AMHERST, Va. (AP) — At this point in their military careers, it would seem that Ret. Marine Corps M/Sgt. Raymond Johnson vastly outranks his granddaughter Kayla Johnson, a Virginia Military Institute cadet. Yet last November, that didn’t keep Kayla from giving her superior a direct order.
“She didn’t ask me,” recalled Raymond Johnson with a chuckle. “She told me.”
The occasion was the annual Ring Figure, an ancient VMI tradition celebrating the advancement (or survival) of the third-year class. Cadets choose their own dates for this event, which also involves a formal dance as well as the presentation of the class ring, and Kayla chose her grandfather.
“The only problem,” Raymond said, “was that I didn’t fit into my dress blues anymore. I had to go up to Quantico and be refitted for some more.”
Monday was Memorial Day, a time to pay homage and gratitude for those Americans killed in our various wars — but also a good time to honor those who are still alive. The survivors.
Raymond Johnson, for example, served in three conflicts: World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He spent 26 years in the Marine Corps, enlisting at age 19 in 1944 just in time to participate in the last of the “island hopping” Pacific campaign to dislodge and defeat the Japanese.
“I was on Iwo Jima when they planted the flag,” he said, “but I didn’t actually see it done. The guys who did it were from a different unit.”
So diverse was Johnson’s service that he has to refer to a scrapbook — put together by his wife and granddaughter — to trace it accurately. The photographs and news clippings are like bread crumbs left along a wooded trail to point the way out.
“I enlisted,” Johnson said with a smile, “to get away from the farm. My Dad worked us pretty hard.”
Now, after a 50-year full circle, he’s back on that same farm — just a few miles outside the Town of Amherst — in a house he helped to build.
“Two of my brothers also live on this land,” he said, “and a couple of nephews. It’s funny — when I left back in ’44, I never planned to come back.”
He did manage to take one farm-acquired skill into the service with him. At Fort Monmouth, N.J. after WWII, he served as one of the last “horse Marines,” riding a perimeter to guard an ammunition depot.
“I learned to ride when I was just a kid,” he said, “and it came in handy.”
He served in the tropics (Iwo Jima, Guam, Okinawa), in the Arctic (Alaska and the Aleutian Islands) and a dozen stops in between (China, Japan, Europe, California). He fought the Japanese and then helped them adapt to being occupied. He learned — the hard way — not to dig a fox hole in the wrong place on Iwo Jima, since it was a volcanic island with hot springs hidden underground. He received dozens of good conduct awards and then was busted down a rank when, he recalled, “this other guy and I were in a bar and missed our ship when it left.”
Meanwhile, his only granddaughter has been marching in his footsteps.
“I guess the stories he used to tell me had a lot to do with me choosing the military,” Kayla said. “VMI was the only place I ever wanted to go to school.”
As for the freshman hazing known as the “rat line,” Kayla recalled, “I realized very quickly that it was just a mind game. Most of the time, when I got punished, it was for giggling.”
Her genetic toughness became apparent when she contracted thyroid cancer that forced her to miss most of a year at VMI.
“I got a lot of help there from my mom,” Kayla said, “because she had the same thing and beat it.”
Her only lingering regret is that her brush with cancer — she’s now cancer-free, as is her mom — might keep her out of the Marine Corps when she graduates next year.
“You can’t be in the Marines if you’re on medication,” she said. “I should still be able to go into the Army.”
This summer, she’ll be taking a class in Irish history — in Ireland.
A new scrapbook is waiting.
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