Chapter 1: The Early Years
The year of 1937 was filled with activities effecting the history and culture of the United States of America. This was the golden age of radio. Big bands were popular and up-tempo swing music was the latest thing. The airship Hindenburg, the largest dirigible ever built, burst into flames, and fell to the ground in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 36 people. The Golden Gate Bridge opened in San Francisco. Joe Lewis defeated Jimmy Braddock for the undisputed heavyweight boxing championship of the world, with a knockout in the 8th Round. 1937 was a good year! On 16 December 1937, I was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I was the first child of James H. Johnson and Betty Le Boy Johnson. Twenty-one months later, my brother, William H. Johnson, was also born in Tuscaloosa. Our family also included a beloved three-legged hunting dog, named “Foots.” We lived close to Tuscaloosa in a community called ‘The Highlands.’
Looking even further back in time, my dad’s father was a railroad engineer who had moved from Columbus, Mississippi to Tuscaloosa around the turn of the century. My dad grew up in Tuscaloosa and attended the University of Alabama, graduating in 1927. Less than ten years later, he would meet and marry my mother, Betty Le Boy, from Oak Park, Illinois. She was the daughter of a prominent family doctor in Chicago and had attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois for two years. Thereafter, she transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and graduated two years later.
As I was growing up in Tuscaloosa, I was not aware that my father had become a hometown hero, playing college football for the Crimson Tide of Alabama before I was born. He had played in Alabama’s first two Rose Bowl games in 1926 and 1927, scoring Alabama’s only touchdown in a seven-to-seven tie with Stanford in 1927. At that time, the Rose Bowl was considered the championship of college football. For the first time, Alabama would put the deep south on the inter-collegiate football map, as a major power. Over the years, not much has changed.
During the period leading up to World War II, my father worked for the state of Alabama as an engineer. He also served in the Alabama Army National Guard as an infantry officer with Company D, 1st Battalion, 167th Infantry Regiment, 31st Division.
Not long after World War II had started, my father was called to active service and assigned to the 75th Infantry Division. They began training for overseas deployment in Breckinridge, Kentucky in April 1944. With my father preparing for deployment to Europe, my mother took a job with the federal government working for the Housing Administration in Atlanta, Georgia. The family moved to Peachtree Street in Atlanta and lived there during the war years. We were subject to the same blackouts and rationing that was typical across the country.
Meanwhile in November of 1944, with my father now on active duty, the 75th Infantry Division completed its pre-deployment training and readiness exercises in Kentucky and began their deployment to England. From there, the Division moved to the mainland of Europe to occupy tactical assembly areas in France, arriving on 16 December three days prior to the German counter-offensive in the Ardennes Forest. The 75th Infantry Division was rushed to the front on 23 December and took up positions in eastern Belgium. Before moving out, my father, Major James H. Johnson, Sr., was placed in command of the 1st Battalion, 290th Infantry Regiment. His predecessor had been relieved for incompetence. My father’s battalion was the first unit of the 75th Infantry Division to participate in actual combat operations, facing heavy enemy resistance and a blinding snowstorm. Casualties were heavy on both sides. After one month of bitter combat in the Battle of the Bulge, the 75th Infantry Division was pulled from the line on 27 January. The division had suffered 465 killed in action and 1,707 wounded in action. My father was among those suffering from severe frostbite and other less serious wounds. As a result, he was medically evacuated to England. By the time he recovered and returned to duty, the war in Europe was over.