Robert “BJ” Johnson

7th Marine Regiment

1st Marine Division

U.S. Marine Corps

After graduating from Lincoln High School, in Tacoma, Washington, in 1948, I joined the Marine Reserves. I had been influenced by their reputation, plus I would have a chance for travel and a little extra cash from weekend drills.

It was 1950; I had a job, fiancée, car, and in general, was enjoying life. So, when my enlistment was up in May, I immediately re-enlisted for another tour. Then came June 25, 1950; the Korean War. I was among the Tacoma reservist unit that was activated in July.

On the morning of August 9, 1950, our train left the Tacoma Union Station heading south—for Camp Pendleton, California. Here we joined units from all across the United States for assignment. Needless to say, I was headed for Korea.

We sailed aboard troopships and due to a typhoon, the voyage was rough. A lot of heavy equipment broke loose, and many men experienced seasickness. After a short stop in Japan, we finally arrived in Korea.

During my tour in Korea, I wrote over three-hundred letters to my fiancée—now wife. These are excerpts from some of those letters.

Tacoma, Washington

August 9, 1950

Though I’m only about ten miles away from Tacoma, I’m writing already. Writing letters on a train is like threading a needle on a roller coaster....

Camp Pendleton, California

August 11, 1950,

We’re finally here. We arrived at 1:00 PM this afternoon...They put us in barracks temporarily, overnight I guess. Then we will be moved to our permanent ones...Gordy [brother-in-law] sleeps underneath me with his head under my feet...

Camp Pendleton, California

August 13, 1950,

...We had to sign up for insurance and get classified. I think I will be in Motor transport. I hope so anyway...Most everyone went to get a beer or two. I’m staying here and packing my sea bag so I’ll be ready to move out when the word comes...

Camp Pendleton, California

August 15, 1950,

Today is payday. Everybody got fifty dollars...Today they separated the guys with over a year and a half of reserve training from the rest. That’s a bad sign. Some of the reserves that arrived before we did already shipped out. I hope we aren’t next in line...

Camp Pendleton, California

August 16, 1950,

Damn! Another day and we’re still here...

Camp Pendleton, California

August 28, 1950,

Just finished washing clothes, not my own but someone else’s for a dollar. Good business... We’re expecting to leave any time, any day now. Just waiting for the word.

Camp Pendleton, California

August 29, 1950,

It’s 2:30 PM and I’m writing you now as I don’t think I’ll have time tonight. We were issued our 782 gear today, rifles, packs, rolls, etc....

Camp Pendleton, California

August 31, 1950,

We’re leaving tomorrow so am very busy packing all my gear. Tomorrow morning I will call you before I leave and tell you so long (not good-bye).

USS Bayfield

September 3, 1950,

Here I am, three days out and just getting time to write. It seems I just can’t get away from that darn mess duty. I seem to get elected every time...We’re on the USS Bayfield, heading toward the Far East, I guess. It’s suppose to take us fourteen days and sixteen nights, figure it out...I really heard some sad news the first day out. I was informed that my name wasn’t on the roster and I wasn’t supposed to be on the ship. It seems they gave me the wrong word and I was supposed to be transferred to an outfit in main camp but here I am, too late to turn back now. What a revolting development this turned out to be!

September 18, 1950,

It’s getting closer to K day all the time, about 48 hours from now. Everyone tries to put on that it’s nothing at all but they’re all scared. Including me.

Inchon, Korea

September 25, 1950,

I’m in motor transportation driving a jeep and am very busy. We are only about half a mile from the front lines and have to watch our for sniper fire. Life is really rugged over here. All there are is over sized cow trails and the dust is two feet deep on all of them. It’s awfully hot during the day (106 degrees) and gets down to about 34 degrees at night...We can’t sleep because of the enemy infiltrating so I’m very tired. So is everyone else. A few of the guys have been killed or injured all ready while out on patrols...

September 28, 1950,

I’ve been on the go for about 72 hours with only about four hours of sleep so am sort of tired. We’re only two miles from Seoul and the snipers are pretty thick here. Last night I was driving a jeep down to Inchon on the beach and the snipers pinned me, and my shotgun rider down for half an hour till a truck full of Marines came and helped us out. They put two bullet holes through my windshield and that was too close for comfort...

October 8, 1950,

Yesterday we arrived in Inchon, again, to get ready to board ships...I had a gook wash my clothes for me yesterday in exchange for chop chop (food)...

USS Pickaway

October 12, 1950,

We finally got aboard ship today. We are on the USS Pickaway, the same kind as the Bayfield...I had a hot shower and a cold one, shaved, and combed my hair and brushed my teeth, then I put on some clean clothes. So did everyone else and when we got through doing all these things, we hardly knew each other, as we looked so different...

October 13, 1950,

We’re still sitting out in the harbor, if you want to call it that.

At Sea

USS Pickaway

October 17, 1950,

Today we finally left Inchon. We left at 6 this morning and soon after found out our destination. It is Wonson, on the east coast of North Korea...We aren’t alone, as we are in the middle of close to a twenty ship convoy...the North Koreans send over a plane, or so, every once in awhile just to antagonize the Navy...

October 25, 1950,

We finally arrived at Wonson today but we arrived too late to start getting the troops off so I guess we’ll spend another night aboard...Is it ever cold over here. The sun was out all day but there’s a thirty mile an hour wind blowing and colder than h---, so I practically froze...The “Mighty Mo” is sitting right beside us—what a battleship! It makes this ship look like a rowboat. There are quite a few ships here, but it stands out like the Statue of Liberty. I wish I had a camera...

North Korea

October 27, 1950

I finally got off the ship about 2 PM and what a time we had! The landing boat couldn’t go all the way to the beach so we had to drive our jeep through the water and we didn’t quite make it. The water was a little too deep and we sank. There we sat with our heads above water. I got out of the jeep and hooked a cable on the jeep to an amtrak and he pulled us out. I practically froze as it was about 32 degrees and I had to stay in the wet clothes for a couple of hours...I had to stand guard by myself last night. Now I have a good cold. Worse than that we’re moving 90 miles north earlier this afternoon or tomorrow, so it’ll be colder yet...

November 2, 1950

...We’re getting into the mountains now and colder all the time...Since we’re just a few miles from the front (60 miles from the Manchurian border) we can’t have any lights or fires after dusk...

November 6, 1950,

...The enemy had our CP zeroed in with mortar and artillery all night long and really raised hell around here. We lost two jeeps and three trucks but luckily no men were hurt...

November 9, 1950,

...The 7th Regiment is getting ready for a big push in the next few days, eighteen trucks and a lot of heavy artillery are coming up today. Our object is to take a large reservoir about 10 miles from where we are now and being in the mountains we need a little support since the Chinese are a lot better equipped than the North Koreans...

November 16, 1950,

It’s been so cold it’s been impossible to write, 20 degrees below zero at night and never warmer than 20 degrees above during the day. The fellows were so cold they were crying. About 200 cases of frostbite turned into sickbay...are now at the southern tip of the reservoir...

During our withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir to Hungnam, I didn’t write Arlee any letters. Due to the daily, intense fighting there wasn’t any time to write, let alone get any mail. Even if there had been time to write, it would have been impossible to hold a pin in the thirty below zero weather.


December 12, 1950,

…Right now we are at the seaport of Hungnam, about 20 miles from Hamhung. We are going aboard ships, I guess headed for Pusan...I got some sleep last night, the first in a long time, so now all I want is a shower and a change of clothes...It was worse than hell up there.

Pusan, Korea

December 14, 1950,

We arrived in Pusan early this morning...

Masan, Korea

December 17, 1950,

...Right now the 1st Division is so small they fed all of us in one mess hall...Maybe the 2nd Division will relieve us, they are in North Carolina, or at they least they were.

They say there’s 80,000 Marines there. 20,000 would take our place and still leave plenty. “Dug out Doug” seems to want us to stay here tough.

Masan, Korea

January 2, 1951,

It looks like we are going to move up in a few days, about 150 miles...

Masan, Korea

January 17, 1951,

...This “police action” is like a football game. First one side pushes the other back, then the tide turns...Where we’re going the showers are just across the street and boy am I heading for that as soon as we get settled! I haven’t had a chance for a shower since we disembarked from the ship in Pusan. Taking a bath in a helmet is quite an ordeal...

January 20, 1951,

We heard today that everyone serving in Korea might get a fifty dollar a month bonus retroactive to when they arrived over here...

February 14, 1951,

...We may be moving north in a short time either to Pusan or Pyongyang...

February 17, 1951,

Just finished filling out my 1950 tax return...

March 23, 1951,

...Last night one of the larger buildings here in camp burned and we were ordered to get up before three AM and standby in case it spread to other buildings as a bush wind was blowing and the gasoline dump is right beside where we sleep. It was raining sparks but we covered all the gas with large tarps and doused them in water so nothing happened. We stayed up the rest of the night and worked all day (that terrible word) removing the mess where the building stood...

April 10, 1951,

...You asked if I knew anything about what happened to Norman Johnson [buddy from home]. We’re not supposed to write anything about what happened to anyone over here, but the letters aren’t censored. As far as I know he’s missing in action. He was in the infantry when we were trapped up north and no one saw him after we got out. He was either killed or captured as far as I know...This is just between you and me.

Pusan, Korea

May 4, 1951,

I’ve been here about six hours and I’m ready to go back to Masan. This place is located just south of the refuse dump and there is a strong wind blowing from the north. What a terrible odor! The natural smell of Korea is bad enough but this is worse...

Masan, Korea

May 17, 1951,

...The middle of May and again I, with everyone else, starts hoping they’ll make the June draft...But the odds are greatly increased on being selected as now there remains only six-thousand of the original division over here and there will be around three-thousand leaving in June.

May 21, 1951,

...Today’s the twenty-first—exactly eight months in this place, much too long...

July 2, 1951,

Looks like the communists are going to cooperate this time on a cease fire in Korea. Talks start next week, between the 10th and 15th of July...

July 29, 1951,

I thought I was in rear-echelon...far from the fighting front. Well, after last night I’m wondering. We had an attack by communist guerrillas, around a hundred of them. It didn’t last long but while it lasted, rounds were flying all over the place...

August 28, 1951,

Remember that poem I finished my last letter with? I guess it paid off cause I’m not sweating it out any longer—I made the list!...

September 4, 1951,

Here I am in Pusan, here for the last time! I’m not going to have tears in my eyes when I have to leave here...We’re going on the USS General Mitchell, a large troopship...

USS Mitchell

September 20, 1951,

We’re out here somewhere close to San Francisco but we can’t tell, we’re in a dense fog. The fog is so thick you can’t see from one end of the ship to the other. Scuttlebutt has us close to the Farallone Islands, not too far from the entrance to San Francisco Bay. We know land is close because we can smell it and there are more seagulls flying around. Everyone has a bet down as to when we’ll land. I’m on deck like everyone else waiting in anticipation of seeing something.

I just looked up and there was the bottom of the Golden Gate Bridge.

I’m home!

I’ll call you collect as soon as I can get to a phone.

Thank goodness, Arlee’s sister—Barbara—worked for the phone company and she was able to get us a 50 percent discount. So, for the next fourteen days our bill came to seventy dollars. I stayed in San Francisco until the 3rd of October, so in the meantime my aunt and uncle wined and dined me. They even took me to the Stanford homecoming football game against California.

I left San Francisco on the 3rd of October, and arrived in Tacoma the following afternoon. Standing in the same place where Arlee and I said our goodbyes in August of 1950—stood Arlee. What a joyous homecoming!

On October 20, 1951, Arlee Curtice and I were married.

I was separated from active service on February 19, 1952, and received my final discharge from inactive service on July 18, 1958.

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