Behind the scenes: The amazing story of Johnnie Johnson

January 22, 2014 

He sat there with a group of men who understood what he had been through. It was 1995. Wayne “Johnnie” Johnson was at a reunion breakfast for prisoner of war survivors of the Korean War who had been under the horrific command of a North Korean Army major who was called “The Tiger.” The men who were captured and lived under the Tiger’s command were known as the Tiger Survivors.

Pfc. Johnson had been captured at the very beginning of the Korean War in July 1950. He was 18. Johnson was a scout for L Company, 21st Infantry Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division. After being captured, he was sent to POW camps in the northern part of North Korea. The winters there were brutal as were the extremely harsh living conditions, and then there was the merciless treatment from the North Korean military. Only 41 percent of The Tiger’s prisoners lived to tell their story of being a POW.

During the breakfast of Tiger Survivors, a topic came up about what had happened to a certain soldier during their captivity. There was some discussion, and Johnson sat quietly but then spoke. He proceeded to explain that he knew what happened to the soldier. He had written it down. What unfolded next was beyond anybody’s imagination. Johnson had written down about 500 names of fallen comrades during his imprisonment. He not only wrote down names, but he also recorded rank, Army unit, date of death and hometown.

Remember, Johnson was just 18 years old. He later said he felt the soldiers’ families would want to know when and where they died. How did he accomplish this huge task under the terrible conditions under which he lived during the war? Why was it some 40 years later that he revealed what he had done?

Johnson took it upon himself to steal little pieces of paper and little pencils from his captors. Every time someone died, he wrote it down as small as he could. He hid the papers, so they could not be found. However, one day a guard did find the list, and Johnson was beaten and told never to do it again. The list was destroyed. Little did the captors know Johnson had made a second copy, so the information on the list was saved.

He kept up his list until the end of the war when the Red Cross issued the soon-to-be-released prisoners some toiletries for their trip back to the U.S. Fearful that his list would be found and confiscated before he could get out of the country, Johnson took the toothpaste tube he had been issued, cleaned it out and hid his list inside. It was finally safe.

Upon getting back to the U.S., he reported the list to his debriefing officer. No one seemed interested in the list at that time, so he just kept it safe.

At the breakfast, his fellow veterans were astounded, and this time the list was of great interest because so many families still did not know what had happened to their Korean War soldier, when they died and where their final remains might have been laid.

Some of the writing on the lists, after all those years, had faded. The lists were sent to a lab for help in possibly retrieving some of the information. Much of the information Johnson had written down was able to be copied.

It was not long after this wonderful discovery that Johnson was awarded the Silver Star for his “courage and selfless determination to provide a record of deceased soldiers, even in the face of death by a hostile enemy,” according to the commendation letter.

With the publication of the names on Johnson’s lists, many families finally had closure to what had happened to their loved one. That miracle was one that the families thought would never come.

Last summer, I wrote a story about Larry Zellers, a Methodist missionary, who was captured at the beginning of the Korean War. Zellers knew Johnson. Zellers was one of the people who helped Johnson get his story told.

Marilyn N. Windham, of Fort Valley, is a volunteer at the Museum of Aviation. Contact her at

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