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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Just Our Bus Driver?

Mike Johnson Interview

by Andrew Zier
   Grade 12, Fairfield High School

Going into the interview with Mike Johnson, I was very relaxed. I have known Mike for a long time, going back to my elementary school days. My connection with Mike comes from the fact that he and my father are good friends, and that lead to a couple of golfing expeditions on which I was privileged enough to join the two. It also came from Mike’s many years of driving bus at Fairfield High School. Mike has always been the students’ favorite bus driver, always showing up in his faded Green Bay Pakers hat that he insists on wearing. But that only makes me think a little bit less of him, as I am a huge Vikings fan. Seriously, though, Mike is a great guy and I was eager to get to know him a little bit better through this interview.
We started out with a couple of formalities, such as name, age, rank, and where he was stationed. Mike was in the army and was a level E4. He is now 54 years old and lives just outside of Fairfield. When asked if he enlisted or was drafted he responded, “Both. Actually, I thought if I enlisted I’d get a duty station that I wanted, so I enlisted for two years. You could then. But I was drafted. I got the call. And then I enlisted for two years after I took my physical.
At that time Mike was living in Lothair, Montana, working on the Tiber Dam. After he enlisted, he rode a train from Butte, Montana, to Fort Lewis, Washington, where he had his basic training with about 50,000 other people. To pass the time he would listen to music. “Music, we got to have music in the barracks. That’s all we got to have. We never got any contact with anybody….and you couldn’t see girls.” That was another aspect of basic training that Mike did not enjoy. “If there was some (girls) in the area, they’d make us march eyes right or eyes left, whatever the case may be. So we couldn’t even see them. They didn’t want us distracted.” Mike was very proud of the fact that his platoon was the best physical training platoon in all of Fort Lewis. But he didn’t take all of the credit for it. “We had a couple of black guys that were superior athletes.”
After his basic training, Mike was stationed in Fort Carson, Colorado, but that soon bored him. “I got tired of doing KP and guard duty, with a broom handle and all, around Fort Carson. So I put in to go to Vietnam, actually. I wasn’t sent up against my will like a lot of guys were,” said Mike. He was on his way to Vietnam. Before he left he had to get a serious of vaccinations. They were unpleasant but at least they were over with, or so he thought. “I remember I was sick. Everybody was sick. We had to take twenty-some shots…I thought I had them all done at Fort Carson, but the records didn’t keep up, so they gave them all to me again in Oakland.”
While in Oakland, Mike was isolated for a couple of days, along with the rest of his platoon, from any outside contact. While he was isolated he received briefings on the environment and culture he was going into and also the type of people he would be dealing with in Vietnam. It was a very nerve-wracking time for Mike. The prospect of not knowing where he was going to be assigned worried him. “Nobody really knew where they were going (to be assigned in the country). You knew if you were a grunt or you knew if you were a truck driver or you knew if you were whatever, but you didn’t know where you were going to be assigned. That’s the way the army of that era was. They felt they had a new and better way, that they assigned you according to your qualifications and skills.”
Once Mike was sent over to Vietnam, right away he knew he wasn’t in Joplin, Montana, anymore. Just two days after arriving in Vietnam, while at Camron Bay, a rocket hit and sent panic throughout the camp, but Mike kept his cool. “I don’t know why it didn’t really bother me. I guess I figured if it landed and it already exploded, then we were alright.” Mike was able to always stay levelheaded, even though he was a “greenie.” “Greenie,” of course, is a reference to the newest soldiers to arrive in Vietnam. They were called “greenies” because of the fact that their uniform fatigues were still green and, in a broader sense, the whole army was filled with “greenies.” Most of the soldiers were between the ages of 18 and 21, but they grew up really fast in the environment that Vietnam was.
The prospect of death was constantly surrounding them, and different people had different ways of dealing with this. Some hoped for good luck, and Mike turned to praying regularly and drinking alcohol. “Good luck? I never believed in that, I guess. I prayed a lot. Sleep ended up being his defense mechanism. Mike turned to alcohol in order to make the time go by. When he was sleeping he had no sense of time, and the days would just fly by, so he used alcohol and sleep to help pass the time.
The alcohol users had a distinct classification according to Mike. They were called the “juicers,” and Mike “dubiously” was one. According to him, the soldiers in Vietnam could be classified into three groups: the juicers, the ones who didn’t do anything, and the freaks. The “freaks” were the drug users, and Mike wanted nothing to do with them. In fact, he believes the drugs and drug use brought over from Vietnam to be among the worst things to ever happen to America. It was the freaks that scared him the most in Vietnam because they would volunteer for guard duty and then get high, clearing the way for some Viet Cong to sneak in and start killing people.

That was really how the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese fought, by sneaking around. They rarely fought out in the open, and if they did, it was a hit-and-run operation. This is where Mike sees the similarities to today’s war in Iraq. Mike’s son-in-law was recently deployed to Iraq. “I feel for him because it’s a difficult situation, because of the lack of politics. We play by the rules; the other guys don’t. We always played by the rules, for the most part” Mike compared the wars to fighting in downtown Fairfield, where the soldiers didn’t know if the people were enemies or just civilians. This made fighting difficult, and it caused many of the soldiers to focus their thoughts on just staying alive.
It was a great day when Mike got word that he was leaving Vietnam. He caught a ride down to Camron where he boarded a plane to Washington. “That was the best feeling in the world, when I climbed in that plane and there was round-eye (girls) on there.” It was the best flight of his life, but he wasn’t received very well when he got back. “They didn’t welcome you home like the guys are getting now.” He remembers a couple of hippie girls calling him “baby-killer” when he got off the plane. Even worse, some people insulted him with their silence, by ignoring him, or by not giving him the respect he deserved. When he got into Great Falls, there was no parade; there wasn’t a large crowd to greet him. There was only his family, but for Mike, that was all he cared about.
Mike is a man with strong values and strong beliefs. During the war, Mike was a radio telephone operator. His job was to send messages from the field to the guns about where to strike. Well, during this interview Mike sent a message to me loud and clear. Any man brave enough to serve our country commands respect from all people, regardless of whether or not they believe the war is right. So the next time you see Mike, go ahead and give him a tip of the hat. If it is a Green Bay Packers hat, he might just repay you with a high-five.

Veteran's Data

Name of Veteran: Mike Johnson
Date of Birth: 3/4/50  Place of Birth: 
Date of Induction:   Branch of Service: Army, E4  Rank at Discharge: E5, June 16, 1971
Location of Interview: Fairfield High School
Interviewed by: Andrew Zier-Matt Murray

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