Vet remembers days in Korea

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 24, 2011

By David Vitrano


NORCO – Today marks an anniversary of sorts for Norco resident Will Johnson. Sixty years ago, he was a soldier in the Korean Conflict, and he and his company had just taken the infamous Heartbreak Ridge.

Johnson’s military career started in December 1950.

“I arrived in Korea sometime in June,” he said. “My first assignment was on a place called the Punch Bowl.”

After a few weeks he and the rest of his unit moved to a place called “Bloody Ridge.”

“That’s where it really got serious,” he said.

The location got its name from the sheer amount of death and destruction wrought there. Johnson said there were corpses decaying all around.

“It was a terrible place,” he recalled.

John played the particularly dangerous role of forward observer.

“After Bloody Ridge, we moved to another area called Heartbreak Ridge,” said Johnson.

Heartbreak Ridge is a series of three peaks that got its name because of the difficulty both sides of the conflict had in taking and maintaining position there.

Finally having some success in maintaining its position, the 2nd Infantry Division, of which Johnson was a member, began moving to another location when an incoming mortar changed Johnson’s course of action.

“I caught a lot of flak, a whole lot of shrapnel,” he said. “It knocked me out.”

As Johnson was taken from the area on a stretcher, his replacement, John Phelps, moved into position. Phelps also sent along Johnson’s belongings.

After being shipped to a few different locations, Johnson finally completed his tour and returned to civilian life, working in the construction industry. His work eventually led him to Shell and its Norco refinery. It was in Norco Johnson met his future wife, Marie. Now having a reason to lay down roots, Johnson settled in Norco in 1953.

Johnson continued with construction work for a while, eventually retiring from Shell.

Then, a few years ago, Johnson decided to try to get back in contact with Phelps. The two had not spoken since they were in Korea.

Johnson had trouble locating his former colleague, but with the help of an FBI agent, the two eventually made contact. Johnson and Phelps, who now lives in Eloy, Ariz., exchanged letters for a while, and after Hurricane Katrina Johnson said Phelps left a short message on his answering machine — “Will, you need a boat?” — but a meeting was not in the cards until very recently.

Partially facilitated by Phelps’ niece, Susie Mathews, Johnson visited Arizona this month and reunited with his old war buddy. Mathews published a book on her uncle called “Not Just Another Cowboy,” which contains, among other things, photographs from her uncle’s time in Korea and some pages from a diary he kept while there. In fact, one of the diary entries mentions Johnson’s injury on Heartbreak Ridge.

“We had a good meeting,” said Johnson.

Regaining contact with Phelps has made Johnson reflect on his experience in Korea even more than he had previously.

“I wouldn’t take anything for the experience,” he said. “But I don’t want to do it again.”

Following the passing of his wife last year, Johnson cut back on many of the activities the couple enjoyed, such as traveling, but Johnson said he has been thinking about returning to Korea. Of course, he will not be able to visit Heartbreak Ridge, as that location in within the borders of North Korea, but he is eager to see the many changes that have taken place during the last six decades.

Even more so, he is eager to reconnect with the people he nearly gave his life protecting 60 years ago.

“They’re very appreciative,” he said.