Legionnaire of the Month
The next American Legion member with over 60 years of continuous membership to recognize is: Name--Donald E. Johnson, Rank--Corporal, Serial Number--US 55109476. Like others, Don was able to rattle that number off like he was still waiting to get out of the teargas tent. Although Don is a long time American Legion member, compared to others we have featured, he is a “newcomer” to Post 23. He did not join Henry G. Fix Post 23 until moving here in 1972. But we are getting ahead of his story so we best go back to the beginning.
Don was born on January 12, 1929 in Minneapolis. At the age of 4 his family moved to Hamberg, ND where his dad had taken a job at a grain elevator. Don attended grade school in Hamberg and graduated from Fessenden High School in 1946. After HS he took his first real job with a repair crew that worked on grain elevators. “I was 50 miles from home and hated it. As the newest worker, they gave me all the dirty jobs that no one else wanted. Back then 50 miles was a long way and after I’d had enough I decided to quit. I asked my dad to come get me. He did but it was a long ride home and he gave me a good lecture. I thought I’d go to Brown Inst. but before I could enroll a friend of my dad talked to me about going to work for the railroad. If hired, they offered to pay me $.65 hr during training to become a Depot Agent for The Great Northern Railroad. That was as much money as I had made working with the elevator crew. They also said I could stay at home while I received on the job training with the current Depot Agent. I didn’t think I’d get the job as it was too good to be true. But to my surprise, I was hired and they told me I could start the following Monday. After 6 weeks of training I became a “relief operator” filling in where they needed me.”
“My first permanent assignment was in Selz, ND where I was working when I married Sybel Georgeson on Sept 16, 1950.” Don and Sybel were enjoying life like many newly married couples when he received a letter that changed everything. Don was given his draft notice and was to report to Fargo, ND on February 7, 1951. He passed his physical and was sent to Ft. Lewis WA. “From Ft. Lewis they sent me to Ft. Jackson, SC where I was assigned to the 33rd Infantry Division for Basic Training. I was the only one from that unit that stayed at Ft. Jackson for my AIT as a Radio Operator. I lost track of others that were sent elsewhere and imagine many were sent to Korea. After AIT I stayed on as a Trainer for other radio operators who came through. Things looked stable and we had saved up enough money so Sybel could come down and join me.”
The Army would not necessarily take that into consideration and soon Don was notified that he was being sent to FECOM (Far East Command—most likely for duty in Korea). He was given a furlough and returned home to ND and felt it best that Sybel stay in ND. As Don found out, orders can be rescinded and that is exactly what happened. So when it appeared that he was not going to Korea, Sybel again came to stay with Don. “We lived in an apartment off base. I was getting $35 a month pay and they gave Sybel $40 of my pay each month. That was not much money but we managed to save some. Everything was less expensive at the PX. Unfortunately, a carton of cigarettes was only a dollar and I now know and regret that I smoked way too long.”
Evidently the Army did not want Sybel to stay with Don as he again received new orders. This time it was to Camp Bowie, TX. “Camp Bowie was an old WW II facility that had been abandoned. We were assigned to ‘Exercise Longhorn’ where we set up a bivouac camp. I still recall we traveled in long spaced out convoys going 25 MPH down the highway. When we came to a town we closed spaces and traffic was blocked so we could proceed through towns at 40 MPH. For 6 weeks we were assigned to the 82nd Airborne Div. This would have been no place for Sybel so she again returned to ND. After ‘Exercise Longhorn’ I had orders to go to Atterbury, IN where I was again an instructor.
At Atterbury my job was to teach International Morse Code and again Sybel came to join me. It was now July of 1951 and it looked like Sybel could remain with me. There were other military men in our Company whose wives came to stay with them. We became good friends and didn’t have much money so we played a lot of cards for entertainment. One couple was from Massachusetts and they had 49 Mercury. So we paid for the gas and they drove as we toured around on weekends. Sybel also got a good government job on base and we were again saving money.
We thought it would be nice to have our own car so when a friend who sold cars told us about brand new 1952 Mercury that we could get for $500 down payment we snapped it up. To our surprise, because I was in the military, when we tried to get insurance, they wanted $600 for 3 months premium. So we left the car parked in a friend’s garage for those 3 months. After that I was to be discharged and my dad was able to get a much better insurance rate. So we were able to use our new car on our return trip to ND. On February 8, 1953 I got my discharge notice and we loaded the Merc. with all our possessions. It was loaded so heavy that I had to drive all the way back to ND with my bright lights on at night. They pointed way high, but if I tried to put them on dim where I could see better, everyone flashed their brights on at us.”
The US Government required that anyone who was drafted could get their old job back. So Don and Sybel returned to Selz where he again became a Depot Agent for the Great Northern Railroad. Jeff was born in 1955 and Julie in 1957. “In 1972 I had a job offer in Garretson, SD. Jeff and Julie did not want to leave their friends. Jeff was a Sr. so when I accepted the job we let him stay to finish HS. Julie had to come with us and she cried for the 1st 100 miles. After arriving in Garretson, they had a ‘welcome party’ and Julie made so many new friends so fast she did not want to return to ND when we were going back for a funeral. Garretson has been good to us and we enjoyed our new life and home here. I retired from the RR in March of 93 just short of 45 years service.”
When I asked Don what he like least about the Military he said “KP” and “all the anxiety that went with wondering if and when you were going to be sent overseas. Sybel had joined me 3 times only to move back to ND when new orders were to come. Some of those were rescinded but we didn’t know that at the time. So there was always that uncertainty of the future”. When asked Don what he liked best he said, “Getting discharged. They wanted me to attend Officer Candidate School but that would have required signing up for extra length of service and I didn’t want to do that.”
Don admitted they made good friends and were able to keep in touch with many for years to come.
When Don and Sybel moved to Garretson they quickly made new friends in the community. They joined Zion Lutheran and were active in many community activities. Sybel passed away on February 12, 2003. Don also served on various boards, including Palisades Nursing Home. Each summer you can find Don still working at the Devils Gulch Visitor Center providing information to tourists traveling through Garretson.
Don joined the American Legion in Harvey, ND after being discharged and transferred his membership to Post 23 in 1972. Don said “I have always enjoyed my Legion membership and the people. One thing I learned that you didn’t want to do in the Army was ‘volunteer’. So I guess because no one ever ask me to be an officer here, I didn’t volunteer. But I guess just being a regular member, attending meetings and helping out is important too. I know we have a good post and I have done what I could to support it.
Although Don has only been a member of Post 23 for 43 years, he has been a continuous member of the American Legion for 62 years. Don, on behalf of Post 23 we thank you for your long and dedicated service to the American Legion, our community, state and nation.