Former Hampton resident 'thankful' he found best friend after Korean War

By Bob Robinson
Star Staff

   George W. "Billy" Johnson, formerly of Hampton, has much to be thankful for this time of year.
   He is thankful he received the Republic of Korea War Service Medal even though it came more than 50 years after he served in the Korean War.
   Until 1954, when Congress changed the law, U.S. servicemen were prohibited from wearing medals issued by foreign governments.
   The war began on June 25, 1950 when North Korean forces invaded Republic of Korea territory. The armistice on July 27, 1953, ended the fighting, although a formal peace treaty was never completed.
   In 1998, the Republic of Korea renewed its original offer to issue the medal. A year later, the U.S. Department of Defense approved the issuance of the medal to 1.8 million veterans and next of kin to eligible deceased veterans.
   A Veterans Request Form is available from the Carter County Veterans Affairs Office, Room 217, Carter County Courthouse, telephone 423/542-1824.
   Billy, who now lives in Plover, Wisc., 100 miles north of Madison, also holds the Purple Heart, Korean Service Medal with Bronze Campaign Star and United Nations Service Medal.
   Billy is also thankful that he found his best friend, Martin Whitehead, formerly of Dennis Cove, who now lives in Whitesburg, Ga., near Atlanta.
   The two 18-year-olds, after graduating from Hampton High School, joined the Tennessee National Guard and went to Fort Devens, Mass., for training.
   When they arrived in Korea, after being called to active duty, they were split up. Johnson was assigned to E Company, 1st Cavalry, 7th Regiment. Whitehead to F Company.
   "We were like brothers," Billy said. The two "best friends" would not see each other again until the 1960s when Billy found Martin living in Hampton. "Each thought the other one was dead," Billy said.
   Today, time and distance make it difficult for the two to travel to see each other in person. However, they talk, weekly, by phone.
   Billy relies on an artificial limb. "I don't like to sit down. I hope to stay out of a wheelchair," says Billy, who likes to go deer hunting and fishing.
   His left leg was amputated after he suffered shrapnel injuries on Oct. 4, 1951, in North Korea.
   "I heard it (mortar round) coming but I couldn't see it. It passed three guys and hit me, and I'm lucky to be here."
   Billy spent six days in a field hospital while doctors tried to save his leg. He received more than 25 pints of blood in the process.
   Within a week, he was moved to a military hospital at Fort Campbell, Ky., where he spent more than a year. He was discharged from military service in 1953.
   In 1967, Billy moved to Wisconsin, to join his two brothers, and went to work at Joern Furniture Plant, which made hospital beds and overnight tables. He retired from Joern with 15 years service.
   "The doctors said I needed to get off that concrete floor or I wouldn't be able to walk," Billy said.
   Two of his brothers have lived in the area since they got out of service. He has a son living in Plover and a daughter in Antigo, Wisc.
   The son of the late George and Libby Johnson of Hampton, Billy has three sisters, Faye Potter of Valley Forge, Joyce James of Hampton and Nancy Sluder of Elizabethton; and three brothers, Walter of Johnson City, Charlie of Custer, Wisc., and Robert of Plainfield, Wisc. Another brother, Joe, is deceased.
   Faye said the five boys and three girls in the Johnson family worked on the Bill Johnson farm, located on Dividing Ridge and on Buck Mountain. Their father worked at Pittsburgh Lumber Co. in Hampton.
   Martin has two brothers, Joe, who lives in Roan Mountain, and Dave, who lives in California; and two sisters, Hazel Oliver and Geneva Smalling, both of Watauga.
   Billy is proud of the medal he received that commemorates his military service in Korea. It brings back fond memories of his "best friend" Martin, and growing up in Hampton.