Robert Llyod Johnson was born in Browning, IL, the son of a proud and industrious farmer. His early education was the product of a one room schoolhouse. As valedictorian of his high school class, he set his sites on service to his country: attending Marion Institute in Alabama in preparation for West Point.
There was no doubt in his mind that he was devoted to become an infantryman. When he graduated in the top third of his class at West Point, his choice of branch was set. He married Giugi Gagliano of New York City on December 1951 upon completion the of jump school. After basic training at Ft. Benning, he chose Airborne Infantry with the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg. He spent six months in the 505 PIR, then fought with the Second Division, Ninth Infantry Regiment, in Korea. He was in command of L Company when an intense overnight battle on Mar 17, 1953 ensued, leaving only twelve men to walk off the hill at daybreak by their own strength. All others were either killed or wounded.
Bob was seriously wounded in the skirmish and evacuated through Tokyo to Letterman Army Hospital at the Presidio in San Francisco. He endured two amputations on the same leg, necessitating a year of rehabilitation. He was not one to take what came his way as remarkable and took life in stride. Indeed, astride a mischievous sense of humor and acceptance! His classmate, Henry Often, who lost his right leg., and he, became “cause celebre” when they entertained the staff with antics, like marching in step wearing red knee socks, as they learned to maneuver in their new prostheses. Later, they gathered neighbors’ children to watch them crack nuts with, and drive tacks into their wooden legs. Bob could pivot his lower leg up from the knee joint and balance a glass atop the sole of his shoe. At a pub in Ireland, he was the star of the show when he balanced his Guinness to the astonishment of the entire assembled group.
Bob was fortunate to remain on active duty, making him the first above-the-knee amputee since the Civil War to do so. He returned to West Point to teach in the Math Department, and was then was assigned to Ft. Benning for the Advanced Course. At the University of Arizona, he earned graduate degrees in Aerospace Engineering and Aerospace Physics. When a classmate asked him why he chose those studies, he said, “After teaching plebe math to cadets in the 24th section for four years, you can do anything.” (He also said that though few graduated, those who did were a credit to the Academy.)
At Ft. Bliss, he was assigned to the Air Defense Development Agency, where he worked on the Patriot anti-aircraft and antimissile systems and worked on improving the Hawk systems. He remarked that, “It was an odd but challenging world for a onelegged Infantry Officer.” A relaxing year at Ft. Leavenworth Command & General Staff College was followed by a move with the family to Melbourne, Australia. There, he completed a three year tour as Research and Development Liaison Offi cer, to the Quadripartite Standardization Group attached to the Department of Supply.
Returning to CONUS, he served a year with the Office, Research and Development at the Pentagon. After this, he took command of a training battalion at Ft. Leonard Wood. In Vietnam, he served with the Army Concepts Team at Long Binh, followed by an assignment as Deputy Chief of Staff, Theater Army Support Command, Worms, Germany. Finally, he commanded the NATO Support Activity, in Brussels, Belgium, until his retirement in 1975.
As a retired officer, he accepted the role of Honorary Colonel of the Ninth Infantry Manchu Regiment, which brought him close, once more, to his Korean War comrades.
Along with his wife, Giugi, and four children, Fabienne, Enid, (born at West Point), Peter, and Robert Jr, he returned to his roots and worked as Director of Development at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, IL, and at St. Jude's Home for physically challenged children. As a proud Anglican, he founded St. Clare’s Mission in his home town of Rushville.
Bob had the mind of a scientist and the soul of a romantic. He loved poetry and would gather his family to read from the works of one of his favorite poets, James Whitcomb Riley. These sessions instilled in them a sense of things beyond the common, daily world.
He died at home, surrounded by his extended family, who read from Scripture at his bedside. At the last, he reminded his daughters that his 56th wedding anniversary was fours days away and asked that a dozen roses be sent to Giugi, and every year thereafter, as he had done over the years. His wish was granted! His official record says that he died of combat related causes due to tainted blood administered when he lost his leg.
He was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery in the pouring rain. It has been observed that, “It is befitting an Infantryman to say farewell in rain and mud.” He now stands, an extraordinary man among many, in the Long Gray Line, on two legs.
Henry Van Dyke wrote, “There is only one way to get ready for immortality and that is to love life and live it bravely, faithfully and cheerfully, as few can.” That describes Bob’s life as a follower of his Savior Jesus. Bob is survived by his wife Giugi, four children, their spouses, ten grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren.
—The Family & George Gardes (classmates)
- Mrs. Joseph H. Meyer