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Charles Johnson


Charles R. Johnson

Born: 1932
Died: June 12, 1953 (KIA on OP Harry)

Private First Class Johnson was a member of the 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. He was Killed in Action while fighting the enemy in North Korea on June 12, 1953. Private First Class Johnson was awarded the Purple Heart posthumously. 

The following is the story of Charles Johnson as told by an Outpost Harry Survivor, Donald Dingee, to Anthony Farmer of the Poughkeepsie Journal.

Charles Johnson from family photos


Charles Johnson
This article, "Charlie Johnson, local Korean War hero"  appeared in the June 19, 2001 issue of the Poughkeepsie Journal written by Anthony Farmer
Copyright 2002, Poughkeepsie Journal. Reprinted with permission.
www.poughkeepsiejournal.com

Charles Johnson lived his life thinking of others, and 48 years ago this month he lost his life the same way.
Johnson, a Millbrook native, and 1951 graduate of Arlington High School; was killed in action in Inchon Korea (ed. Charles was killed on Outpost  Harry in the Iron Triangle area east of Chorwon. Click here to view area map.), in the early morning hours of June 12,1953. The 20 year old soldier was single handedly trying to hold off enemy forces and protect eight (ed. or more) wounded soldiers, including fellow Arlington High School graduate Donald Dingee.

A recent chance meeting between Dingee and Johnson's brother Glenn led to the hero's brothers and sisters hearing, for the first time, the full story of what happened, that horrible night in the hills of Korea.

"I thank God every morning as I wake up I'm here," Dingee said "There weren't many men made it off that hill. If Charlie hadn't been there ... I don't think any of the eight of us would have made it.”

Grief and confirmation

The story of what happened that night at Outpost Harry, the name of the Korean hill being fought over, has been a long time in coming. While it brings back much of the grief over Johnson's death for the family, it also confirms much of what they already knew.

"There's an uncanny consistency between the way he lived his life before the military and his deeds that night," Glenn Johnson said. "He was willing to go do what was required and didn't seem to have any fear, or reluctance."
Johnson's story is one of heroism and tragedy, set against the backdrop of a war that many still question the reasons for.

The war began in June 1950 when North Korea attacked South Korea and didn't end until a late July 1953. President Truman called on the United Nations to take action following the 1950 attack, eventually enabling the United States to send forces to Korea. China fought with North Korea.

Nearly 55,000 Americans died during the Korean War, including some 33,000 killed in action. More than 8,000 Americans are missing in action. American estimates of enemy casualties, including prisoners, topped 1.5 million, with nearly two thirds being Chinese.

The conflict in Korea is often referred to as the "forgotten war." But for those who served there, and the families of those who died there, forgetting is not an option.

Johnson was an all American kid who excelled at just about everything he tried - school, music, athletics and always gave of himself, said Geraldine Johnson, his sister.

Though he only spent his senior year at Arlington after transferring from Millbrook, Johnson was class vice president and co-captain of the basketball team. He also earned the "Babe Ruth" award for outstanding citizenship and participation in church and community affairs.

According to news accounts at the time of Johnson's death, Arlington Superintendent Harold Storm called him "One of the finest and best liked students we ever had."

"Charles was a gentleman and a great humanitarian," 'Arlington Coach Fritz Jordan was quoted as saying at the time. "He died as he lived, thinking of his fellow man first.

Dingee first ran into Johnson in Korea in May 1953, about two month's after Johnson had shipped out for Korea. Dingee and several other soldiers were on garbage detail, digging six foot by six foot holes in the ground, when a group of soldiers headed out on patrol came by.

The passing soldiers asked those on the garbage detail where they were from. Soldiers began shouting out various locations from around the country.

Dingee spoke up: "New York." 

A voice responded, "Where from in New York?"

"Ever hear of Poughkeepsie?" Dingee replied.

Dingee looked up and saw his friend Johnson standing there. Johnson reached into the hole and picked Dingee up and the two hugged.

After Johnson returned from patrol, the two stayed up most of the night talking of home.

The two saw plenty of action at Outpost Harry and as infantrymen spent a good deal of time on the front line.
The Chinese took the hill known as Outpost Harry on June 10. It was the start of an eight day siege in which there were 4,200 Chinese casualties.

Dingee and Johnson's company was on counter attack duty, away from the front, and on June 11 they were called back to the front to retake the hill, which they did.

Just after midnight on June 12, the Chinese and North Koreans launched another assault on Outpost Harry, a chunk of dry, rocky terrain in the Chorwon Valley (Ed. OP Harry was located to the east of the Chorwon Valley; OP Tom and Jackson Heights were in the Chorwon Valley. Click here to view a map of the area.

Johnson, Dingee and a third soldier, Robert Hooker, were set up in a bunker at the top of the hill as the fight started. The first wave of enemy soldiers were armed mostly with grenades and artillery shells were coming in regularly.

"We just kept knocking them off and knocking them off and they just kept coming," Dingee recalled. "It just kept coming."

After a couple of hours of fighting, Dingee moved out of the bunker to the side, where he still had cover, to get a better sight line on the approaching enemy.

Around 3 am, Dingee began running low on ammunition as the shells continued to rain down around them. About that time he took a piece of shrapnel in his right biceps; where he has a scar about the size of a quarter.

Blast knocks soldiers out 

About a half hour later, Dingee went back into the bunker looking to reload. As he bent down at the front of the bunker to get more ammunition, something, landed in front of the bunker and the blast hit all three of the soldiers, who were wearing flak jackets.

They were knocked out cold by the blast, and Dingee woke up about 10 minutes later. Johnson and Hooker were still unconscious, but alive.

It was pitch dark and Dingee went out of the back of the bunker looking for his weapon. As he did, a flare went up.

"And there he was, not more than 50 yards away," Dingee said of a Chinese soldier.

The enemy soldier pulled the pin from a grenade and tossed it in Dingee's direction. It went into the bunker.
The blast blew Dingee back into the front of the bunker. He was again knocked out cold. When he came to, he felt nothing from the waist down. Before. he could say anything, Johnson had placed his hand over Dingee's mouth and began whispering to him.

"He says `Play dead, they're outside and coming in." Dingee recalled. "We all just held our breath."
Charlie and Dingee were both covered in blood. The enemy soldiers entered the bunker.

"One of the guys walked over to Hooker, rammed him through with a bayonet and left." Dingee said

As soon as the enemy soldiers were far enough away, the two checked on Hooker. He was still alive! Johnson and Dingee took off their shirts and began tearing them up. Johnson used some of the shirt pieces to dress Hooker's wounds.

The Chinese soldiers had taken their weapons as they came through the bunker, so they were left unarmed.
Johnson used the rest of the shirt pieces to patch up Dingee's right foot. He tied Dingee's bad foot on top of his other foot.

Johnson then took off his belt, locked it closed and had Dingee hold on to it while he dragged him more than 150 yards to a bunker on the backside of the hill where two other injured soldiers were awaiting help.
Hooker was able to walk on his own and ran ahead of the two on the way back to the other bunker. Just as Johnson and Dingee were yelling at him to slow down, a round came in a caught Hooker in the back and threw him another 20 or 30 feet.

Suddenly, two Chinese soldiers started coming toward Hooker, as Dingee and Johnson tried to stay out of view: The Chinese soldiers picked Hooker up and begin carrying him off.

Just then, another American soldier nearby saw what was going on and shot one of the enemy soldiers. Hooker grabbed the Chinese soldier's knife and stabbed the other soldier, who was still holding him under his arms, killing him. 

Hooker again, managed to make his way toward the bunker, where Johnson and Dingee were. (ed. Hooker was confused and started going toward the enemy line and was eventually found by friendly troops and taken to a MASH unit, then by train with Dingee and finally flown to Japan and hospitalized.)

Two other soldiers already in the bunker "are out, of it," Dingee said. A nearby bunker held four other wounded American soldiers.

Johnson left the bunker for a few minutes and returned with weapons. The American forces were totally overrun at this point, but Johnson said he would go out and try to hold them off.

That was the last time Dingee saw his friend alive.

About 5 am. it started to rain. 

Hard.

Dingee heard the firing becoming more sporadic.
The commander kept calling for reserves:

"And no one came."

Finally, at 5:45 am, the reserves came up to the bunker where Dingee was.

It took hours for the reserves to take away the injured. When they came for Dingee, he asked if they had seen Johnson.

As they carried him back, he asked them to stop every time he saw an American soldier in one of the muddy trenches. The first four Dingee didn't know. Then they came upon a fifth dead American.

It was Charlie.

Dingee was taken back to camp, cleaned up and put on a train. He was headed to a hospital in Japan. He spent more than a year in the hospital undergoing several operations to repair his injured leg. He had shrapnel up to the knee, his ankle was severed and his instep was blown off.

About a month into his hospital stay, Dingee was up one night and in severe pain. He had been given morphine, but he refused to take any more, fearing he'd become addicted.

"It was just one of those nights." he said. "I was there and sleep didn't come very much."
That night, he made a pact with Johnson, about whom he couldn't stop. "I'm going to have a family big enough for the both of us," he said to himself. And I did. Dingee has seven children and eight grandchildren.

When he got back to Dutchess County, he was reluctant to visit Charlie's family.

"I didn't think it was proper to open Pandora's box one year later," Dingee said. "I probably did the wrong thing."

Group meets In May

It was a Memorial Day ceremony in the Town of Poughkeepsie this May where the meeting between Glenn Johnson and Dingee took place.

Eighth grade students from the Arlington school district were reading the names of local soldiers killed in combat. The students would read the name and usually an entry from an old Arlington yearbook and then any information on the soldier's war service.

Johnson's name was read last and the student delivered a detailed description of Johnson's heroics: Glenn Johnson was standing there. Much of the information about his brother he had never known.

The students' teacher, Andy Arenson, met Glenn Johnson following the ceremony that day an asked him if he'd like to meet Dingee. 

Glenn Johnson had made a couple of attempts over the years to contact Dingee. He even met Dingee's brother a few years ago and got Dingee's address in Arizona, which he still has in his wallet.

He sent a letter to.. the address, but learned, Dingee had moved.

Dingee sat down with Charles Johnson's siblings Edward Johnson, Geraldine Johnson, Glenn Johnson, Octavia Hernandez and Juanita Mendez on June 9 to tell them the story of their brother's heroism.

"It was almost as if it wasn't time for it before, and it was now" Mendez said. "Meeting with Don and hearing him tell about it gave us a new understanding."

"This is some kind of closure we're getting after 48 years," said Edward Johnson. "No one who knew him was surprised at the heroic achievements.”

The family has numerous stories about their brother, whom they referred to as Buddy, that exemplify the way he lived his life.

The family lived in Millbrook and there was a girl who lived nearby who was ill and because of her condition had begun falling down without explanation, Mendez recalled. After a while, she could no longer walk on her own and frequently had to go to the doctor's office in Poughkeepsie, she said.

"He went and literally picked her up bodily and put her in the car," Mendez said of her brother, who was in his teens at the time. "He just volunteered to do that and made sure she got to her doctor's appointments. That typifies his selflessness.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Johnson was never decorated for his heroic actions in Korea. The family has begun making inquiries about what is required and is hopeful Dingee's first hand account will help.

“As far as I'm concerned, he should have the Congressional Medal of Honor." Dingee said. "He should have the Distinguished Service Cross or the Silver Star, or something for heroism.”

Johnson loved life and touched so many others in his short time in this world.

"He was able to pack a lifetime of experience in those 20 years." Geraldine Johnson said.

Dingee is glad he has had the chance to meet Johnson's family. And his feeling for his friend and fellow soldier have not wavered in the 48 years since he last saw him."

"He was one of the most fantastic beings I ever met."


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©Copyright 2002, Donald Dingee.  All rights reserved