Skip Navigation and Jump to Page Content    The Library of Congress >> American Folklife Center  
Veterans History Project (Library of Congress) ABOUT  
SEARCH/BROWSE  
HELP  
COPYRIGHT  
Home » Text Transcript

Interview with Charley Johnson [11/4/2016]

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

This is Julie Pearson-Little Thunder. Today is Friday, November 4. I'm in Bixby, Oklahoma, interviewing Charley [Johnson]. Charley, you're Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw, a member of the 1964 class at Chilocco. You also served in the Army from '65 through '68 with the 134th Quartermaster Company in Vietnam in the 82nd Airborne. We're going to talk about your Chilocco school memories, your experiences in the service, and your present-day involvement with veterans and Chilocco. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

Charley Johnson:

Thank you.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

Charley Johnson:

I was born in Talihina, Oklahoma, in 1945, December 15. I grew up in Hughes County at Calvin, Oklahoma. Up until the eighth grade, we lived there at Calvin. Up until the sixth grade we lived out in the country. We lived on some land we owned. Then we moved to town when my younger brother started school. After sixth grade, we moved into the city of Calvin.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Okay, what did your mother and father do for a living?

Charley Johnson:

They're both deceased now, but Dad was a retired section hand off the railroad. Mom was a homemaker. I think they've been gone probably pretty close to--Dad's been gone about twenty years now.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

How about brothers and sisters?

Charley Johnson:

Well, there were six boys and two girls. I'm the second youngest. My younger brother passed away about six, seven years ago. He had Agent Orange from Vietnam, and we lost him back then. My older brothers and sisters are retired, and they're still living. They're in their late seventies and eighties, early eighties now, but we're still kicking.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Kind of spread it out. (Laughs) You're Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw. What side of the family--what tribal influence do you think was more dominant as you were growing up?

Charley Johnson:

It was definitely the Creeks. Like I said, my dad was a full blood Cherokee, and somehow to this day...I can't get the true story of how he ended up down in Creek country. I think I've heard stories that he got adopted by this one family, but he learned to speak the Creek language fluently. I grew up basically around the Baptist Church down in Talihina, the [inaudible] Indian Baptist Church. That's where I grew up, around that, with my cousins and stuff. That was most of my upbringing there.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Did you have grandparents on your mom's side?

Charley Johnson:

No. Well, I did. Only one, and I wasn't close to him. The only one I was close was to my grandpa just a little, but it wasn't really.... He was really up in age, and we really didn't get to know him. He was a preacher, and he didn't really associate with us, the younger children. At times, we'd sit around there at campouts, and the only thing we did was we'd go tell him when it was time to eat, and he'd come in, stuff like that. As far as, you know, really getting out and getting to know us, he never did. We never really did get to know him. Like I said, he was just up in age then.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Yeah, it makes a difference.

Charley Johnson:

Yeah, it does.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

So how did you end up going to school at Chilocco?

Charley Johnson:

That was kind of weird because what happened was I didn't make no plans to go to Chilocco. I was in my junior year, probably about middle of the first six weeks. I just come home from school on a Friday, and my mother and dad said, "Pack your bags. You're going to Chilocco." What I found out later was my older brother who was in the service in the Navy, he was having his first child, and he was sending his wife back to live with Mom and Dad. They had to make room in the house for her and her two kids and her new arriving baby, child, so they had to ship me out to make room for them. That's how I ended up.... Somehow, they arranged it, which I'm glad they did, you know. That was one sad part about it that I found out years later that really hit me hard, and my mother didn't tell me this until years later. She said, "Your younger brother David--" he and I were the only ones that were at home. She said he cried for three nights because his older brother was gone. He didn't have no brothers at home. That really hit me hard. It really kind of scared me, too, because I was really glad to go to Chilocco. I mean I loved it there. I wish I could've went four years. I really do. I've often thought about it. It was a great experience. I just regret that I never did get to spend four years there. I was happy I got to go two years, you know. It was fun, really was. I enjoyed it a great deal.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Moving out, it's a big change, though, moving from a small public school.

Charley Johnson:

It wasn't a public school. I was at Henryetta going to that big...

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Oh, you were at Henryetta.

Charley Johnson:

...school. See, when we moved from Calvin, we went to Henryetta when I was in the eighth grade. Went there a year. Then we moved up to Adair, north of Pryor, for a year in my ninth grade, which was a really good school. It was a small country school. I found out there was a difference between the bigger schools and the smaller schools and the way you were treated. I'd never seen that before, but I seen it at Henryetta. That was the really first time I come into that environment where different classes of people are...and you were over here off the tracks. Now, this was not only Indians, but it was the lower class of whites, too. The ones that was the more fluent ones, they stuck to themselves.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

This was in the smaller schools?

Charley Johnson:

No, it wasn't in the smaller schools. It was in the bigger schools. The smaller schools, boy, everybody was the same. The ones that were really smart and the smaller school at Adair, they were just as friendly as get out. I couldn't believe it. They treat you nice and everything, just like you was a brother. It was a fun time at Adair.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

But it was that class system in those...

Charley Johnson:

Bigger schools.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

...bigger schools.

Charley Johnson:

Correct, the boys and the girls. They stuck to themselves. Oh, they'd occasionally talk to you, but, no, not very much. They'd ignore you. It was tough to take. When I went to Chilocco, it was a total different thing. I mean everybody just, "Hey, you're an Indian." Just talk to you and go. Never had any problems there.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Can you remember your first couple days there?

Charley Johnson:

Yeah, I had a cousin, Jerry Walker. He passed away about two months ago. He was up there. I had my brother's future wife up there. She was a grade ahead of me, Ida Jane McCoy. They helped me get around, because I happened to know somebody up there. Jerry, I seen him that Saturday when I got up there, and he asked me, "What are you doing here?" I said, "I don't know. I was just told to come up. I'm going to Chilocco. I'm here." "Okay, well, if you need anything let me know." (Laughter) He treated me like a brother. He eventually told me later on, he said, "I just kind of let you go on your own and find your own group to run around with. I didn't try to say, 'You can run around with us,' or something." He was really good about it. He come up to me later, and he said, "Don't worry about anybody bothering you. They ain't going to bother you," which made me feel good, like I had a big brother watching over me. That made me feel good because I didn't know any of those people. I just knew them by name from looking in my brother's annual. I didn't know, but they turned out to be some really good people up there. I got to be friends with a student that was ahead of me. I can't remember his name. He was from Nevada, but he had been in reform school. ... Well, I ran around with two seniors who was with this one Florida Indian. He and I become real good friends. Then I met his friend who was from Nevada. He was out of reform school, and he was a real friendly guy. You couldn't ask for a.... We become friends, you know, and I never did see him get into any kind of trouble or anything like that. He was just one of those guys that really--you treated him right; he'd treat you right. That's what I liked about Chilocco. There was different Indians from all over the place. We were just Indians, and that was the good part about it.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

What building did you stay in?

Charley Johnson:

Home Six.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

And did you work part of the time? Did you have a...

Charley Johnson:

No, I just got to, when I was there...they assigned you. Everybody went through it. You got assigned a detail, not every week, every time. You knew it was coming when you was going to end up working the chow. Everybody did that. That was just part of it. I accepted it. There were some deals that you did the chores around, the cleaning and the stuff in the building. That was your detail. Everybody did it. Then the part about doing your own laundry and ironing and stuff, that came with the territory. That helped me go on my own. To this day, I still iron my clothes. I don't mind doing it. That's the way I was. I accepted it. It was a good part. I knew some Indians that were from Henryetta that went up there before I did. They come home when I went up there. I didn't get to see them up there, and when they got back to Henryetta they complained. "Oh, you have to wash your own clothes and iron them and stuff." They didn't like it up there. They had a mom and dad. Well, they didn't have a father, but their mom did all that for them. It didn't bother me.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Learned some good skills.

Charley Johnson:

Yeah.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Who were one or two of the outstanding teachers or classes that you had up there?

Charley Johnson:

There was a chemistry teacher that he would.... I cannot remember his name. He had a good sense of humor about teaching that chemistry class because we had it right after lunch. We'd go there and was going to sleep, and he'd mix up ammonia or whatever it was to make the room smell like a rotten egg. It'd wake us up. (Laughter) I think it was--Pauletta, wasn't that chemistry teacher named [Walter] Owsley? Pauletta

Charley Johnson:

Yes.

Charley Johnson:

Yeah, that was it. Mr. Owsley. I remember him most of all. Then I guess you could say probably Coach [Kenneth] Moore. There's one thing he did. I was really looking forward to lettering. I had the time in to letter. I was looking forward to getting my coat. During my junior and senior year, I worked in Oklahoma City, and I didn't go home to see my mom and dad, (I went back to Chilocco) which I should have. I'd been up there, I don't know, a month, and Mom wrote me a letter. She said, "We sure missed you." Boy, that hit me the wrong way. ... Tears come to my eyes. Shoot, I went AWOL to come home and visit Mom and Dad. Friend of mine came with me. I came home to see them. Then when I come back, we was electing positions, officers, for the football team. I got elected for one, and Coach Moore said, "Charley

Charley Johnson:

is not eligible to be that because he went AWOL on y'all." I got knocked out of all that, the honors. He took me out of that. I always wanted to explain to him before he passed away what had happened that made me forced to go. I was going to tell him that I didn't do that really intentionally. It was the fact how my mother had written that letter. I felt like I needed to go home and see them, and that's the reason I went AWOL that time. I was glad to see them, and it meant a lot to me.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

That's hard. Was there another kind of disciplinary action they took, too?

Charley Johnson:

Yeah, this was kind of.... It's kind of funny the way I think about it now. See, the Navajos and the other tribes kind of stuck to theirselves. We had a couple of Navajo boys that roomed with us. There were six of us in that room. ... No, there was five of us in that room, and two of them were Navajos. We'd never been around Navajos. We got to know them pretty good. This one, [Albert] Adakai had went to town. This was about three weeks, three or four weeks, before school was out in my senior year. We was supposed to graduate. Albert went to town on weekends and got some beer and brought it back that evening. Come running in there in the room, and he said, "Hey, y'all want a beer?" "Sure! We'll take one." There's four of us there, me and another senior and my two roommates. We was standing there, we popped the lid open, and we was going to go like that. Here comes Mrs. [June] Kirkland in there, just as funny as all get out. We was getting ready to drink our beer, and she walks in. "What do y'all got there?" We stuck them behind our back, acted like.... She caught us red-handed and took all our beer away. We never did get to drink it. Course, me and Jerry Barr almost got kicked out of school. [Lee Roy] Bacon was the one who was over the boys' Home Six. He wanted to kick us out of school, but it was--oh, gosh, what's his name that was in charge of the National Guard? What's his name, Pauletta, that National Guard officer? P.

Charley Johnson:

Gregory?

Charley Johnson:

Yeah, Dee Gregory saved us. He said, "No, it's close to graduation. We'll just restrict them the rest of the year and let them graduate," which I'm very thankful he did. We missed out on a lot of things that the seniors do, like senior day and prom and like that. We couldn't go to none of those, and that meant a lot, too, when you're a senior. That hurt whenever they got to go down to senior day and Jerry and I stayed there. They gave us hours to work off. That really hurt. The senior day, when you were a senior, you looked forward to that. At least I did, the ones I hung around. I think everybody did because you went down there, all the seniors. They treated them and had different games and stuff. Like I said, I missed mine, and that was something that hurt. Course, I brought it up on myself. I had to suck it in. I'm just glad I got to graduate, and that meant a lot there, too. Course, Jerry did, too. We both went through that. We knew better, but we took the chance and come mighty close to getting kicked out. That was the scariest part.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

I bet. How about your awareness of the National Guard there. Were you involved with that at all?

Charley Johnson:

No, I had no....

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

But were you aware of their presence?

Charley Johnson:

Oh, yeah, my brother joined that whenever he was up there. I had no desire really to go into the military. If the draft didn't come along, I wasn't going to go in. I had all my brothers, my four older brothers, went into the military, and there was four of us went to Vietnam out of six. One made a career out of the Navy. He stayed in there over twenty years. I wasn't going to go in. I was determined to find me a job and stay out and work. That was my goal.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Let's back it up to when you graduated from Chilocco. Did you find a--what kinds of jobs did you.... What was your, I guess, what did you kind of focus on, too, when you were there, in terms of studies?

Charley Johnson:

I didn't have a vocation at Chilocco. They stuck my in regular, the pre-college classes. Course, those kids in there were way ahead of me. Since I was in there I said, "I just want to get my credits to graduate, and...after that I'll go into what I want." I had no desire to go to college because I knew I didn't have the grades to do it, but I could go to a trade school, which I eventually did. I had a summer job that I had worked at between my junior and senior year at Oklahoma City with this oil company that I had made myself known to them during the summer, and they gave me a summer job. They told me, "Whenever you graduate, if you need a job, come back. You're welcome to come back." I think we graduated on probably about a Monday, and Thursday I was back to work. I had me a job waiting on me, and I went right back to work. That gave me a time to really look at and grow on my own and look at things in the future, as far as schooling and money-wise, how am I going to pay for my family.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Because you and Paulette had already gotten married.

Charley Johnson:

No, me and Pauletta were nothing. We didn't date at Chilocco; we just knew who each other was. What happened after I left Chilocco was I went back to work at that oil company in Oklahoma City. I got to see how some of the men that were working with me were making a dollar--the highest I made was $1.30 an hour. I said, "These men, a few of them, are making the same thing I am, and the foreman is making $1.55, $1.60 an hour. He's living with his mother. He's not married. I don't know how those fellows are making it. They got a car, they got a home, and they got kids. I'm making $1.30 an hour. I'm by myself, and I know after I pay on bills I just got about twenty-five dollars left for entertainment, to eat on." That really sunk in my head more. I said, "You've got to find a job that pays, or learn a trade." I told my mother about that. "Go to Okmulgee and see if you can't get me on relocation somewhere to learn a trade." They sent me to--I tried everywhere, go out to Denver, LA, Chicago, Dallas, and all of them was full. They said, "Well, we've got a place in Cleveland, Ohio." I said, "I'll go," without hesitation. I was there one year up there at Oklahoma City after I graduated, and I went to Cleveland, Ohio. They put me in welding school there. I went to Lincoln Electric. I found out that there was a lot of Indians there that they sent to that school. That was the number one place to go. It was good. I had some roommates. I was rooming with some Indians that were further ahead of me and some of them that had graduated from there. This one Chippewa Indian from Michigan, he was, gosh, I couldn't believe.... He was at a union job, and he was making, my gosh, he was making, I think about probably at the time, twelve dollars an hour. Back then...

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

That's great money.

Charley Johnson:

...that was a lot of money. Wow! I said, "That's what I want to do." Then you can live on it. See, whenever I finally got out of there, they had to find you a job, too, the Indian department up there. I went through there and got out of that. Me and this one guy roomed together, this Navajo. He came there after I did. He went out after I graduated, and I was working. We saw that yellow envelope in the mailbox, and we knew what it was. At first we didn't know whose it.... It was his. It was from the Selective Service, "Come for your...." He was a, I think, 4-F or something like that where he didn't have to serve. About two weeks later another one showed up, and we knew who that one was for. I got notice to come down to the Selective Service Board there in Cleveland and take my physical and everything, which I did. I'd been working, and they told me. I guess this was in about August, and I asked, "How long will it be before I get there?" They said, "Probably about four or five months." "Okay." I worked another two months, and I told them, "I'm going to be drafted." I was getting paid (this was a non-union job) almost five dollars an hour. I was working night shift. I still was wanting to shoot for that union job, but I knew I had to get some experience. I was just using that as a.... I said, "I'll work here a year, then try out for those union jobs," but it never happened. I told them I had to quit because, "I'm going back home because I'm going to be drafted." I came back home in early November. I contacted the Selective Service in Okmulgee and asked them when I was going to be drafted. They said, "You're going to be drafted next month in December," so I enlisted for three years to get out of being in the infantry. My goodness, I almost ended up being in it anyway. (Laughs)

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Wow. So when you enlisted, where did they send you for boot camp?

Charley Johnson:

They sent me to Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Had you ever been out that way?

Charley Johnson:

No, I'd never been down to Louisiana that way. After I went into the military, that was an eye-opener for me. It helped me again like Chilocco did. It gave me confidence that I could go out into this society and compete with those guys. I said, "I can compete with them." I felt like I could go out and earn a job. Just give me the chance, and I felt like I could. There was an incident that happened after I came back from Vietnam. When I got out of basic training at Fort Polk, I got sent to Fort Leonard Wood at Missouri for combat engineer training. We was supposed to go to jump school. There was probably about forty or fifty of us supposed to went straight to jump school out there. There was some of us, and I was in that group that went from there, straight to Vietnam. I didn't go to a engineer company; I went to a Quartermaster company. That's the way the Army is. They'll send you where you're needed. I didn't know nothing about the Quartermaster company, what was going on. Anyway, after I served there a year, then I come back. There was an incident that happened when I was in jump school that really made me feel good. We had a group of Air Force cadets in our jump class with us. There was probably about twenty of them. I don't know what exactly it was that caused them to do it, but I was the only E-4 in that class. There were two other staff sergeants in that class with us going through there. They had been advisors over in Vietnam, and they was going through it. We had finished our training for the day, and we was back at camp. We was standing at attention or something, and every one of them come by me and shook my hand. I don't know what for, but they all did. I'm going to tell you something. That's the first I've ever been around those cadets, and it made me feel good that we had those kind of men, young men, coming up. There's something special, those cadets. They got my respect. They were some good, outstanding young men, leaders. You could see it. They had that confidence. It made me feel good. They put me in charge of that platoon that I was in because I was a E-4 and I'd seen it done before. I never really was in charge of one. I was always the follower, but down there, they put me in charge. These two staff sergeants that had served in Vietnam, they was going to jump school. They called me off to the side one time back in our barracks, and they said, "

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Eighty-second Airborne.

Charley Johnson:

Yeah, I enjoyed that. My older brothers, two of them, had been in that unit, so for me to go there, too, it made me feel good.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Was there another training period, then, before you went overseas?

Charley Johnson:

You mean to Vietnam?

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Yeah.

Charley Johnson:

No, that was after I went to Fort Leonard Wood, combat engineer training. That's what I was trained as when I went to Vietnam. I went straight to that Quartermaster company.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Okay. Did you get some time to go back home before you shipped overseas?

Charley Johnson:

We got two weeks, two weeks home, a delay en route. Then we went to Oakland, depart there. There was one thing I did that a lot of other guys didn't do. I read stories about some men that did do it after they.... They kissed the ground before they left and when they come back. We was getting on that plane, I reached down and touched this ground. We flew over. Then when I got back, flew back, I reached down, and I touched this ground and said, "Thank you." I was glad to be back. It's something to me.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Now, your brother had been over to Vietnam, too, but you almost overlapped that year didn't you?

Charley Johnson:

What do you mean?

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

I think, was it Thomas who--did you have a brother who also served in Vietnam?

Charley Johnson:

Tom was there. See, I went there in May. Tom was already over there. He went over there in '65. He come back in August of '66. He got out. We never did.... I think he extended three months because they gave him a early out. We never did get to see each other or nothing like that.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

You didn't get to talk or see....

Charley Johnson:

No, I never did get to talk. There was no way we knew how to get a hold of each other, so we never did see each other. I wish I did. That's like I was telling Pauletta, that in this month's story of the battles in Vietnam, they had a story on that one where we was at, finally, where this LZ [landing zone] got overran. In December of '66. we was out in the field with the 1st Cavalry Division, and they got overran. A lot of soldiers got killed. We had to help them take care of them. There was what they called Grave Registration. They're the ones that take care of the killed in action. They were right next to our POL [petroleum, oil, lubricants]. We set up the field dump out in the...areas. We handled all the fuel. Their area was right next to ours. They was in the same support group that we were. When that battle took place and all those wounded and killed started coming in, it started on one day, (I remember when it started coming in) and then it continues all through the night and the next day. Those fellows that were working there, they started that day, taking care of those bodies. They had what they called reefer trailers where they'd freeze the bodies out in the field. Then they'd ship them on the plane down to--they'd take them to Saigon where they embalm them and everything. They have to tag them, get their name, dog tags, and they'll put it on a little card, and they put it on the body, tie it to the body. They had been doing that and taking off their equipment. They still had all their equipment on. Some of them still had their hand grenades on them. We had to take all that stuff off of them and tag their names and everything on it. There was a clerk there, and we had to tell him who it was and what his name. We didn't get into that until the next day, late evening. It had been going on the previous day, all night and then that next day. Our sergeant come to us, and he said, "Fellows, the Grave Registration guys have been working since yesterday. Those soldiers, all of them, got killed. They haven't had a chance to stop, sleep, eat." There was about five of us. He said, "I need some volunteers to go give them a relief. I want to warn you first. I've you've never been around this or seen any of this, it's going to shock you. I'm telling you now. If you can't stand it, nobody's not going to blame you. They'll understand." We said, "Okay." There was five of us that would go over there and help him. He said, "I need some volunteers to help give them a break so they can come over and eat and get some rest." We go over there, and we was walking around that one reefer barn, that one. As we're standing there, these two soldiers are putting some bodies in that reefer barn. We was looking at them, and of course when you're doing that those guys said, "What are y'all looking at?" Oh, boy, I knew...and he had a right to say that because you're going to look at it. The guy that was in charge of us, he said, "We were standing over here to relieve you fellows, to help you out and give you all help." He said, "Okay." Then he said, "Okay," told us to report to the sergeant over there in that tent. We go over there. As we walk across there, we're walking by those bodies. Oh, man, it shocked us. I threw up; I started getting sick. They said, "You going to be all right?" I finally got myself together. I said, "Yeah, they need help." I went in there. After I threw up and shook it off, I went in there, and there was an Indian guy that, he was a clerk there. He was doing all the typing and stuff. We was telling him the names of the ones that we was tagging. We was talking, and I asked him his name. I think he said--I forget what he said, but he looked like he was a Creek or a Cherokee. I said, "How did you get assigned to this place?" I don't know. This is one unit I wouldn't want to be assigned to, you know, but somebody's got to do it. We didn't talk after that. We just did our job, went out there and took care of those soldiers and stuff. I remember we was hauling them up to the.... I often think about this, and it brings tears to my eyes. We was hauling them up the air strip to the plane. We was looking at the bodies and what their rank was and stuff. We saw one of them was a staff sergeant. We said, "Oh, man, he's got a wife and kids and stuff." I noticed that all of us--it didn't have to be told to us. We did it instinctively. When we took them off the truck, we handled their bodies just like a military...with total dignity. We carried them into the plane, and as we set them down, we set them down gently. Put them in there correctly, the way it's supposed to be, with total respect for them. I still think about those fellows that we lost over there like that.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Thank you for sharing that. When you were over there, did you write home very often or...

Charley Johnson:

When I first got there I didn't. They make you send a--they fill out a card, and you've got to send it home, tell them your address over there. It took me a little while, a couple months, before I ever got a letter from home. It made me angry at my mom that she took so long to write to me. I forget how I ended up--one of the young Seminole girls got my address up at Chilocco. She started writing to me. She was in Pauletta's class. She started writing to me which really made me feel good. It was different. That was somebody from Chilocco. She sent me some pictures of her friends and stuff. That's what Pauletta did to us, some of her classmates that went over there.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

In support, they would write their fellow classmates?

Charley Johnson:

I want to say this: That meant a lot, it really did, to hear from them. I'm glad that Pauletta and all the other young girls wrote to us over there. That sure helped out, it really did, to hear from them. We've visited her a few times. I've seen her down in Florida. We ask about her at times. When she was at the reunion, I told her, "I never did thank you for writing to me, but I want to thank you for doing that. It meant a lot." That friend of mine, his name was Russell [inaudible], Pauletta's classmate wrote to him. First time we went to Florida, he went with us, and she was with us. He said, "I'm going to marry that girl when I get back." He never did; she married somebody else. (Laughter) It meant a lot to us that they wrote to us. It sure did. I was glad they did that. Always wanted to tell everybody that, that these Chilocco girls that wrote to the soldiers over there, that meant a lot. It really did. It touched us. You're the first one I'm ever telling that. I never spoke, told anybody that. I never told her that, either, but it did. It really meant a lot to us. I'm glad they did it.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

What a wonderful...to have that little bit of connection from home.

Charley Johnson:

Yeah, they helped us get through it, too. Maybe they don't really realize it, but they did. They sure did.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

How about--did you happen to see any of the shows that came through?

Charley Johnson:

No, gosh, that was--that time I was telling you I was out in the field there, whenever I was with that unit where we took care of the soldiers that had gotten killed, all of them.... Here was our base, like this. Outside that perimeter there, we had another area right here, and this did the laundry and the showers where the infantry come in. We'd have to go guard that sometimes. One time I was down there with the group of men with me. We had to go down there and pull guard duty one night, and we was in there taking our shower. They brought these infantry guys through there. As I was taking my shower this one guy said, "Hello, Charley." I looked up, and it was one of the fellows that I went through Fort Leonard Wood at combat engineer training with. He was in my platoon, and he'd got sent to 1st Cavalry Division. Oh, we laughed, and we talked. Said, "What are you doing?" He said, "Oh, went to infantry." He was telling me, he said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm with this Quartermaster company right here. We got all that fuel out there. That's what we do." He said, "Man, I want to tell you something. There ain't nothing but tunnels all over these mountains. You wouldn't believe the tunnels that are up there." That's the last time I seen him. I was telling Robert Riggs this. We got to see him down at.... He's Adrienne Riggs' brother. Jake Larney, after we got out we was talking about it. They had been in and out of that place where I was at, and I was in total shock. Jake was on a helicopter in there. They brought those infantry guys out of the field there, and they'd let them stay out there. They'd bring them in for a few days for rest, get a shower and new uniforms. Well, Robert was one of them, and he was in my class. Both of them were. I said, "You know what? I wish I could've got to see you fellows then. It would've been great." I mean, we were probably from here to, I don't know, a hundred yards away and didn't know it. After we talked about it, "Oh, gosh, you mean you were that close to me?" I said, "Yeah, I was there. We tore down that base." He told me how many times they'd been in and out of there. I said, "Oh...." That was the sad part. We never did get to see each other like that, but there were some of them that did get to see other Chiloccoans up there. It was good. They talked about it. My brother Tom, he saw a couple of them over there, but I never did.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Can you talk a little bit about your experience with the Airborne?

Charley Johnson:

We got out of jump school and they put us on a bus to go to Fort Bragg. I was on that bus, and there was a couple of those guys. There was probably about ten or twelve of us on that bus. There was a couple of them getting a little noisy and rowdy back there. I didn't say anything. Then that bus driver approached me. He said, "These guys are getting rowdy. You're the highest ranking one. You need to calm them down." I didn't want to do that. Just let them talk. I didn't want to use my rank like that. Since he asked me to do it, I had to stand up and tell them to calm down. Some of were bigger men, young men, than me. I said, "Well, if you don't do that, I'm going to have to say something whenever we get there, and then they'll let them handle it. Either you do it, what I'm asking you to do, or suffer the consequences when we get to Fort Bragg." They all shut up and sat down. (Laughs) Never said anything. We had a calm trip after that, which made me feel good.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

It worked good. (Laughs)

Charley Johnson:

Yeah, that worked good. That driver, he didn't like it either. They did get a little rowdy, but they were celebrating, too, that they got out of jump school and all that. Like I said, I was just letting them go. I'm not that type to do all that celebrating like that.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Do you recall when your service ended?

Charley Johnson:

Oh, yeah. My last eight months of...I was in Germany. I got sent to Germany my last day, which was a good tour. I liked Germany.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Yeah, totally different when you get off base, totally different culture.

Charley Johnson:

Yeah, and we got to go to the.... There's another episode to that. We was in a small--it was more discipline, strict Army over there. We was with a helicopter unit in Stuttgart. No, our main headquarters was at Stuttgart. We was at Ansbach, just about twenty miles north of Nuremberg. We was in a helicopter unit, and we was attached to a tank battalion there in that base. It was an old German barracks, you know. That's where we were. The units that were on alert, (I say alert; they had to be ready all the time) was one of those tank units and helicopter. There were certain units that had to be ready all the time. That tank battalion had to. When they'd pull alert once a month, they had to run out, get their tanks, and we had to run out and get our helicopters and line up. They'd send us outside of town somewhere. We'd stay out there for a day. Then we'd come back in. We did that once a month. They'd do it anytime during the day or night, and mostly it was done at night. Like I said, there must've been about fifty to sixty tanks in that battalion. Boy, they'd have to line them up, and go down the streets, those narrow streets. It was a awesome sight.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Oh, yeah.

Charley Johnson:

We was part of them. On weekends...they'd let us go out. You had to be a E-5 to stay out late, but they'd let us stay out, E-4s and below, until about one o'clock at night. We'd go over to the local bar. It was different over there. You'd go out to eat and stuff, pizzas in the village there. It was good; I enjoyed it. It was a learning experience. I learned to eat sauerkraut and wieners. That's good! (Laughter)

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Different...than we have, huh?

Charley Johnson:

I look forward to that Oktoberfest! I can go to that, eat that sauerkraut! Yeah I know what it's all about there. I learned to drink wine over there, too. Boy, they got some good wine over there. The beer was good. I didn't get carried away. I'm not too much of a alcohol drinker. Never was. I enjoy one little sip. Every now and then I'll drink a beer. I'm not the type that if everybody's drinking a beer, "You want one?" I can turn it down. It doesn't mean that much. That don't impress me to show anybody that I have to have a beer to be somebody. It doesn't mean nothing to me like that. I drink for strictly enjoyment of taste. That's the way I am. I've got two beers in there now, and, gosh, it'd probably take me three weeks to drink those two beers. (Laughter) But I enjoy a good beer every now and then, or wine. I still got some wine up there I drink. I learned it over there. It was something. After I got out of there, I was going home. There was one thing that happened over there, and I always wonder why it happened. I spoke of, in high school, how I seen how the different classes.... Over in Germany--well, I witnessed some of it over in Vietnam. I just seen where we had a lot of Puerto Ricans and how they kind of stuck together. ... There was three other Indians in my platoon. There was an Apache Indian, and there was a Cherokee, and then there was, I think he may have been a Chippewa. He was from Minnesota. His name's Mosay. Mosay and Leif, they kind of guided me around, took care of me, when I was Vietnam. That Apache guy over there, he never would talk to us. He never associated with the other three. I don't know. It was hard for us to communicate. Matter of fact, I never did. I'd walk by and stuff; he never would say hi or hello, nothing. Never would. I couldn't recall seeing Leif and Mosay talk to him. They may have, but they'd been there longer than I had. When I got to Germany, there was this young, white young man from South Carolina, very religious, very intelligent. When I got to the barracks there, I roomed with him. There were some rooms where two could room, then three, then four in those old barracks. I was in his room with him. I found out later as I watched him--like I said, you look at people, you can start telling. I found out later he was very prejudice. I mean I had never seen anybody that prejudice. Over in Europe, you could buy rifles and handguns that you could buy here in the United States, but you could buy them cheaper over there. The only thing is you could not buy the ammunition. You had to have them registered and everything. He had a rifle. He'd be standing at his window, and he'd point that rifle down at somebody. He'd click it and, "Pow! I shot that nigger. Pow! I shot that nigger. Pow, shot that...." That really just hit me. "I can't believe I'm seeing this." That stayed with me. I said, "Here he is on Sunday morning. You'll see him carrying his Bible going to church services," and that just.... I couldn't understand it, how he could have so much hate for another people. It wasn't too long after that I had this white guy (he was from Michigan) and this black guy from Alabama approach me. They said, "Charley we want you to come room with us." I questioned, "Why?" They said, "We think you're a good--we've been keeping a eye on you, and you take care of your place and stuff. You know how to...." That's what they was looking for. Said, "We've been looking for a roommate. We've got a vacancy." "Okay," so I went up there. Here I am, and I often think about this. Here I've got this white that's all this prejudice, and I've got this white and black young man over here that are just as opposite of what this guy is. These two guys liked each other! I couldn't believe it. They got along. That's the way we should do! I get in there with them, and we all three got along. One time that one guy, he was sort of like a, that white guy, sort of like a, I guess you'd call him, to me, he was like a dork. He was always by hisself. He'd get his bicycle, and he'd go ride it off somewhere, out of town somewhere. He'd tell us where he was going. He was a good guy. We enjoyed him. Samuel Ball was his name. He was over me and my unit there at Ansbach. They told me, they said, "Charley," the sergeant, older than me, he told me, "Charley, you're older than.... You've got more rank than Ball. You should be doing this." I said, "Ball was doing this all the time. He knows what's going on. I'm comfortable with him being in charge. I'm not going to pull rank on him. Let him go." That guy said, "Okay, but you can have it." I said, "I don't want it. I'll serve under Ball because he knows what's going on." He and I got along real fine. I often think about him. There was one thing that happened. This is something I noticed that I do. As I've gotten older I notice things that happen in my life that tell me this is going to happen later on, or something that's going on earlier in your life, you're going to see it again or something like that. That thing is going to mean something to you. When I left, I got ready to get out. Like I said, me and Samuel Ball, black guy, we became good friends. He took me down to the train station at Ansbach to catch the train. Those trains over there, as soon as you get on, we come to find out, they leave on time. You get on. I got on, and I put my bag in there. I come back to shake his hand and thank him for.... When I went to that door, that door was shutting. We was already moving down the track. I didn't get to say goodbye to him. I can still see him standing there. I was wanting to say goodbye to the man; I really missed saying that. That really bothered me. That happened to me whenever we was at Adair. I made friends with this one guy that was a neighbor of ours. He and I ran around. When we moved from Adair back to Henryetta, we moved, and then Mom and Dad left me and my younger brother down there. They went back to Adair to get the rest of the furniture. I didn't get to go back and say bye. That happens--that's happened about four different times that something like that's happened to me, and I feel that when I leave it's going to be like that. I'm going to leave, and I'm not going to be able to say goodbye. It's telling me that that's the way I'm going to go. I've come to accept that, so I try to make every time I see my family a special time.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

I was going to say, it really makes you focus on the present.

Charley Johnson:

Yeah, it really does because...in our lives we go through things, and you go through different things that tell you that these things, certain things, are going to happen to you, or that thing's going to mean something to you. Later on, down the road, I'll be darned.... It's like I was telling Pauletta; she and I discussed this. I said whenever I was young, my older sister got married and lived in Shawnee. We used to come up here. Me and my brother used to go down to Shawnee and go to the movies. I was telling her about the old theaters. She said, "Yeah, we used to be on the east side of town. We'd come down every Saturday." I said, "We probably seen you and didn't know it." (Laughter)

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Passed and didn't see each other. (Laughs)

Charley Johnson:

...I said, "I like that town." I guess there was a special something about it. Then after you think, over the years it's telling you there's something there that's going to bring you back to it. Then her mother said something to her. They used to go to Henryetta when she was young to get coal. "I like this town." There's something probably going to be there that's going to draw you to that town. Well, I lived in that town. Weird things like that, it's there telling you, but you're going to have to interpret it in your own way what it's telling you down the road is going to happen. At least, I believe that. I think it's true.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

After you got out of the service, did you get to work in welding?

Charley Johnson:

Yeah, my brother, I went to work over at Trinity Industries when I got out of the service, probably about a week after I got out of the service, and I stayed with him. He let me stay with him for a month to save up some money, buy me a car. I worked at nights, and he was very.... I have a good brother. He took care of me. He'd come get me in the mornings. He'd wake up, and I didn't have no ride or nothing. Well, he'd come get me at lunchtime in the evening. He worked day shift. He just lived about a mile from the work. We got thirty minutes at eight thirty to eat. I'd drive his car, and I'd take it back to work and then drive it back home. He'd get his car back in the morning. I was very thankful that I had a brother like that that would work with me. He was very good.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Because it's a hard transition coming back.

Charley Johnson:

Yeah, it definitely was. It was more so when I came back from Vietnam. I got thirty days off, and I didn't realize what I was going through. It took me a full thirty days to settle down. Finally I went back to the Army base, and I got to be around other soldiers. Then I felt more--I adjusted then.... I was telling Jake Larney about this one. We was talking about one of the soldiers that had gotten killed that went back to Vietnam. He told me, "I had to go back. I couldn't adjust." That's when I--I was sort of angry at this one soldier that went back, that went to Chilocco, and he got killed over there. I was questioning myself, "Why did you go back, because you had made it home?" Finally Jake explained it to me. "I couldn't adjust. I had to go back. Once I got back, I felt more relieved." That's when I really realized how when I came home, I was on.... See, when you're over there, all your senses come to life, to me. I guess that's the best way I can explain it. They're on high alert. You hear the expression "you can hear a pin drop." Out there, over there, that's literally true. Your senses are so strong, you're more mentally alert. You may seem like you're having fun doing something, but it's still on. You never let it go to rest. You may be over there drinking a beer and having fun, but that thing is still on. That little antenna is still going on up there. It's still on; it'll set you off. I didn't realize it was like that with me until I come home. I remember the first week, for sure, I was at home, and I couldn't go to bed at night. I'd try to go to bed. I'd stay up at night walking around. I'd be outside sitting outside on the porch just looking out. Some nights I'd sit in my.... I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe. I said, "Here these people don't have any idea what went on over there, going on over there. Thank God they don't." It's just a different world. It really is. You come from that, then you come back to the States. It's totally different. It takes you a while to unwind. You just have to.... I was able to adjust a lot sooner than he did because he was in a more stressful environment than me. Robert, too, those guys that served in the infantry. It took them a lot longer. Some of them had to go back; some of them did. Some of them went back two or three tours. I didn't want to go back. "If I make it home, I'm going home, I'm staying home. One time is enough for me." Do I regret it? No. In a way, yes and no. I guess from the political standpoint of it, I feel like that war should've never been fought. From the other side, I feel like yeah, we thought we was going for the right thing, and I was doing the right thing by going without complaining. If it's the right thing, I feel like I would've gone, no problem.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

How has being involved with veterans today--why is that important to you?

Charley Johnson:

You know, when you ask that--let me go back to when you asked me about when I got out of the service. That deal about when I got back from Vietnam, I was angry. I didn't really realize it until I got out of the service. Whenever I got my discharge at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and I was wearing that uniform, for some reason I just didn't feel right. I took it off, and I didn't want to put it back on for a long time. I still don't. Sometimes it's hard for me to put on. That's why sometimes.... We was at a powwow around Wyandotte; we was having a arts and crafts show. This young woman from Duck Creek was with us. She said, "They're having a veterans.... They need dancers up there. You need to go up there." I didn't say anything. Sometimes I want to tell that story. There's times I don't want to do that. I have to really dig down hard to make myself do it. Now, we just come from a parade at the veterans deal up at Arkalalah [Kansas]. I was ready for that. I have to get myself ready for things that veterans do. That's me, what I went through. When I came back, my good friend that I made friends with in Vietnam, he come by and visited me after he got back from Vietnam. He wrote to me. He lived in West Virginia, and he was about six years older than me. Matter of fact, when we was out there in Vietnam, out in the field together, he let me.... I wasn't getting any mail except my mother sometimes before the Chilocco girls started writing to me. He had his wife write to me, so I wrote back to her, told her what a fine man he was. I said, "I think you got a.... I want to tell you right now, Bill's a really good man. You've got a good one." They come by, and they visited. They gave us a couple of, she made a couple of pillows and sheets and stuff for us. We still got them. I lost his...I never did get to communicate with him again. He did something. He and I went for a walk by ourselves, and we was talking. Bill says something to me that I knew was there but I had to have someone just literally tell me. He looked at me and he said, "Charley, you've got a lot of anger in you. You're going to have to cope with it. You're going to have to get rid of it." That really surprised me he could see it in me just by us walking together like that. That really hit me. Whenever I went up for...the disability, where they call up the psychologist or whatever, she asked me about that. I told her about this. She said, "How do you cope with it?" I said, "I just do a lot of praying for Him to help me get through it." I'm not the type to--I've still got a lot of religious in me. I don't go to church like that, but I still believe Him, and I still pray to Him. I pray for my family, but it's not maybe sometimes like a lot of other people do, but I do. I pray for my wife; prayed for my brother when he was having a hard time. I don't tell anybody about it. I just keep it to myself. Bill told me that. He said, "You've got a lot of anger in you." I'm glad he told me that because, like I said, he and I were good friends over there. We made good friends, and for him to tell me that, that was a friend telling a friend. They help you out. That meant a lot, him telling me that. I seen that, what I saw with that young man in Germany being that way, and then my roommate was a black and a white that was just the opposite of what he.... "Wow, what am I going through?" (Laughter) I interpreted it like I guess the good Lord's telling me we can live together, black and white and all three of us together. There was a Indian, black, and white there. Don't judge us by our skin color. Judge us by what's in there. Gosh, that meant a lot. I often think about that. Why did He show me that? It's like when I go back. Things happen to you, and I guess He's telling you what you're going to see down the road. This is how you'll cope with it. It was a very good experience being there, and I met some good people, and I seen some bad ones. Mostly I seen some good ones over there that I still remember real well. I'm thankful for that. I made it through it, came home. When I was in the terminal at Oakland, getting ready to get.... Oh, it was really a sad deal when we went into that terminal. It was a huge building. It had nothing but bunkbeds in there. They gave you a number, and they said, "Don't forget your number. Always pay attention to what...." They told us, "You're going to be here an average of," I think about, "four to six hours. Pay attention. When we announce your number, you are to come to a certain place to where you're going to be shipped out," flew out of there on a plane to Vietnam. You couldn't leave the area. There must've been, seemed like there must've been, like, five hundred of us in that building. A lot of guys just talking, joking, going on, you know. The thing that went through my mind as I looked out through there, I said, "How man of us are not coming back? That's eerie. I could be one of them." It does enter your mind, gosh. We don't know.... That's like when I was at Fort.... I was in charge of those, that group of men, at Fort Benning, those paratroopers. We had the weekend off. A lot of them were infantry guys going through jump school. They was putting on their decorations and stuff, their infantry ropes. Some of their family members were off base. They was going to go see them and stuff. As they was doing that, there must've been about four or five of them that were doing that, they wanted to show off their stuff. I said, "Well," and really they wasn't supposed to do it, but I let them do it. What had happened was they were going to see their family members, and they was putting on their decoration. I said, "You're not allowed to wear--you're not supposed to wear that until you've earned that right." ... "We're just going to...." Then it hit me. I said, "Well, these fellows are going over there, and they may not make it back. Just let them go." I said, "You guys go on, just go on." I said it like that. "Just go on and go see your family members. Y'all don't realize what y'all are getting into." It was sort of like, to me, a gang of guys really brave. They were ready to go, but, boy, they was going to be hit with reality when they got there. It's a whole different world. When I got to Vietnam, we landed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. ... That air strip had gotten mortared a few days before that. They still had bombed airplanes and stuff along the sides there. We was all looking out like that, in shock.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

That was your first view.

Charley Johnson:

Yeah, it was total shock. That's when reality hit us that, "Wow." We seen it on TV and stuff, but then when you get there and you're really there, then you start to getting nervous.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

Right, oh, my goodness. Well, is there anything else that you want to share with us before we...

Charley Johnson:

Yeah, what Chilocco did for me was really give me that extra strength to go out to this world...to make it, to support my family, and to grow up and really lean on myself. The military helped me realize that I could make it. When I was up for a promotion at Fort Bragg, there were three of us that weren't going to make it that one month. We didn't make it that month; we was going to be up for sergeant the next month. We'd be the first three. When I went out in front of that board, the major he asked me, he said, "

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

It's not that far from sign language, Native sign language.

Charley Johnson:

...yeah, just by hand signals. That's what we had to learn. Then at night, you had a little lantern. You had to learn what they were doing. Let's see. They'd count off. ... We'd be shoving or kicking cars in different tracks. If you were to film that, you're looking at the conductor up here. He'd go (Signaling). What he's telling you is line number seven track. I forget what the signal was for "kick." "I'm going to kick three cars into seven." Then he'd tell you, he'd go like this, (Signaling) "Realign that switch." This is lantern signals, now, at night. ... I forget what the signal for.... Like that, they'd go like that (Signaling). Then when everyone would stop, you'd just go like this (Signaling) to stop. You had to learn all that stuff. I hadn't been there long enough to really get it down. It takes you about six months to really get it down, six months to a year to get it positive. It's something. I used to use those hand signals, and they tell you how to count. Let's see if I can remember. Here's one, two, three, four, five...six, seven, eight, nine, ten. (Signaling)

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

That's great recall! (Laughs)

Charley Johnson:

I'll tell you something. There's one number I remember really good, (I'll never forget it) and that's when I went into the service. They give you your service number, and they tell you, "Don't you ever forget this number! Memorize it and always remember it. That's your military number."

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

I think that's a good note to end on...

Charley Johnson:

Okay.

Julie Pearson-Little Thunder:

...and I thank you for your service, Charley. Thank you for you stories today. (Laughs).

 
Home » Text Transcript
  The Library of Congress  >> American Folklife Center
  October 26, 2011
  Legal | External Link Disclaimer Need Help?   
Contact Us