All Photos/Submitted by family
Retired Command Sergeant Major Roy Johnson at a 2018 Memorial Day Celebration him at his church in Ash Flat. Right, Photos taken at Johnson’s funeral in Sept. of his award board.
By: Tammy Curtis, Managing Editor
The only good thing about wars is that they end … but for many, the battles never do. This was never truer than for the late Retired Command Sergeant Major Roy Johnson of Highland who carried his battle wounds with him throughout his life.
Returning to the states from two tours of duty in Vietnam in 1971, there was no victory parade with the band playing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” like the World War II veterans received. Johnson, was just happy to be out of the jungle and being shot at and home to his wife, Shirley.
Born in Egypt, Arkansas in 1945, Roy was raised in the heart of Arkansas farmland around the Egypt and Cash areas. He left home at a very young age. Unbeknown to his future wife, who he met while attending church in O’kean, Ark. when she was only 14, he was about to be drafted into the United States Army in 1963.
Welcome to the Army
At the tender age of 17, Roy entered the Army in 1964 doing Basic Training at Fort Polk, La. He was sent to Germany shortly after. As a Green Beret during his tour, he would be sent to Iceland, Alaska, Greenland, then back to Germany.
Shirley continued to write to her friend for four years, through basic training and kept his spirits up and her letters coming when he was shipped to Vietnam for his first tour of duty in Oct. of 1966, when he was barely 21.
Shirley’s undying devotion to Roy prevailed as she stood by her soldier during his deployment. Entering the Army as a Private, E1, Roy had quickly advanced through the ranks and 15 months later, was promoted to Sergeant. Just six short months later, he achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant, E6. These in themselves are miraculous accomplishments for being in the Army just over two years.
His first combat duty with the First Infantry Division began in Vietnam in Oct. of 1966. Within 24 hours of entering the country, he landed in a hot landing zone under fire with seven young soldiers who had just completed their 16 weeks of basic training.
Roy was assigned to Second of the Second Infantry Battalion of the First Infantry Division. Upon reporting to his commanding officer, he was told “Welcome, you are going to be my next Fourth Platoon Sergeant”. Roy explained to his late pastor, Chris Hancock, who honored him at Memorial Day service at New Life Church in Ash Flat 2018 that the commanding officer’s statement alarmed him. The Sergeant explained the current staff sergeant had only been there for one week and the last four platoon sergeants had been killed within three weeks of beginning their duties.
He counted the days until he felt his fate would also be met.
Two weeks, later the staff sergeant was killed in action and Roy assumed the duty as the Fourth Platoon Sergeant, just as his Platoon Sergeant said he would. During this time, while in a land far from anything the Arkansas boy had ever experienced, he again began the two-week countdown, all the while filled with a very real fear that his fate to die for America would come soon. Two weeks passed and in the third week, he was shot in the line of duty and received his first Purple Heart, stating, “But I am still alive, thanks to God.”
In January of 1967, just over a year after entering Vietnam, he was shot again, being told by doctors he would never walk again. With all of his stubborn tenacity, he again beat the odds, proving doctors wrong in just three short weeks. He also received his second Purple Heart. Roy then took his platoon back to complete his tour in Vietnam. This time, he was again wounded, receiving yet another Purple Heart. This tour ended in Nov. of 1967.
Prior to his second tour of Vietnam, Roy returned to the states and Fort Campbell, Kentucky. His longtime friend and love interest, Shirley, was living in Rockford, Ill. He made the trip and asked for her hand in marriage. The two were married on March 2, 1968.
The couple had over a year to be newlyweds before he had to return to the place that he already knew was hell on Earth, Vietnam in July of 1969.
His second tour lasted until August of 1970. This time Roy was in the Army’s First of the Eighteenth Infantry Battalion, First Division. In late December of that year, after just receiving new replacements, he and his company were assigned to a search and destroy mission. Shirley explained that her husband believed an important characteristic of any good leader is that he would never ask his troops do something he wouldn’t do himself.
While on the mission, the soldiers came across a main bunker with four exit bunkers. Roy told his troops to stand back, and put his own hand into the bunker to throw a grenade, so he could safely go inside. As he was doing this, he heard someone shout “Sergeant”. As he slowly lifted his head to see what was going on, a Viet Kong soldier fired at him with an AK47 and hit him on the left side of his nose. The bullet exited through the top right side of his head. He passed out. Roy was tagged and his body placed in a body bag. He was then sent to the morgue. Upon being pronounced killed in action, his belongings were sent back to Little Rock Air Force Base. Filled with emotion, his late pastor, said, “But God had a different plan.” He went on to tell the miraculous story that Roy himself had previously told him.
After lying in the morgue, within the zipped body bag for seven days, he recalled grunting and hearing someone say, ‘We have a live one over here.’” His wife said the next thing he recalled was forever embedded into his memory … the sound of his body bag zipper being unzipped and seeing a guy with a leaf on his collar [signifying he was a colonel]. He was alive.
Roy underwent surgery for his head wounds at the hospital and was sent to Okinawa for recovery. After getting out of the hospital, the Army was going to send him home, but Roy said, “I don’t want to go home, I want to go back to my squad.” Shirley said had not heard from Roy for over a month and while worried, kept her faith and prayed for him along with her family. After a few weeks, his belongings were returned to Vietnam. He was yet again as company first sergeant and platoon sergeant. “He was a living breathing miracle, and served 14 and a half more years,” his late pastor explained. His wife said throughout Roy’s entire life, the sound of a zipper always brought back memories of that fateful day. She said Roy was again shot on his second tour before finally completing his tour and returning from Vietnam.
During this happy time, they welcomed their son, Shawn, who was born Nov. 1971 when Roy was stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. They then returned to Fort Campbell, where Roy was a drill sergeant, before being sent back Germany. He went ahead of his family to find housing and shortly after, Shirley and Shawn joined him for what would be a three year tour. They returned to Fort Campbell and around 1973, Roy and his family moved to Colorado. Roy was then assigned to security detail at Fort Buckley when the Air Force was building one of the first prototypes for the Bell XV-15, a tiltrotor Vertical Take off and Landing Aircraft (VTOL) aircraft. It was the second successful experimental tiltrotor aircraft and the first to demonstrate the concept’s high speed performance relative to conventional helicopters. Shawn explained he even has photos of the first pilots ever assigned to the planes and has a photograph of all the planes in formation, autographed by the pilots.
It was while living in Wheatridge, near Denver that Shirley had become pregnant with his sister, Tammy. As she was very near her due date, Roy went back to O’Kean to bring her mother to assist with the baby. They were having one of his father’s favorite meals one night when Roy was heavy handed with the pepper. Shawn said his grandmother said, “
“Roy said that pepper is going to kill you someday. As soon as he took his second bite he fell out of the chair in the floor and we rushed him to hospital. His appendix had burst and they were going to have to do surgery.” During this time, Shirley went in to labor and his grandmother had to take care of him, but at least his dad was at the hospital when Tammy was born in Feb. of 1978.
Command Sgt. Major take over the 101st Airborne
After completing the security detail, the Johnson family came back to Fort Campbell and again took over as the Command Sgt. Major of the 101st Airborne.
Shawn said his father was very educated and also possessed two Masters Degrees, which were what prompted him to rethink his decision to retire.
As if he had not accomplished enough in his life, the retirement in Arkansas was thwarted for a few years. He was offered a position he couldn’t refuse as the Sgt. Major of Vanderbilt University’s ROTC program and teaching Military World History and Military Combat Techniques. While serving at Vanderbilt, Shirley worked at Walmart, leaving him to drop off his young daughter at daycare. More than once his son Shawn said, his dad who had a reputation across the globe for being a bad a@%, might show up with a car seat and smiling baby girl in tow when he didn’t have the heart to leave her crying at daycare.
Roy remained in the Army, living in Nashville, Tenn. for two years before his retirement and move back to Arkansas where he already landed a job.
Roy had a job waiting at Skil in Walnut Ridge when he got out of the Army. He went on to be a manager at both Skil in Walnut Ridge and later, at Darling Store Fixtures in Corning.
Shirley recalled the interviewer at Skil telling him “You have too much education to start on the line. He said I will start on the bottom, so I will know this job all the way to the top, and he got to be manager.”
Shawn told a funny story about his father. “On his first or second night at Skil when they were showing him around and a guy kept looking at him. He stopped and asked “Do you have a problem?”. He laughed and said, “The guy screams ‘No Drill Sergeant, No!’, he went to basic In Fort Polk, while we were there and her remembered dad,” he explained.
Shawn said being the son of such a high ranking Army man, he got to do some neat things, he recalled an incident when he was pretty young and his dad had a man pick him up from school and take him to the firing range when a Lieutenant ran a stop light and hit the car he and the Sergeant driving were in. “He was cussing and going off on that Sergeant for having a kid in the car but the sergeant was just smiling,” he said. When told it was Command Sgt. Roy Johnson’s son, he recalls the Lieutenant actually crying standing against his jeep. When his father and his commander showed up, everything was fine but only four people would ever know about the incident.
Fast forward to three or four years ago, Shawn, who drives for FedEx, made a snack stop in Canton, Miss., and encountered a group of military men from Fort Campbell. An older “Full Bird Colonel” asked Shawn if he was in the military or at Fort Campbell. “ I said, yea I was there with my dad,” After mentioning his father’s name, the Colonel told the story about him going to the firing range the day of the accident. There was no longer a mystery surrounding the identity of the crying fourth person at the accident many years earlier. Shawn laughed and said he called his dad who said that would have made sense for him to act that way back then if he was attempting to make Colonel at that time.
Shawn spoke highly of his father and the respect he garnered in the community, even after his retirement.
He also went on to work as a manager at a store fixture factory.
In total, he spent 20 and a half year in the Army. Roy retired with the highest rank of an enlisted soldier at Command Sergeant Major on June 4, 1984.
His wife said after leaving the military, “They had you the first twenty, I get you the next twenty,” of her husband’s devotion and love for America.
A Hero passes
At the time of his Sept. 4, 2022 death, Roy was a 100 percent disabled veteran from his lasting injuries and having been subjected to Agent Orange. He passed away from of complications from a brain bleed related to a fall in his home in June where he struck his head.
During his service to the United States, Roy Johnson was responsible for leading troops of over 34,000 soldiers in total. These included from various positions throughout his career.
Gunner of a Davy Crockett missile- 4 soldiers
Squad Leader- 11 soldiers
Platoon Sergeant- 44 soldiers
Infantry Company- 192 soldiers
Battalion- 1,190 soldiers
101st Airborne Division -about 33,000
As a drill Sergeant, Roy trained over 10,000 soldiers. over half were sent to Vietnam.
While in the Army, Roy Johnson received 86 awards including:
2 Silver Stars with Valor
4 Bronze Stars, two with Valor
6 Purple Hearts
5 Meritorious Service Medals
3 Army Achievement Medals
Combat Infantry Badge
Expert Infantry Badge
Air Assault Badge
An Airborne Badge
At the time of his death, he and his wife, Shirley lived in Highland. He was buried in his Class A uniform with all of his awards on his chest. “That was the hardest thing I have ever had to do,” she said filled with emotion.
The Johnson’s had two children, Shawn and Tammy, nine grandchildren, two great grandchildren and one on the way. Roy was buried with full military honors at Lawrence Memorial Cemetery in Walnut Ridge. Shirley said his grave is easily recognized, “It has lots of flags all over it, because he fought for that flag.”
He and his wife were members of the Divine Mercy Church in Cherokee Village.