Harold Keith Johnson

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Harold Keith Johnson
Joseph Richards Essig's portrait of General Johnson
Nickname(s) Johnny[1]
Born (1912-02-22)February 22, 1912
Bowesmont, North Dakota
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Washington, D.C.
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch United States Army seal United States Army
Years of service 1933–1968
Rank General
Commands held Chief of Staff of the United States Army
Commandant of the United States Army Command and General Staff College
8th Cavalry Regiment
3d Battalion, 7th Infantry
Battles/wars World War II
Korean War

Harold Keith "Johnny" Johnson (February 22, 1912 – September 24, 1983) was Chief of Staff of the United States Army from 1964 to 1968. Regarded as a premier tactician, Johnson became skeptical that the level of resources given to the Vietnam War, much of which went into 'find, fix, and destroy the big main force units' operations, could deliver victory. Johnson came to believe that the Communist forces held a trump card, because they controlled whether there were engagements with US forces, giving an option to simply avoid battle with US forces if the situation warranted it.

As Johnson saw it, the main force and NVA units would always keep their casualties below what they considered a prohibitive level, and could not be swept away by US firepower. He did, however, acknowledge that Commander William Westmoreland had little choice but to engage the enemy's main formations, which had to be prevented from securing base areas where they could concentrate. Johnson was instrumental in altering the focus to a counterinsurgency approach, but was frustrated at the US government refusal to provide the manpower necessary for successful pacification. In his later years Johnson said it had been obvious that US national mobilization was required to win in Vietnam, and he regretted not resigning in protest at the government asking the army to fight a war without hope of ultimate victory.

Early career and World War II

Harold Keith Johnson was born in Bowesmont, North Dakota on February 22, 1912. After graduation from high school in 1929, Johnson attended the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. On June 13, 1933, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry. Johnson’s first duty assignment was with the 3rd Infantry (Old Guard) at Fort Snelling, Minnesota.

In 1938, Johnson attended Infantry School in Fort Benning. Upon graduation, he was assigned to the 28th Infantry at Fort Niagara, New York. Requesting overseas transfer, Johnson was reassigned to the 57th Infantry (Philippines Scouts) at Fort McKinley, Philippine Islands in 1940. After the fall of Bataan, Johnson became a prisoner of the Japanese on 9 April 1942. Participating in the Bataan Death March, Johnson was eventually imprisoned at Camp O’Donnell, Cabanatuan, and Bilibid Prison. In December 1944, the Japanese attempted to transfer Johnson and 1600 other POWs out of the Philippines. On 14 December 1944, American fighter planes sunk the Japanese ship the Oryoku Maru killing over 300 of the POWs. Johnson survived and was eventually transferred to Japan. Unwilling to give up their POWs to the advancing Allies, Japan again transferred Johnson. Finally ending up in Korea, Johnson was liberated by the 7th Infantry Division on September 7, 1945.

Post World War II

After Johnson’s return to the United States, his first assignment was with the Ground Forces School Tour. In August 1946, he attended the Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where he remained as an instructor for another two years. Johnson next attended the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia in 1949. After graduation, he was assigned as Commanding Officer, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry at Fort Devens, Massachusetts.

Johnson organized the 1st Provisional Infantry Battalion at Fort Devens, and in August 1950, he was dispatched to Korea. The battalion became the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division for the defense of the Pusan Perimeter. Still with the 1st Cavalry Division, Johnson was later promoted to command the 5th and the 8th Cavalry Regiments. In February 1951, he was reassigned as Assistant Chief of Staff, G3 of I Corps.

Returning to the United States, Johnson was assigned to the Office of the Chief of the Army Field Forces, Fort Monroe, Virginia. In 1952, he attended the National War College. After graduation, Johnson was assigned to the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G3, where he served first, as Chief of Joint War Plans Branch, then as the Assistant to the Chief of the Plans Division, and finally as the Executive Officer of the Assistant Chief of Staff.

In January 1956, Johnson was assigned to duty as Assistant Division Commander of the 8th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado. Later in 1956, he transferred with the 8th Division to Germany. Johnson’s next assignment was as Chief of Staff, Seventh Army Headquarters at Stuttgart-Vaihingen. Then in April 1959, Johnson moved to Headquarters, United States Army, Europe, as Assistant Chief of Staff, G3. The following December, he was appointed Chief of Staff, Central Army Group at NATO Headquarters concerned with planning for the employment of French, German, and American troop operations in Central Europe.

Returning to the United States, Johnson was assigned as Commandant, Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In February 1963, he became Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Military Operations (Operations and Plans) Department of the Army, and in July was appointed as Deputy Chief of Staff for Military Operations. On July 3, 1964, he was appointed Chief of Staff of the United States Army.

Chief of Staff

Johnson was appointed the 24th Chief of Staff of the United States Army, his reputation as an expert tactician led to him being selected over candidates with more seniority. He had told the National Guard Association that year that that "military force . . . should be committed with the object beyond war in mind." and "broadly speaking, the object beyond war should be the restoration of stability with the minimum of destruction, so that society and lawful government may proceed in an atmosphere of justice and order."[2]

Vietnam War

Johnson went to Vietnam in December 1965 after the Battle of Ia Drang. He "concluded that it had not been a victory at all and that Westmoreland's big-unit strategy was misconceived".[3] However Johnson publicly said there was no alternative to disrupting enemy main force units in the Central Highlands as preventing them establishing base areas in the middle country was essential. After talking to junior officers involved in the first major actions Johnson concluded that enemy main force units had the ability to evade engagements giving them the option keep casualties below an acceptable level, but they were in fact accepting the actual kill ratios being achieved, as evidenced by them attacking US forces. Johnson started the process to have Westmoreland replaced in Vietnam, and commissioned the PROVN Study, which noted that "aerial attacks and artillery fire, applied indiscriminately, also have exacted a toll on village allegiance." There was a deep seated reluctance among the joint chiefs to interfere with the command decisions of Westmoreland, however harassing artillery fire, by US forces at least, was greatly reduced.[4][5]

Conditions for enlisted personnel

As Chief of Staff, one of Johnson's noteworthy accomplishments was creating the office of the Sergeant Major of the Army to improve the quality of life for enlisted personnel. He selected Sergeant Major William O. Wooldridge to be the first to hold this post. Johnson also served as acting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a few months in 1967 during the convalescence of General Earle Wheeler. Johnson retired from active duty in July 1968. For three years later, General Johnson headed the Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge and afterwards worked as a banking executive until retiring for good.

Final years

Johnson married Dorothy Rennix in 1935. During his term as Chief of Staff, had been involved in many policy debates regarding the escalation of the Vietnam War as a proponent of full military mobilization to achieve a pacification of South Vietnam. He considered resigning in protest over President Lyndon B. Johnson's decision not to mobilize the reserves, and at the end of his life expressed regret at not doing so. He was the subject of a biography, Honorable Warrior, by Lewis Sorley. He died September 24, 1983, in Washington, D.C..


"He had an unusual sense of loyalty to the men under him, the kind of thing ordinary soldiers notice and value when they grade an officer..."[6]

"He was the best, someone born to lead men. I think he was always thinking about what was good for us. Nothing ever got by him."[7]

Military career chronology

Decorations and medals

General Johnson was posthumously eligible for the Prisoner of War Medal when it was created in 1986.


  1. The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, David Halberstam, p. 19, Hyperion, 2007
  2. Parameters.To Change a War: General Harold K. Johnson and the PROVN Study, LEWIS SORLEY
  3. Parameters.To Change a War: General Harold K. Johnson and the PROVN Study, LEWIS SORLEY
  4. The Ia Drang Campaign 1965: A Successful Operational Campaign or Mere Tactical Failure?, Peter J. Schifferle (1994)
  5. Parameters.To Change a War: General Harold K. Johnson and the PROVN Study, LEWIS SORLEY
  6. Corporal Lester Urban, cited in Halberstam, p.19
  7. Halberstam, p. 19

External links

Military offices
Preceded by
Earle G. Wheeler
Chief of Staff of the United States Army
Succeeded by
William C. Westmoreland
Preceded by
Harry Jacob Lemley, Jr.
Commandant of the Command and General Staff College
Succeeded by
Lionel C. McGarr