Local World War II Vet Visits DC Veterans Memorial

John A. Johnson, of Pittsburg, got a hero s welcome this past weekend when he visited the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., courtesy of Honor Flight New England. Johnson, 97, served in the Army during the war on a railroad crew and spent time in Germany, Belgium and France. He visited the World War II memorial on Sunday, along with 57 other World War II veterans from New England brought there on Honor Flight.

His guardian during his time in the nation s capital was Coos County Commissioner and Navy and N.H. National Guard veteran Rick Samson, of West Stewartstown.

We got home late on Sunday, after all day starting at 4:30 in the morning and ending at midnight, and he never closed his eyes once, said Samson. It was his first flight on a commercial plane and the second time he s ever flown. Johnson was the oldest member of the Honor Flight veterans group, which was greeted early Saturday morning in Manchester, N.H., on their way to the Manchester International Airport. In Manchester, they had an early morning breakfast and were escorted by a procession to the airport led by dozens of police motorcycles. As they entered the airport, several hundred people greeted the Honor Flight veterans with two rows of flags. A N.H. police drum band and bugle corps provided music, said Samson.

Arriving at the airport in Baltimore, two fire trucks and another large group greeted the veterans, each of whom, like Johnson, had a guardian. There, they bordered three chartered buses with a group of EMTs and nurses on board. The buses were escorted by a police cruiser and motorcycle. Vehicle traffic slowed to let them proceed.

Everywhere we went every intersection was blocked, said Samson. We had the right of way. On Sunday, the veterans visited the World War II Memorial as well as the Korean War and Air Force memorials and Arlington National Cemetery.

At the Hilton that night was a tremendous sit-down dinner, said Samson.

Medallions and awards were given out, veterans were thanked, those veterans with birthdays that day were wished happy birthdays, and four national anthems from each of the military services were played. The group arrived back in Manchester late Sunday night, though the gratitude expressed for their service was far from over.

As we get ready to leave the airport there was another group with flags and a town band with high school kids playing, said Samson. It was almost midnight. It was an unbelievable experience. Each guardian pays their own way and airfare, about $450.

It s probably the best $450 I ever spent, said Samson.

Johnson served in the Army from 1941 to 1945 in the 712th Railway Operating Battalion and the 752nd Battalion.

He also spent time driving military officers and did a lot of truck driving, whatever they required, his nephew, Tom Johnson, said Friday. At the time John Johnson entered the Army, he was working for the Boston and Maine Railroad in the Jaffrey-Peterborough, N.H. area, and his service in the Army s railway battalions was a natural fit. Tom Johnson said his uncle worked a number of jobs in the succeeding decades, including as a school bus driver and an oil truck driver who maintained furnaces.

John Johnson has a lifelong love of engines and anything technical and his nephew called him a very mechanically inclined man.

Yesterday, he was working on his lawnmower, he said. He s pretty active fellow for his age. John Johnson first moved to Pittsburg at the age of 14, doing fir and spruce logging work.

I worked for a dollar a day and my board, John Johnson recalled. The Great North Woods got into his blood, and after his retirement, at age, 65, John Johnson moved to Pittsburg for good.

For decades he was married to his wife, Evelyn, who has since passed away. As the oldest resident of Pittsburg, John Johnson will soon be presented with the Boston Post Cane Award. He lives by himself on 40 acres in Pittsburg, and Samson said the Great North Woods has been good for him.

He still drives his own pickup and has a four-wheeler he rides on his land, said Samson. He still burns his own wood, and right up until last summer he split some of it. He cooks is own meals. He reads a lot and stays up to date on things.

John Johnson grew up with Samson s mother, Louise Samson, and the two have known each other for some eight decades. About five years ago, Samson said his mother asked him to look after Johnson and that s how he came to know him. Johnson was the oldest of the 57 New England veterans visiting the World War II memorial on Sunday, and the only one from the North Country, according to the Honor Flight list. The group included a Korean War veteran as well as a brother and sister who served in the Second World War, said Samson.

The nonprofit Honor Flight New England, founded by Joe Byron, began in 2009. Veterans fly free of charge on Honor Flight with all expenses paid.

This was the 42nd Honor Flight of New England, and with this flight they have taken 1,476 veterans, said Samson. There was one vet on our trip who was a veteran of World War II, the Korean War, the Cuban missile crisis and Vietnam. Only one of the other vets was 97. The World War II Memorial – dedicated to The Greatest Generation – was funded by mostly private donations. Construction began in 2001 and it was dedicated in May 2004.

Tom Johnson said his uncle wasn t sure if he was going to be able to make the trip to Washington, D.C. to see the memorial.

I m so happy he went, said Tom Johnson. He really enjoyed it.

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