the medical aircraft coming in and all types of people stacked up in there, arms missing, legs missing,” he said.

Rossow said he drove “just a little old Ford pickup truck with a sign on it” as he approached the planes. Once, he said, he was sent out to meet an incoming DC8, and he had a close call. As the big bird closed in on him, “I stepped on it a little bit but it couldn’t get out of its own way.” The tower said, ‘Where you at? That transit aircraft can’t see you.’ I said, ‘I’m underneath him. He’s runnin’ over me.’ Fortunately, I was able to get enough away from him so he didn’t completely crush the truck.”

Rossow was eventually sent back to the States and finished his 4-year duty at various bases.

The brothers have shared some talk of their service time through the years, Harry said, but mostly life went on. The four Johnsons and Rossow saw each other regularly at the annual hunting camp near Fifield, and Harry and Rossow live less than a mile apart now. Not until an early fall day this year did they get their chance to really reconnect with their military days.

From the La Crosse airport, the Sept. 14 Honor Flight lifted off for Reagan National Airport and a full day for the veterans. They were whisked around Washington from one memorial to another, with time at each to get out and look around.

At the Vietnam Wall, they found inscribed the name of Dale’s classmate, Gary Brux, the first soldier from Greenwood to die in Vietnam.

Rossow was astounded by the enormity of the wall, which bears the name of all the U.S. men and women who died in Vietnam.

“It’s amazing how much space fifty-eight thousand names take up,” he said.

At the World War II Memorial, one of the aged veterans from that conflict who was on the Honor Flight presented a flag.

“That was kind of a moving experience,” Harry said.

The veterans also saw the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and the changing of the guard, the Marine Memorial and the Iwo Jima statue, and the Air Force Memorial. They were then bussed back to the airport where they boarded a modestly-late return flight to La Crosse.

On the flight home, the veterans had “mail call.” They were given letters written to them by family members and school children in a scene reminiscent of a mail bag arriving from home during their tours of duty.

Harry said those mail calls were big things, “especially if you were a long way from home.”

“I wrote a lot of letters home,” he said. “A lot of the letters I got were from my mom. You get that mail and you’re pretty happy.”

Danny said he recalled getting packages from home while he was in Vietnam.

“You’d share it with all the rest of the guys because you knew they weren’t getting any either,” he said of the cookies and popcorn and other treats inside.

When the plane landed back in La Crosse, the veterans on board were given a hero’s welcome. There were bands playing, people clapping, children waiting.

“It was heartbreaking. It brought tears to the eyes,” Rossow said.

For him especially, as a Vietnam soldier, he knows what it’s like to be disrespected upon returning home. Vietnam veterans in the late 1960s and early 1970s were viewed as evil men who murdered innocent people.

This time, in La Crosse, Rossow said he finally felt welcomed.

“The thing I can’t get over is such a different reception than I got when I got back from Vietnam,” he said. “There were fireworks, and no more middle fingers, no more ’baby-killers.’” While Harry’s service was over before Vietnam, he, too, remembers what returning soldiers had waiting for them after they returned home after serving their country.

“There was hard feelings,” he said. “‘Baby-killers’ they called some of them. It wasn’t a good welcome, no, not like we got in La Crosse.”

That’s part of the reason behind the Honor Flight program, to at last appreciate the sacrifices soldiers made while on active duty. It also has served the purpose of enlightening a younger generation about those sacrifices.

Three of the Johnson brothers took a son with them to Washington, while Dale and Rossow took a daughter. For each of those guardians, the trip was an eye-opener.

“She learned a lot,” Rossow said of his daughter. “Up until this trip, all they heard was ‘Yeah, I was over there.’” Harry said his son, Scott, also has a new perspective on what his dad’s generation experienced.

“Now it has meaning,” Harry said.

So, too, did it have deep meaning for these brothers to take this trip together. They each had their own service experiences, but they are bonded in the satisfaction of serving their country.

“It’s a good feeling,” Harry said. “You know you’re able to get together. We’re 80-year-olds. We could’ve kicked the bucket a long time ago.”

And, they could have kicked that proverbial bucket in one of the nation’s wars, as did so many thousands of smalltown boys in the last century. The Johnson parents must have worried while their boys were away, Harry said, but they all came safely home.

While on the trip, Harry said he and his brothers were having their photo taken, and two young girls noticed the larger group. When told they were all brothers, one of the girls said “Wow. That must have been a proud Mom,’” Harry said. “She had a lot to worry about with four of her boys serving the country.”

“The thing I can’t get over is such a different reception than I got when I got back from Vietnam. There were fireworks, and no more middle fingers, no more ‘baby-killers.’” -Danny Rossow