Corporal Henry Johnson of the United States Army did not have ties to Wichita when he died 61 years ago, and there are not that many people left anywhere who remember him. But it will be in Wichita that his remains are laid to rest, 61 years after he and thousands of other Korean War prisoners died in North Korean prison camps.
Johnson’s great-niece, Earline Ziegler of Wichita, said that she and her mother, Erma Garrett, who also lives here, are about all the family Johnson has left, and they remember little about him.
But his Army record, as brief as it is, tells a story of service and sacrifice.
Johnson was only 21 years old when he died in 1951. He was born in Conway, Ark. Before the Korean War, he joined the Army; Garrett said what little she remembers about him was that he was a nice man, and that there may have been a little trouble in his life that led to his joining the Army.
Whatever that might have been, he served his country honorably in one of the most horrific actions ever endured by U.S. service people in any war. North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, and those soldiers who fought in South Korea that year, including Johnson, suffered terribly in combat, usually because they were outnumbered and lacking supplies.
Johnson was a member of Company L. 3rd Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, one of the last all-black infantry companies in the U.S. Army. Ziegler says the Army records the family received show that Johnson was seriously wounded by the enemy in South Korea on Sept. 18, 1950, and returned to duty on Oct. 29, 1950.
By then, after suffering battlefield setbacks, the U.S. forces and their allies had rallied and were driving the North Koreans back into their own country, and assuming that they’d quickly win the war.
But hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers entered the war in November 1950, extending the fighting by years and capturing many Americans, who later starved or died of exposure.
Johnson was taken prisoner while fighting the enemy in North Korea on Nov. 25, 1950. Ziegler said the Army records show that her great-uncle was considered missing in action for several years, until prisoners were repatriated from North Korea in 1953. Soldiers coming home from North Korean prison camps in 1953 told the Army that Johnson had died of starvation and exposure on April 30, 1951, in Camp Five, one of the notorious Communist prison camps run by the enemy on the border between North Korea and China.
Immediately after a truce was agreed upon in 1953, some remains of American dead and their allies were returned, but Johnson’s remains were not among them. Ziegler said the Army has told them recently that decades later, in the early 1990s, in one of the rare thaws in relations between the U.S. and North Korea, 31 boxes of remains were given to the allies and taken to Hawaii. Army personnel have been working on them ever since, trying to find identities; Johnson’s remains were identified with DNA analysis recently, and that is why they are finally being returned here.
There will be a memorial service for Cpl. Johnson at 11 a.m. Saturday at Jackson Mortuary. Johnson will be buried in Lakeview Gardens Cemetery, Ziegler said.