In Loving Memory of a US Service Member

By: Rebecca Figone


The Service of a Army Air Corpsman (later US Air Force), James W. Johnson (Bill) (b. Mar. 1924 – d. June 1990), started in 1941, when we was 17 years old. He convinced his brother to sign for him to enter earlier than age 18.

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Short brief history: He was the youngest child of 6 children, born to Rufus C. Johnson Sr. and Eleanor (Nellie) Cole Bearden, in 1924. In 1932, his mother passed away in a tragic accident. He went to live with his sister, Margaret Freels (the oldest child), who was a school teacher at the time, in Sunbright, TN.  He was a direct descendant of General James White (1747-August 14, 1821), the founder of Knoxville (in the early 1790s). (source). Bill’s great grandmother was Mary Isabel White, through the line of Moses White, who married John Kidd Bearden, the son of Marcus de Lafayette Bearden.

From an online source, we gather this biographical information about General James White:

“James White was born in Rowan County, North Carolina in 1747. He fought in the Revolutionary War from 1779 to 1781, attaining the rank of Captain of Militia in the Continental Army. In 1783 he toured the Tennessee Valley around Knoxville to look for land, as he was entitled to a land warrant because of his military service. In 1786 he settled on the present site of Knoxville and built White’s Fort. When the Territory South of the River Ohio was separated from North Carolina, White’s Fort and the surrounding town (renamed Knoxville) became its seat of government. James White served as the presiding Justice of the Peace for Knox County when it was founded in 1791. He was a member of the Tennessee Constitutional Convention in 1796, and afterward served as a state senator, becoming speaker of the Tennessee Senate in 1801 and 1803. He also owned several grist mills and donated land to Blount College, the ancestor of the University of Tennessee. He died on August 14, 1821 on his farm near Knoxville.

James White married Mary Lawson in 1770, and the couple had seven children. Their oldest, Hugh Lawson White, served on the Tennessee Supreme Court, was named a United States District Attorney, and served in the U.S. Senate.” [1]

Bill was also the great-great grandson of Marcus de Lafayette Bearden, the man Bearden, TN is named for. Marcus D.L. Bearden was the Mayor of Knoxville, TN.  He also was a Captain in the Union Army during the Civil War, a state Legislator, and he was responsible for procurement of the funding for the Eastern State Hospital (later renamed Lakeshore Mental Health Institute). [2]

Now, at 17, Bill has become a gunner for the Army Air Corps, and daily, he saw the heat of battle during WWII.  He shot down many enemy fighters through the 2 years of non-stop missions, and ultimately on his 200th mission, the fighter plane he was aboard, was shot down over Holland.  Once on the ground, as he was wearing a parachute, Bill hid in a barn for a day or two.  Soon, though, the family who owned the property found him, and upon the discovery, they decided to trade Bill for necessities, to whomever would do so.  The Germans happily gave the family food for a new prisoner of war. Bill was 19, and this was the beginning of a long 2 year stay in  POW camp on German soil. Daily, Bill was given 5 packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes, 1 pack of matches, 1 canteen of water, and 1 military issue blanket, as were each of the POWs.  Daily, the POWs as a unit, under armed guard, walked an average of 20 to 25 miles. They walked until they could hear the Allied guns firing, and then they would retrace those steps the other direction until they could yet again hear the Allied guns firing…only to do this scenario over, each day. Food was not of much concern to those holding American soldiers. On average, the soldiers were given food only 1 time weekly. Many times, Bill was forced to kill whatever he could, like rats or rabbits….but often there was nothing like that available, and boiling grubs and grass became common. When Bill joined the military he weighed 130 lbs. At the end of this 2 years, once he gained his freedom he weighed only 80 lbs…and he was 21 and it was 1945.

Once back here on US soil, Bill regained the lost weight, and in 1946, he was stationed at Almeguardo, NM Air Force Base. He was stationed there until 1949. He was there during the controversial “Weather Balloon” incident. He held top secret clearance there. There is undisclosed information he shared only 1 year prior to his own death with his children.

In 1950, upon commencement of the Korean War, he was sent to join the fray. It was here, that he met George H. W. Bush. They were both active duty during the Korean War. They only met the one time, as they were working together to save people from a capsized watercraft. Interestingly enough, Bill had no idea the significance at the time of the meeting of George H W Bush, of the future position of this fellow comrade, but time told the tale. The war ended in 1953. It was during the Korean War that Bill earned a Purple Heart, as he was wounded in combat, though even up and unto his death in 1990, he never received it or 7 other medals which he has earned. He only knew of 2 medals that he had earned, and they were an Air Medal and a POW medal.

In 1961, James W. Johnson completed 20 years of service, and soon thereafter, he and his family retired in SE Georgia. For several years he and his wife ran several motels in a small town called Glennville, GA, for his wife’s aunt, Robbie Jones. After much effort, Bill got a job working for the MATES team on Fort Stewart in Georgia. He held this position from the 60s until the late 70s, when he agreed to go to school to become the Radiation Safety Protection Officer for Fort Stewart. By the late 80s, his health had failed him so, that he was forced into retirement, though he was still quite young.  In 1981, Bill had colon cancer, which brought on major surgery and removal of his colon and several feet of intestines.  In 1986, Bill had a heart attack, but recovered from it. In May of 1990, Bill had a major stroke, and was found by a friend at noon the next day. He spent the next 2 weeks in ICU, where he had another stroke, and on June 1, 1990, he passed away, at the age of 66.  He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

All of this is forevermore ingrained in my memory, as James W. Johnson is my Father, and I am honored to share his life and service with you. He was a God fearing man, who served his nation with all he had, and I am so very honored to be his daughter.

May God be with all those who have served, all those families who have sacrificed, and all those who gave some or all….as America is at her best, when we honor those who ultimately loved her with all they had to give. God Bless America, her service-members, their families, and may their sacrifices not be in vain.

If you have a story to share about a service member of our beautiful country, please send me that story with permission to publish it. Please include a photo, if one is readily available. Please send that email to

Thank you, in advance.

[1]Source:  On file at the University of Tennessee Special Collections

[2]^ a b c d e f East Tennessee Historical Society, Mary Rothrock (ed.), The French Broad-Holston Country: A History of Knox County, Tennessee (Knoxville, Tenn.: East Tennessee Historical Society, 1972), pp. 326-329.

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Acknowledgements: TN Special Collections at University more...
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Tags: Bill, James White, military, TN

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