(CN) — War stories seldom have happy endings. But 47 years after Herman Johnson died in the arms of his best friend in a firefight in Vietnam, Fred found out that Herman is alive. And on Sunday, July 10, after a furious battle with the Army, Fred Rivera will see Herman get his long-delayed Purple Heart in a ceremony at The Wall.
“It was 1969, the 20th of August. We got in a firefight early that day, for hours. We were in a hot area. At about 10 minutes to 5 I heard rockets coming in, boom! I got hit. And I died. I believe I did. I really do. I still have the shrapnel in the back of my head,” Johnson said in an interview with Courthouse News this week.
“I was 20 years old. I was nothing but a baby.”
When Johnson woke up, “I had a tag on me. I didn’t get Medevacked or nothing. I guess I was still a breather. When I woke up, I looked up and I thought I was in heaven. And they put me right back on my gun.”
Herman’s best friend Fred had held Herman in his arms and watched him bleed through the head until the medics took Herman away. Herman and Fred never saw each other again.
“See, he’s Mexican and I’m black,” Johnson said. “He was my brother over there. Back in those days there was so much prejudice. But we clicked. For 47 years this man been worried about me, and I worried about him, cause I didn’t know what happened.”
Throughout those 47 years, Rivera said, “He’s looked at my picture every day and I’ve looked at his picture every day.”
When the battle ended, the black guys in the platoon braided Herman’s leather bootlaces into a bracelet and gave it to Fred. Fred has worn that bracelet for 47 years.
Fred told the story in his book, “Raw Man,” a lightly fictionalized novel about his days in Vietnam. “Everything in that book is true, man,” Johnson said.
Rivera and Johnson came home from Vietnam separately in 1970, Herman to Detroit and Fred to Los Angeles. Fred overcame his demons — or held them off — by helping other Vietnam vets with post-traumatic stress, by holding down a job, raising a family, playing in a blues band — living his life.
So the years passed.
In March this year, an Iraq war veteran went to The Wall to take a rubbing of Herman’s name, as a gift for Fred to hang on his wall next to Herman’s picture.
But Herman’s name wasn’t there.
So Sgt. John Marek enlisted other veterans to track him down. They found an address outside Detroit, but Herman wasn’t home. So the veterans staked out his home. And they found him. And Sgt. Marek called Fred.
“I’ve never spoken with a man that happy in my life,” Marek wrote in a May 12 letter submitted with Fred’s request for the Army to give Herman his Purple Heart.
“This is simply a story of two best friends, forged in war, and separated by tragedy. Both men lived 47 years with their own demons from the Vietnam War, both believing that the other was dead. This is a great moment for the United States Army, and to me, something good that came out of such a tragic and senseless war.”
Back in Vietnam, Herman had fired a .60-caliber machine-gun inches over Fred’s head. They trusted each other.
“I can’t even tell you about that,” Johnson said. “That’s between me and Fred.”
Herman served 10 months and 18 days in Vietnam, “and then I got Medevacked out cause I got hepatitis.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs has classified both Herman and Fred as 100 percent disabled, from the same rocket that blew both of them out of their track that day.
“I got diabetes and that’s part of Agent Orange,” Herman said. “I lost some of my fingertips, and that’s part of Agent Orange.”
Herman learned that Fred was alive when he got a registered letter in March.
“I opened up the letter and I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ And I bawled. I saw a picture of me and Fred and the Doc and I bawled.’ I talked to Fred this morning. Fred is a beautiful man. A genius. A bass player.”
Fred and Herman have spoken on the phone almost every day for three months, but still haven’t seen one another since that long-ago day they both thought the other had died.
It’s not easy to get the Army turned around for one man who was blown off his track in the Parrot’s Beak in Vietnam. That’s where this becomes equal parts rage and love story.
The last person to deny Fred’s request for Herman’s Purple Heart, a chief warrant officer in the Decorations Branch of the Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Kentucky, didn’t have enough paperwork.
Cruel irony: Herman had been through Basic Training at Fort Knox, which stamped his papers for Vietnam, but wouldn’t stamp the papers for his Purple Heart — though Herman still has shrapnel in his brain.
So Fred collected paper.
He sent the Army its own Aug. 20, 1969, Field Medical Card on Herman’s head wound.
He tracked down his company’s senior combat medic — now a doctor in New Mexico — who treated Herman for his head wound that day, and was awarded a Purple Heart himself.
Dr. Barry Beaven wrote a letter to the Army, stating: “I have every reason to believe that Mr. Johnson merits the award of the Purple Heart for his combat wound.”
Fred called Herman’s congressman, Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, Mich., and told him the story. On May 19 Levin wrote to the Army and asked it to give Herman his Purple Heart.
Fred sent all these documents to the Army, and others, all of which show that Herman Johnson, 68 years old, still suffering from his combat wounds, deserves a Purple Heart.
But as of Thursday morning, June 30, the Army was still refusing.
On Wednesday this week, Congressmen Levin said in a statement: “While I am disappointed for Mr. Johnson, this does not take away from his service — which was with honor and distinction. I am deeply honored to have the chance to serve as his representative, and our country owes him a debt of gratitude for his sacrifice. I will continue to seek official recognition for his service.”
Herman said Wednesday: “What I don’t understand is this one warrant officer. I don’t understand her. I’ve got all the paperwork. You’ve seen it. I don’t understand why she don’t want to give me my Purple Heart. I don’t understand that.”
But Fred understood that it wasn’t the chief warrant officer’s fault. It wasn’t her call. She was just doing her job, and she needed more paper.
As an Army veteran, Fred knew his last hope was to pull rank.
So he got in touch with a retired three-star general, through the 11th Armored Cavalry’s Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia — the Blackhorse. And late Thursday morning, the Army told Congressman Levin’s office that it had approved and would expedite shipment of Herman Johnson’s medal of the Purple Heart.
The man who pulled rank is Lt. Gen. Guy C. Swan III, Ret., who told Courthouse News he “would be honored to present him with his long-overdue award, wherever or whenever that may be.”
Here’s the kicker.
Herman doesn’t know yet that he’s getting a Purple Heart. He thinks he’s getting a combat pin.
The last word from Johnson: “All I want to do is hold Fred in my arms and shed a few tears.”
The last word from Rivera: “Don’t tell Herman.”
The secret will be out at 10 a.m. Sunday, July 10, when Fred will see his friend Herman get his Purple Heart, in recognition of that horrible day in Vietnam, 47 years ago.
Then Herman and his “brother from another mother” will hold each other again, and talk about that day 47 years ago — and all the days in between.
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