Other heroes have been more dramatically courageous at a particular moment, but none have been so unwaveringly brave for so long a time as was U.S. Army Private First Class Wayne “Johnnie” Johnson.
For three years, three months, and 19 days, Johnson risked summary execution while secretly keeping a written record of some 500 of his fellow POWS who perished during the Korean War.
He undertook his extended act of bravery when he was just 18 years old. His singular hope was that the families would at least know how and when their loved ones died. He sought no reward beyond simple gratitude.
“All I ever wanted was to be thanked,” Johnson once said.
But when an armistice led to the release of Johnson and the other surviving prisoners, the U.S. government had them sign a pledge not to discuss the barbaric circumstances of their captivity.
“[The U.S. government] didn’t want the American public to know how we were treated,” fellow POW Jack Goodwin told The Daily Beast.
The debriefers did ask the survivors if they knew the names of other POWs and Johnson said he had a list of hundreds. He placed on a table the roster he had assembled at such peril on scraps of scavenged paper. He started copying the names and details.
“I had scarcely begun when one of the officers decided it was going to take too long and said, ‘Never mind, we don’t need this,’” Johnson would later recount.
A lieutenant did note in a debriefing report that Johnson had kept a list and should be commended, but it was just filed away and forgotten along with the rest of the Korean War. Johnson’s effort was not otherwise even acknowledged for more than four decades.
In fact, Johnson’s remarkable deed might never have been publicly recognized were it not for Army Sgt. Victoria Bingham, a researcher and analyst with the Department of Defense POW/MIA office.
Bingham decided she might be able to garner important information by attending POW reunions and she flew out to one in Sacramento, California, in 1995. She there learned of Johnson’s list and she was told that he was the person she should see.
Bingham sat down with Johnson in the hotel convention center and listened to a tale that began with him growing up in Lima, Ohio, and going directly from Central High School’s class of 1949 to the U.S. Army. He had been stationed in southern Japan with the 21st Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division.
Forty years before, President Theodore Roosevelt had struck a neutral pose when offering to broker an end to the Russo-Japanese war. He was in fact secretly colluding with Japan. He publically supported Japan’s annexation of Korea, which had been an independent kingdom for more than a thousand years. Japan subsequently used Korea to launch two invasions of China.
America got a taste of Japanese expansionism with Pearl Harbor. Japan’s subsequent defeat came as Russian troops were advancing into Korea from the north and American forces were advancing from the south. President Franklin Roosevelt seems to have been the first to suggest placing Korea in multinational trusteeship with a vague promise of independence “in due course.” Two young American colonels, one of them future Secretary of State Dean Rusk, used a National Geographic map to propose dividing Korea along the 38th parallel.
On Jan. 12, 1950, then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered a speech that indicated Korea was outside the American “defensive perimeter.” He nonetheless supported a Korean economic aid bill then before the House of Representatives. The measure was defeated by two votes.
Some would later suggest that the Acheson speech in particular encouraged North Korea to send troops pouring into South Korea on June 30, 1950, but there is evidence that the invasion had been planned before then.
President Truman secured a United Nations resolution condemning the actions and ordered American troops to counter it. Goodwin was one of the 540 soldiers from the 21st Regiment of the 24th Division Infantry Division who were roused from their beds in Japan by an announcement on July 1, 1950.
“They woke us up, ‘Pack your bags, we’re leaving,’” Goodwin recalled to The Daily Beast.
Most of what was dubbed Task Force Smith knew nothing of Korea as they boarded the planes that flew them there. They then traveled by train and trucks, arriving in Osan on the night of July 4.
“We figured it’d be a skirmish and we’d get back to Japan within a week,” Goodwin recalled.
The following morning, they were attacked by thousands of North Koreans backed by three dozen tanks that proved largely impervious to the antiquated American weapons.
“We had nothing to stop a tank,” Goodwin said.
Some 150 of the 540 Americans were killed. Goodwin and 89 others were captured. He turned 20 the next day, the first of four birthdays he would spend in captivity.
“I had a very short war,” Goodwin said.
By the time Goodwin was captured, Johnson and the rest of the regiment were arriving in Korea. Johnson was captured during the war’s third battle, on July 11 near Chochiwon. He was initially held in a building that was strafed by an American plane, killing four of his fellow captives. He happened to have a pencil stub and he tore a piece of wallpaper. He clandestinely recorded the date, along each man’s name and rank and unit.
“I thought that somebody would want to know who they were and when they died,” Johnson later said in an oral history. “I thought that would be the end of it.”
But in the ensuring days, others among his 850 fellow prisoners perished from wounds or malnutrition or disease. He scavenged other scraps of paper and recorded their particulars as well.
“Once I started, I thought there was no sense stopping,” he would recall. “So when somebody else died, I added his name.”
The POWs were wearing summer uniforms that offered little protection as winter approached. They were cold and malnourished and many fell ill.
On Oct. 25, the prisoners arrived at a cornfield south of Manpo. Groups of five scraped shallow holes in the ground, seeking shelter from the icy wind as they huddled together.
Thirteen of them died. At least three became too weak to continue and were told they would be staying behind when the group moved on. They assumed that this presaged execution and Private First Class Lawrence Doyle offered his boots to others because he figured he would not be needing them. Gunshots announced that the assumption was correct. Doyle became one of the newest names on the list.
“Lawrence Doyle PFC 19 INF 24 DIV10-28-50.”
On Halloween, a major from the North Korean security services who had a scar on his right cheek and whom the prisoners would nickname Tiger took command. The 758 remaining of the original 850 prisoners began an eight-day, 120-mile death march through the snow.
At one point in the march, Tiger spotted several prisoners by the side of the road and apparently saw an opportunity to assert his authority. Tiger summoned Second Lt. Cordus Thornton and charged him with allowing the roadside prisoners to malinger. Tiger asked the North Korean guards if Thornton was guilty.
“Guilty!” they are said to have replied in Korean. “Kill him!”
Tiger thereupon raised his pistol and shot Thornton in the back of the head. Johnson would recall being splattered by blood and brain matter and bits of skull.
“Cordus Thornton 2LT 34 INF 24 DIV 11-01-50”
Another 88 prisoners joined the list after being executed during the death march, including an Irish nun, by one account because she had become too exhausted to continue, by another because she had sought privacy to relieve herself.
“Sr. Mary Clare CIV Ireland Anglican Nun 11-06-50”
After the prisoners stopped for a short time in Chung’Gang-jin, they were suddenly ordered in the middle of the night to move on. One prisoner who was slow in responding was battered to death.
“Jack Samms PFC 19 INF 24 DIV 11-13-50”
The survivors stayed in Hanjang-ni until March 29, 1951. They then moved to an old Japanese army camp in An-Dong. Another 223 names went on the list, some after executions, most the result of malnutrition and disease and the cold. Goodwin’s weight dropped to 63 pounds, Johnson’s to 61.
“The worst part of it was waking up and the buddy beside you was dead,” Goodwin told The Daily Beast. “That happened three or four times.”
On Oct. 19, 1951, the prisoners were transferred to Chinese custody in Camp 3 at Chang-Song. The Chinese set out rice and steamed bread and gave the prisoners new clothing.
Even with the food, 10 more prisoners died from the aftereffects of their treatment by the North Koreans. Goodwin recorded their names.
Disaster threatened when the list was discovered hidden in the wall of the mud hut where Johnson was lodged with three other prisoners. He stepped forward and said he was the record keeper.
“I figured there was no sense in dragging the other three into it,” Johnson later said.
Had he still been in North Korean custody, Johnson would almost certainly have been shot right then and there. He was instead taken to the Chinese camp commandant.
“He didn’t treat me too nice. He enjoyed usin’ his—it was like a riding crop, and he enjoyed hittin’ me in the head and the face and the neck and the shoulders and so on like that,” Johnson later said in a radio interview. “After an hour or two, he really got perturbed.”
The commandant sat Johnson in a chair, placed a handgun to his head and cocked it.
“Well, fear didn’t even begin to do justice to my feelings,” Johnson later said.
The commandant accused Johnson of keeping the list for propaganda purposes. Johnson said he had only compiled the names for the sake of their families.
“He must have bought my story, because he didn’t shoot me,” Johnson later said.
The Chinese destroyed the list, not imagining that Johnson had thought to make a copy and secret it under the hut’s floor. He still had it in August 1953, when the prisoners were told they would be going home. What would become known as Johnson’s List showed that 66 percent of the original captives had died.
Each of the surviving prisoners—who came to call themselves Tiger Survivors—was given a green ditty bag marked with a red cross. The toiletries inside included a small toothpaste tube that Johnson surreptitiously washed out. He hurriedly stashed the list inside, fearful of being seen by a Chinese guard who stood just 10 feet away. He had been told by the commandant that if he caused any more trouble he would not be repatriated with the others.
After he was finally free, Johnson extracted the list and saw that some of the names had been bleached away by toothpaste residue. None of the names appeared to be of much interest to Johnson’s debriefers. He returned to civilian life devastated, traumatized, and unrecognized.
Some of the other Tiger Survivors seemed to adjust remarkably well given their ordeal. Goodwin arrived back in Waco, Texas, to discover that the sweetheart he had originally met in a candy factory had married somebody else after having been told he had been killed in Korea. But she quickly divorced her husband and married Goodwin.
Jack and Violet Goodwin lived out what everybody agreed was a great love story. He became her constant companion and caregiver after she suffered a debilitating stroke. They were often seen around town in identical outfits.
Jack Goodwin worked for the postal service, then began raising tropical fish in his garage.
“Tropical fish are good for your nerves,” Goodwin told The Daily Beast. “Back then, my nerves were shot.”
Goodwin opened a store, North Waco Tropical Fish. He later turned over the operations to his daughter. He demonstrated considerable acumen as a day trader.
“You just got to be careful,” Goodwin noted to The Daily Beast.
On his part, Johnson is said to have taken to drinking more than was good for him. He appears to have been married four times.
He did find some comfort at POW reunions, where he would sometimes have a beer with Goodwin.
“My buddy,” Goodwin told The Daily Beast.
Johnson was at a POW reunion in Indiana in 1991 when he was approached by Mary Lou Kristanoff. Her father, 1st Lt. George Kristanoff had been reported missing in Korea while on a reconnaissance patrol in July of 1950, at the very start of the war. She had been just 8 months old.
“Not one picture of him and I together, not one,” she later told The Daily Beast. “There’s always that feeling of emptiness.”
More than four decades later, she still knew nothing more of her father’s disappearance. She had come to the reunion on the chance she might learn something and a missionary couple brought her to see Johnson. He produced his list.
“George Kristanoff 1L 24 Rec 4-29-51”
After all this time, she now knew that her father had died on April 29, 1951, at the An-Dong prison camp. She saw tears streaming down Johnson’s face.
“He just broke down and cried and he said, ‘Finally, after 40 years I’ve finally helped one family,’” she told The Daily Beast.
Then came the 1995 reunion when Johnson met Sgt. Victoria. Bingham. Johnson told her that a prisoner of the same surname, George Bingham, had helped him gather details of the list and keep it secure.
After returning to Washington, Victoria Bingham compared the list with the details in the MIA/POW records and saw that Johnson had been meticulously accurate as well as brave. Some of the names that had been bleached out while the list was in the toothpaste tube had at some point been restored with the help of an infrared scanner at the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Bingham pulled the long ignored debriefing file and read the officer’s recommendation that Johnson receive some recognition for keeping the list. She began pushing for Johnson to receive a Bronze Star. Her report went all the way to the top and was so convincing that the Army decided to raise the award to a Silver Star.
On Aug. 3, 1996, Lt. Gen. John Miller presented Johnson with the nation’s third highest decoration for valor. The citation read:
“The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Private First Class Wayne A. Johnson, United States Army, for gallantry in action during the period 12 July 1950 to 16 August 1953, while being held as a Prisoner of War in Tiger Camp by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Private First Class Johnson subjected himself to the risk of execution by his captors. He did so by compiling and maintaining a list of over 500 American POWs, most of whom had died in the camp system.”
It continued, “Even when the Chinese guards were tipped off about the list and destroyed it, Private First Class Johnson able to convince his captors that the list was intended for humanitarian and not propaganda purposes, and was released with a threat of harsher consequences, should he continue this activity. Regardless of their warning, Private First Class Johnson continued to add names to a hidden copy of the original list. When he was released during the armistice, he smuggled his comprehensive list home in a toothpaste tube.”
It concluded, “As a result of efforts by the Defense POW/MIA Office, this list has come to light and is serving as an important document for providing confirmation of death or otherwise resolving open POW/MIA cases. Private First Class Johnson’s exemplary courage and selfless determination to provide a record of deceased soldiers, even in the face of death by a hostile enemy, are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.”
Among those in attendance were Johnson’s mother and siblings. Bingham had been told that Johnson had become estranged from them during the long and difficult years after the Army ignored his list.
“Everything he had done, he threw into that great act and nobody cared,” she later said to The Daily Beast of the government’s initial response.
But as a result of her efforts, validation had come at last and his loved ones were there to witness it.
“He got his whole family back,” Bingham told The Daily Beast. “They all came to see him get his thanks.”
Word of the list spread, and Johnson got letters from the loved ones of other POWs who had finally found a father or a brother because of his courage. Johnson himself wrote the occasional letter or card to Bingham and he seems never to have completely escaped the bleakness.
“Nothing much to write about, as I haven’t been out of the house, except to the V.A. for a couple of years,” Johnson wrote in one card. “Really not living, just existing.”
He then wrote, “I sure hope things are going well with you. I guess this is it, so will close for now and may God bless.”
He signed it, “With love, Johnnie.”
He added, “P.S. I hope you can read this scribbling. Just can’t write anymore.”
In fact, the writing was perfectly legible, if not as precise as when he used a pencil stub or a stolen pen end with wet soot for ink to record each death in letters small enough to leave room on a scavenged bit of paper for the deaths that were sure to follow.
Bingham stopped getting cards and then she received a phone call from one of Johnson’s brothers. The courageous keeper of the list had himself died in on June 1, 2011, in San Marcos, Texas. He was 79.
Johnson is buried in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. His grave would be a good place for anybody to contemplate true American greatness and the dangers of forgetting an unresolved war that has now become a crisis that places millions of lives at risk.
The inscription on his standard tombstone reads:
WAYNE A. JOHNSON
PFC US ARMY
DEC 16 1931
JUNE 1 2011
JOHNNIE CREATED THE JOHNSON LIST