Highlights from Padre’s Vietnam Service

In view of his extensive medical background and also his very successful community and campus ministry as an ordained Lutheran Church in America pastor, when he entered the Navy Marine Chaplain Corps during the Vietnam War, he was officially assigned for the first time in American Military history to serve an independent duty position as both the chaplain and also in the field medical officer position with a black beret “River Raider” Assault Force One Special Forces Unit in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region. It was also the first time that a combined Navy, Army, Vietnamese Marine Special Forces experiment was assembled for a single overall three year mission together in the war.

For Padre’s many successful lifesaving medical rescue efforts under some of the most mission impossible combat conditions, during which he was wounded in two separate battles, he was very highly decorated with two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit with Valor, the Bronze Star, the Vietnamese Cross and two Purple Hearts.

During Padre’s 1967-68 tour of duty, he survived one of the most casualty-riddled battles in the shortest amount of time in the war. Most of the 58 dead and 163 American wounded causalities occurred in the first two hours of that June 19, 1967 blood-soaked battle, and one Padre referred to in his book by Fleming Revell Pub as “his longest day.”

Padre had direct eye-to-eye combat experience in seven other major battles with hardcore Vietcong units. But, he said, “nothing resembled the surreal carnage of the 19th of June along the narrow Rach Gai River tributary. Without the slightest evidence of the Vietcong’s body presence, suddenly as our young men were crossing the open rice paddies in their movement toward the mangroves, we were caught in a surprise triangular (three sided) trap by the most accurate fire power blitz from their mangrove foliage camouflaged bunkers and other locations of ground fire.”
From his ramp down on the waterway bank medical boat position, Padre watched in disbelief as one friend and then another were being cut down like cycled weeds. Padre said, “If it could have just been a movie; but sadly it was for real.”

Then out of the mayhem of that casualty littered-field, a wounded radioman made a valiant 75 plus yards away attempt to reach their ramp down medical capacity and was hit again about 50 yards out. Padre said, he will never forget the “Help me” expression in the eyes and face of the radioman as he looked at Padre crouched on the medical boat ramp. Under that type of critical situation, you have only one instinctive choice and that is to leave the boat ramp and carry this seriously wounded family member back to our medical boat.

While Padre and one of his corpsmen were working together to control the radioman’s bleeding, he informed Padre and his Navy Corpsman that most of the Army medics, officers and enlisted leadership had been killed, wounded, or disabled at various levels, and that in some way they had to bring medical aid to the wounded. And because Padre “Doc” could observe where many of the wounded were still moving, he told his two corpsmen and the army medic on the medical boat that time to bring medical aid to the field wounded was critical and directed them to maintain the medical boat facility to care for the many Navy boat crew wounded who were taking intensive fire from the VC shore batteries and also for the Army wounded who were able to reach their on the shore medical capacity.

In a feature article interview that the Padre Doc was asked to give to the “Military” magazine, entitled “The Rach Gai River and the Padre Doc,” the magazine feature briefly entered, among others, the following critical moment detailing one of Padre’s successful medical rescue efforts as he moved from the medical boat and back into the field of scattered casualties four times on that most unforgettable “longest day of his life.”
During his second re-entry into that field of pure survival conditions, while Padre was working on two wounded friends, they were both hit again. Then Padre was hit just after he had completed giving the required medical help to both a second time. Somehow, with the instructions he gave to the lesser wounded Sergeant in helping to assist the Padre with his wounded condition, Padre managed to control his bleeding and miraculously and thankfully remained able throughout the length and breadth of that conflict to stay directly connected as the field medical leader to so many of the wounded. The men not only reached out for medical assistance but also for the emotional, spiritual and encouragement help that the Padre tried his best, with God’s intervention, to give during their struggle to survive and live. Especially vital was the encouragement he gave each one to believe that they would be rescued after all the medivac helicopter rescue was withdrawn due to the loss of almost every helicopter while they were making their rescue approach.

Padre wrote in his descriptive journal entries of that longest day battle, “to the best of my ability and with the help of our Creator and in my gradually diminishing physical strength condition, I was nevertheless just so very thankful that I could be at that right place and time to provide the helpful medical intervention and spiritual encouragement for so many of my heroic wounded friends. Then also, on that same picture frame of the Face of War, I am eternally thankful that I could be there for the other courageous men of honor that I was regretfully unsuccessful in my effort to save as they slipped away from the hands of my best lifesaving medical skills on that unforgettable dark and cloudy day to breathe their last word, breath and same face of final peace that I have observed on every person who has passed in my presence.” Padre mentioned that on June 19th and in all of the other major combat experiences, as their Padre and Doc, more often than not, he was the last person to speak a caring and hopefully a helpful word with them on this side of the bridge of life.

He concluded his thoughts in my interview with him by declaring that “in the raw reality of combat, many of us survived because we helped and strengthened one another. Under the ominous clouds of those survival conditions, there are no officers or enlisted, drafted or volunteers. On that landscape we are all marked as men and women to be there for each other on the same deck of survival.”

In that same interview that Padre gave to the military magazine concerning some of the details during his “longest day” story, Ray Riessco, the commander of River Div III on June 19th, 20th, and who was also taking continuous fire to his own boat, was then briefly interviewed by the magazine because of his uniquely positioned eye witnessed observations of Padre’s on-field medical intervention efforts during that longest day.
Riesco said each time he watched the Doc move back into that field of death, he just knew that he couldn’t possibly return. But each time he returned to resupply his medical bag and stay to assist in the medical boat before returning to that field. Riessco continued by saying that all he could do was pray for our medical and spiritual leader. He continued, “the Padre must have had three angels protecting him during the completion of his mission impossible task!”

Padre notes that of the eight major battles he survived during his Vietnam duty, the June 19th. 67 battlefield carnage experience (reported in both “Time” and “Newsweek” cover feature stories) was clearly the most terrifying of them all. Years later, Thomas Cutler, USN Ret. wrote an eight-page account of Padre’s medical lifesaving efforts story in his award-winning book, “The Brown Water Black Beret.” Padre’s story has also been featured in many other books, magazines, three official histories of the Vietnam War, and in many radio, TV and newspaper interviews all across many of our nation’s and international cities and also in his own book, Postmark Mekong Delta, by Fleming Revell Pub.

Padre’s historic “The Face of War” sketch

Fifteen years after the fierce June 19th battle along the Rach Gai, Padre sketched this historic moment of survival from a photo that was given to him by the AP photographer who happened to be riding with the medical boat during that same three-sided ambush assault with Padre and the men of River Raider Force One.

A short time after Doc Johnson had finished giving what was a living successful medical aid result to the seriously wounded casualty that was being rushed by stretcher to the medical helo, the photographer told Padre that he had captured Padre’s helmet, nose, mouth and chin image in a photo that he took just after he had returned to give Medical aid to another casualty in the foreground (with the IV bottle in view) and just before leaving the medical boat to return to the field. Then he told Padre that if they survived that terror, he wanted him to have the photo.

Shortly after the AP photographer snapped this photo that years later Padre converted into this historic award-winning charcoal pencil sketch, all medivac attempts were temporarily discontinued due to the loss of most of the medivac helo’s while making their rescue approach efforts. Only later in the early evening was medivac rescue restored. That’s when the backup fresh special forces company connected with their counterpart Vietnamese Marine special forces assault unit and broke through to create a corridor for the return of medivac rescue and also a miracle perimeter protection that prevented the Vietcong from leaving their mangrove protection to wipe out the rest of the wounded throughout that long night. The next day, that hardcore VC force was finally defeated with heavy losses.

Faces of War sketch
The Face of War sketch

In 1990, this historic sketch was given the title “The Face of War” by the former retired Commander and Chief of the US Navy, Admiral Zumwalt. He was a guest in attendance at a special gathering of Army Navy and Marine Vietnam war participants and leaders where Padre was the keynote speaker. In Adm. Zumwalt’s written comments to Padre following his keynote address, he wrote, “your Face of War original sketch presents the most powerful rendition of the saving of life in the face of any wars struggle to survive,”—etc. Then the Admiral followed by asking Padre to write his own brief observation of that “longest day” for a special media release and also to be used as a framed attachment to his original sketch for special showings at the Pentagon, West Point, the Naval Academy and other locations.

The following is a shortened version of the Padre’s media release that Adm. Zumualt requested for the original “Face of War” showings. Padre writes, “in every form of honest evaluation, there is no adequate translation to the eye-to-eye fierce bloody encounters that I and my courageous friends experienced on June 19th 1967 and in so many other battle conditions along the waterways, rice paddies and mangroves of the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. Perhaps the most effective interpretation for me is reflected in the reality blend of courage and also the helpless fatigued ‘What’s happening – what’s it all about’ facial expression of the young man with a non-visible, lower leg wound that is standing on the left side of the Face of War sketch. Both realities say it all many times over for me.”

Padre Returns From Vietnam to a Fascinating Diversity of Opportunities, Job Descriptions and Awards

A year after Padre returned from Vietnam, he was honored as One of the Ten Outstanding Young Americans. It was only the second time in the award’s history from its beginning in 1938 that this prestigious honor was given to someone representing the military. The award was given to Padre for his many lifesaving medical accomplishments under the most impossible combat conditions. This award is given to ten very successful age 40 and under young Americans representing the vast range of job descriptions across our nation. In previous years this honor was given to such notables as John F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger and many others for their national and global leadership accomplishments. An example in the area of classical music is that of the famous Leonard Bernstein. He was selected for his celebrated musical skills in writing and also directing the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and Padre are the two Wyomingites to receive this honor.

Former political speech writer and patron of the arts, Dr. H. R. Meier, followed, researched and wrote about Padre’s many life journeys until his passing in 2009. He wrote, “it’s the refreshingly unique combination of Padre’s natural and thankful goodness sharing side blended with his enjoyable fun loving happy rascal and unbridled lust for life freedom spirit person side that fuels his romance with life adventure and his insight into the meaning and purpose of our human existence.”

Then he further wrote that, “to understand the natural spirit of freedom and breathing quality in Padre’s unique forms of artistic creativity and in his written and spoken insights, you have to also appreciate the influence of his interesting range of life events and job descriptions in shaping the quality of his artistic and written accomplishments. Some of these include drawing portraits and a range of other subjects with an amazing likeness at the ages of nine and ten (kept on file by his mother) – then living the life of an authentic working cowboy with an interesting variety of major Wyoming and Montana ranching outfits including the famous 450 thousand acre Padlock Ranch out of Dayton, Wyoming on the edge of the Big Horn Mountains. It was the last ranch to employ the horse drawn chuck and supply wagon working outfits during the spring branding and fall roundup seasons.

Padre was also a blue-collar worker in heavy construction and transportation, a very successful college athlete in the sports of football and baseball during which he was offered a bonus contract with the Dodgers. He was an emergency room and operating room medical technician during the period of his medical studies. He then entered Lutheran Theological Seminary at the University of Chicago and was ordained a Lutheran Church in America Pastor. He then served a brief ministry as a college and community pastor. Following his four years in the active military and in Vietnam, he was offered a series of state and national leadership positions in government and human services in the state of Minnesota. There he created and implemented some very successful community-based crime and drug abuse prevention programs as the Director of Development for the Governor’s Crime Commission and later as director of Community Development for the National Technical Services Foundation.

Following a change of administration in the state, he was offered a very high-level endorsement to run for Congress. Aware of the reality that he was being enticed to sell the soul and freedom spirit of his personal integrity, in the spirit of friendship he informed the committee to look for another candidate. Within weeks, the National Church Leadership asked Padre, in view of his ecumenical experience in his previous ministries if he would seriously consider re-entering the active church ministry and accept the responsibility as the resident minister/pastor to a new town master planned community church experiment. This involved people representing many and also no denominational connections in one house.

The purpose was to see if those in attendance and the membership could appreciate the many similarities and also the interesting differences in their community assembly. The book of worship and song that Padre and others created expressed a resemblance to the form of worship and song that Padre provided the participants in his Vietnam special forces unit command. During that period of ministry in the new town of Jonathan, MN (12 miles outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota), the attendance extended beyond all previous expectations at the community convention center.

During both his fulfilling chapters in government and his re-entry into the ministry in Jonathan, he completed the work for his doctorate in the combined disciplines of theology and cultural anthropology. In conjunction with his very productive five-year ministry in Jonathan, the church gave him six weeks every year to live with different cultures and religions to complete the research for his doctorate.