Joseph Rueben Johnson, 88, a patriarch, former bishop and branch president, recently received a Legion of Honor Award for his service in liberating France during World War II.
“It was very special,” said Gwen Lollar, Brother Johnson’s daughter. “Seeing him get something like that after all these years was so, I guess you could say, humbling. Because it made us realize that there really are people that still appreciate what the military here sacrificed so much to do — especially at a young age of 17.”
He received the award, which is considered France’s highest distinction, on Sept. 24, 2013, in Jackson, Miss., from Denis Barbet, France’s Consul General assigned to the Southeastern U.S.
Brother Johnson said he fought all over Europe. He landed on the Normandy beachhead in France when he was 17 years old on June 6, 1944, with General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army, and ended his service in Germany. He returned home in 1946 when the war was over. His active duty dates were Nov. 4, 1943-Feb. 2, 1946.
“While traveling through the English Channel and passing the Cliffs of Dover, we were shot at continually,” Brother Johnson told his daughter. “I thought of how far I had come in a few short months. When we landed on the beaches in Normandy I [was] wishing I was back at home. I had never heard so many grown men call for their mothers. It was heart wrenching.”
His father had already sent sons off to the war, so feeling like he had done his part, he didn’t want any more of his boys going. His father tried talking him out of volunteering, but he was able to persuade his father and his mother to sign off for him to go, Brother Johnson said.
His father gave him a priesthood blessing before he left.
“He had given me that blessing so when I got to Normandy beachhead I said, ‘Heavenly Father, my father’s blessing needs to work, today I’m in a bad place,’” Brother Johnson said. “[In the blessing, my father] just said if I would do what was right and listen to my commanders and do what I’d been taught by the gospel, I’d have the blessing to return home. So that blessing worked.”
Being assigned to the 551 AAA anti-aircraft and automatic weapons battalion, Brother Johnson “went out in pup-tents and foxholes.
“If you weren’t scared, you weren’t praying — you were crazy,” Brother Johnson said.
He was injured only once during his service.
“I got one injury from shrapnel on my leg,” he said. “I refused to leave my unit to go get treated because I would not be assigned to the same group of fine young men. I took my chances and stayed with my unit.”
Sister Lollar said her father sent his entire paychecks home every month. “I think he was saying it was 12 dollars every month that he made to go do that, and he sent his entire check home every month to help his parents while he was gone,” she said.
Brother Johnson said the worst thing he’s ever seen was the German concentration camps. He remembers telling his wing commander “?‘Colonel, there’s no word in the English language that could explain what I’ve seen there.’?”
Brother Johnson married Olivia Gross on Aug. 9, 1946, and worked for the Air force for quite some time. He began his career at Brookley Air Force Base in Mobile County, Ala., was later transferred to Hill Air Force Base near Ogden, Utah, in 1967, and then to the Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi around 1973, according to Sister Lollar.
Along with his Legion of Honor medal, he received four bronze stars and a victory medal during the war.