By Travis Gulbrandson
Although he knew Don Johnson for only a brief time, Robert Fickbohm still considers him one of his best friends.
Fickbohm shared his memories of Johnson – who was killed in action during the Korean War – at part of this year’s Veterans Day program at the W. H. Over Museum this Monday.
Fickbohm was raised about 10 miles northeast of Vermillion and Johnson was a native of Burbank, but neither of them met before their induction into the Army on Nov. 12, 1952.
Their friendship continued from then on.
“Don and I were together all through basic training, and we went to Japan together,” Fickbohm said. “He was one of the best friends I ever had.”
The pair were inducted in Sioux Falls, at which point they were sent to Fort Sheridan, which is north of Chicago.
They were then sent on a troop train to the southwestern US, eventually reaching California.
“We were in the same outfit, the same barracks, the same schedule” all through basic training, Fickbohm said.
The training they received was a bit different than prior recruits had, due to the nature of the Korean War.
“At this time … the US Army and the Marines were not used to that type of warfare,” Fickbohm said. “Hordes came over the hills – Chinese and North Koreans – and they weren’t used to dealing with hordes.
“You could be doing pretty well until about the third horde, and then you’d be running out of ammunition,” he said.
As a result, the recruits received an extra two weeks of bayonet training.
Eventually, the pair shipped out of San Francisco to Japan on a World War II troop ship.
“The day we sailed out of San Francisco we saw the Golden Gate Bridge,” Fickbohm said. “We wondered if we would ever see that bridge again. We were dying at about 300 a day in Korea. …
“I went back and I (saw) that bridge, but Don didn’t get to see that bridge again,” he said.
After an 18-day voyage aboard the ship, they reached a camp outside of Tokyo, where they were processed.
Fickbohm went to serve with the 26th Infantry Scout Dog Platoon, while Johnson went with the 32nd Regiment.
“That’s the last I (saw) of Don Johnson,” Fickbohm said.
However, the pair wrote each other letters while in Korea, until Fickbohm received one of his own letters back with the words “Missing In Action” stamped on it.
Eventually, Fickbohm learned Johnson was killed in July 1954 on Pork Chop Hill, which he said sustained approximately 1,100 casualties between March 1 and July 27 that year.
“Don went out there in about the first week of March, so he saw a lot of combat there,” Fickbohm said.
Johnson was killed when a mortar dropped into the box of an armored tracked vehicle in which he was riding.
“You can use your imagination” as to what happened, Fickbohm said.
Sixteen days after Johnson was killed, the war was over.
“That was kind of ironic,” Fickbohm said.
Also in Monday’s program was a brief presentation in honor of Jim Kronaizl, who was not present.
Kronaizl, 87, served with the Marines during World War II, near Okinawa.
VFW Adjutant Andy Howe said Kronaizl is the local VFW’s longest-serving member by six years, and has devoted much of his time to the group.
“Jim didn’t just come home after the war, join the VFW and forget it,” Howe said. “He was an active member all those years. He served as commander, quartermaster, chaplain.”
Among the other speakers Monday was Cynthia Aden, Clay County veterans service officer.
In addition to recognizing the 1.2 million female veterans, Aden spoke of the crisis of suicide rates among active members of the military as well as veterans.
“One or more a day committed suicide over the last year,” she said. “We are losing more service members to suicide than have been killed by the enemy in Afghanistan. So, if you know of someone who may need assistance, please encourage him or her to seek health through the Veterans Administration …
“We need to keep our veterans and military members safe,” she said.