Veteran receives achievement medal 60+ years after service

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A West Michigan veteran received a long overdue honor from the military Sunday.

But it's a medal and an honor he was supposed to receive more than six decades ago.

81-year-old John Johnson, a retired sergeant with the United States Marine Corps, served during the Korean War. Johnson was stationed at the Fleet Marine Force Marine Pacific Headquarters in what is now known as Hawaii.

During his six years of service, Johnson was a unit training officer tasked with making sure incoming marines knew how to swim and were physically prepared before heading off to battle.

“I was a lifeguard and so they had me teaching the guys swimming, everybody had to swim the length of the pool," Johnson said. “ It wasn’t easy, some guys couldn’t swim but they had to be sure they learned."

Johnson took his Marines from 70 percent readiness to 100 percent readiness across the board during his tenure, which is what earned him his distinction and the medal he consequently never received.

“I was written up for it back in 1954… but the Korean War had just ended and we just didn’t get around to presenting it," he said.

"Things fall through the cracks.”

But one day, a few months ago, the missing medal came up during a conversation Johnson was having with good friend Bill Schaefer, who also happens to be a retired Air Force veteran.

"I found out he was only wearing one ribbon and I said 'John you've served six years' and he said 'well I've got some paperwork' so he gave it to me and all of a sudden that's how we got this going," Schaefer said. "For 60 years it had been sitting stale."

After a few calls and emails with higher-ups and various connections Schaefer has at the Pentagon, it took just two months for the medal to be delivered to Grand Rapids.

“There’s veterans out there who have no clue of what their unit got after the war," he said.

Sunday, in a special ceremony at the Walter Durkee Post 311, Johnson was awarded his Navy and Marine Corps achievement medal. Johnson's close friend and longtime neighbor Jim Redford, a retired Navy captain presented his with the honor.

"As a sergeant of Marines he made his command better, he made his Marines better, so much so that he was nominated for this personal declaration," Redford said during the ceremony. "And 60 years down the road his declaration has been approved.”

Redford said of all the military branches, the Marine Corps is least likely to award personal achievement medals.

“So the fact that John Johnson, a sergeant of Marines is getting the achievement medal is a big deal," he said. "It’s an especially big deal when it’s 60 years later.”

Several of Johnson's family members were in attendance including his wife Jackie, some his own children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

“It’s amazing, all the time he was gone I thought he was over there sitting on the beach, watching the hula dancers," Jackie said chuckling.

“At least he’s around to appreciate and enjoy it, and he deserves it.”

Even despite the delay, Johnson said there are no hurt feelings.

Things happen," he said.  "I’m not mad at the Marine Corps a bit, things fall through the cracks."

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