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A Military the form of a returned Purple Heart

February 11, 2014

The photo above is of Roger Lindmeier, Avoca, (friend of the Johnson family) Brad Johnson (Bill’s son), Bill Johnson, Avoca, and Marquis Madison, Fulda. 
 FULDA FREE PRESS/Submitted Photo
FULDA FREE PRESS/Submitted Photo
The photo above is of Roger Lindmeier, Avoca, (friend of the Johnson family) Brad Johnson (Bill’s son), Bill Johnson, Avoca, and Marquis Madison, Fulda.
By Sean Solheim
By definition, the Purple Heart medal is a military decoration given to a soldier who has been wounded in combat, but for some people, the Purple Heart stands for so much more, such as a lost family member in war. Over 60 years ago, this specific medal, along with the Bronze Star, was the only tie between a family and a deceased warrior. Because of someone’s wrong doing, the medals were stolen. Just recently, the Purple Heart tying that family together to remember their fallen soldier was returned home once again.

George J. Johnson was born in 1932 to Emil and Clara (Wildfeuer) Johnson. While growing up, George was greeted with other brothers and sisters and among them at age 7, Bill Johnson, who currently lives in Avoca, Minnesota, was born.

At young ages, their mother, Clara, was diagnosed with epilepsy and at the time, doctors did not know how to treat the condition. Clara was admitted to a sanitorium since there was no treatments for her forcing Emil to make a tough decision. He opted to take George with him to Minneapolis where he found work and the others, including Bill at just 1 1/2 years old, were put up for adoption.

With no family ties between the two parents, Bill was adopted by Walter A. and Alice Johnson, who lived at the Valhalla Corner where Walter ran the Valhalla Station. From there, it was a long time before Bill had the chance to see his brother, George, again.

Approximately 10 years later after moving to the cities, Emil worked in a factory and while there, George got into a little bit of trouble with the law. Since George was still a minor at the time, Bill remembers what options were given to George by rule of the court.

“It was either George go to a reformed school or he enter the military.” Bill Johnson stated.

By law, in order to go into the service at that time, George had to have consent from his parents before entering. Since his mother, Clara, was battling epilepsy, Emil’s decision allowed for George to enter the service. George, however, did not have a lot of time to spare before going to war since the time of the court decision was near the beginning stages of the Korean War. Just like any military man, he saw his family one last time before being shipped off to war.

During the early summer months in 1950, Bill Johnson and the rest of his siblings heard the news that their oldest brother, George, was being shipped off to war as part of the court’s decision. During one of those afternoons, a vehicle pulled into the Valhalla station where the siblings resided and out stepped their father, Emil, and their brother, George. Bill’s conversation with his brother did not last long, but what lasted a lifetime was a gift that George had for Bill.

“George made me a metal box filled with rolled up cigarette wrappers.” Johnsons remembered.

Since Bill was an infant at the time he was adopted, the meeting between him and George was the first time the two had actually spoken with each other. Unknowing to Bill, that first time soon became the last time he ever spoke with George.

After six short weeks of basic training, Private First Class (PFC) George Johnson joined the U.S. Army with the B-Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Regiment (Wolfhounds) of the 25th Infantry Division that was one of four divisions stationed in Japan. On July 23rd, 1950, PFC Johnson and the rest of his regiment were among the new arrivals in North Korea. Their duties including blocking a road outside of the town Hwanggan to stop the advancement of Korean forces. The 27th Regiment was able to inflict heavy casualites on the Korean army while sustaining few themselves. Shortly after both forces opened fire on one another, PFC Johnson was listed as Missing In Action, (MIA). News of the missing soldier reached back home, including his brother, Bill Johnson.

“I felt I wasn’t going to see him again on Earth.” Johnson stated after he heard the news of his missing brother. “I was very shocked.”

Just five days later on July 28th, 1950, Johnson’s listing changed to Killed In Action, (KIA). He was one of 53 soldiers killed in what is now known as the Battle of Hwanggan. He was only 17 years old at the time of his death.

Johnson’s service to his country was recognized with the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart medal. A funeral service was held for PFC Johnson in Fulda, Minnesota, where members of the Armed Forces presented his dad, Emil, with the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. Emil brought the medals back with him to his home in Minneapolis. A short while later, he moved to Cambridge, Minnesota, where he displayed them on a shelf at the general store he owned. Those medals were one of just a few ties that Emil had to his son, George, and sadly, those medals were amongst many items that were stolen from his store when it was burglarized soon after opening. The medals, and the robbers themselves, were never found while Emil was alive. Emil Johnson passed away in 1977.

Late last year, Mark and Kristen Kasper purchased a home in Otsego, Minnesota. On it’s property were multiple buildings filled with collections. The previous owner of the property was was an avid collector and attened numerous auctions and other forms, and stuffed the boxes away in those buildings. Soon after their home was purchased, the Kasper’s decided to start sifting through those building to clear them out. Curious about the contents, they began rummaging through the mounds of boxes within those storage sheds. The Kaspers were met with huge surprise when they unearthed a small, leather, covered box. Inside resided a Purple Heart Medal. On the back of that medal read, “George J Johnson”. Immediately the Kasper’s contacted a friend in American Legion. Al Zdon from the Minnesota American Legion State Headquarters was asked to assist and help locate the family George belonged to. Zdon contacted the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs and they took over the research. Ronald Quade II, Director of the Claims and Outreach Divisions, and Brad Lindsay, Senior Director for Programs and Services, spent hours researching George Johnson. Luckily, the grave site at the Prairie Hill Cemetary in Fulda came up as part of their search. A phone call from their offices to Totzke Funeral Home was made.

In December of 2013, Marquis Madison from the Totzke Funeral Home received word of the found Purple Heart and agreed to assist in finding family members. Madison admitted that it was a challenge at first since due to the many Johnsons located in the area. However, a few hours into his search, he found George’s name listed in the records of one of their funerals. The funeral was for his father, Emil Johnson. Madison discovered Emil was buried in Fulda, right next to George’s grave. His research also recovered the records of George’s survivors. Madison made a call to Bill Johnson in Avoca. He asked Bill if he had a brother named George. With a quick agreement from Bill, the circle was completed. Madison related the story of his late brother’s Purple Medal.

Late in January, Bill Johnson, along with his son, Brad, and Marquis Madison, attended a presentation ceremony by the Minnesota Department of Veteran’s Affairs in order to return the medal to the Johnson family. Heading up to the presentation, Bill did not think it was going to be a big of deal. As he left the cafeteria, se soon found out after differently.

“I came out of the cafeteria and the hallway was filled with all sorts of cameras and photographers.” Johnson smiled.

The presentation began with an address from Brad Lindsay before turning it over to Retired Army Major General Larry Shellito, who is the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. Mr. Shellito concluded the presentation by handing Bill the medal of his fallen brother nearly 64 years after his brother’s committment in the Korean War.

The once lost precious medal is now back home with the family and the family bond is once again tied together. Johnson plans on keeping the medal and passing it down from generation to generation. Though each generation may not know of George’s story exactly, one thing that will continue to live on in the Johnson households is that it is, and will always be, a piece of family history, a piece of American history, and a memory from what is known as, “The Forgotten War.”

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