Long thought dead, Warren Vietnam vet gets Purple Heart

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Herman Johnson is a Vietnam War veteran who was injured in a 1969 battle that left his best friend believing he was dead for 47 years.

Johnson’s friend, Fred Rivera of California, wrote a book about the impact of believing his best friend had died in his arms during combat that led to the discovery that Johnson was alive and well in Michigan.

The two friends were reunited for the first time in nearly five decades as Johnson, of Warren, was given a surprise Purple Heart decoration in a ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on Sunday that that was arranged with the assistance of U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak.

Johnson said he never expected to be reunited with an old friend or receive the Purple Heart, which is the military’s oldest award that is given to members who are wounded or killed.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “I never expected to see Fred again.”

Johnson was nearly moved to tears by the presentation of Purple Heart. He recalled being denied the decoration when he returned from Vietnam in the late 1960s.

“I never thought it would happen, because this lady denied me a couple of times,” he said, referencing an Army official who processed his paperwork after his initial return to the U.S.

“When I got hit, I went down...I said ‘Oh God, am I in heaven?,’ Johnson recalled of the firefight that left Rivera believing he was dead.

“I laid there for a second. I cried. Blood all over me,” Johnson continued. “The main medic bandaged me up, I went back out there fighting. I didn’t know what happened to [Rivera].”

Rivera said he was so convinced that Johnson had died in his arms that he kept a band from one of Johnson’s boots that he wore around his wrist to remind him of the friend he believed died in combat.

“For 47 years, I have believed that this man died in my arms in Vietnam,” Rivera said. “He was full of blood. He took a head wound. He still carries shrapnel.”

Rivera said he and Johnson were tight during their tour of duty before the battle that he believed had ended his friend’s life.

“We’re served together eight months,” he said. “Every day together. We wake up, we would be together...We slept in the same vehicle. We didn’t sleep in beds. We slept in the mud.”

Rivera said he was so convinced Johnson was dead that he set up a memorial to honor his friend’s life, which he believed had been cut short at 20-years-old.

“I mourned him,” he said. “We had a memorial for him.”

Rivera said he learned that Johnson was still alive after a sergeant who read his book tried to search for the Michigan man on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall where the names of military members who were killed or went missing during the conflict are listed.

The sergeant, John Marek, discovered Johnson was not listed on the wall of the memorial, which led him to suspect that Johnson was still alive.

Levin said he became involved when a staffer who lives in the same neighborhood as Johnson alerted him to the story that was told in Rivera’s book, which is titled “Raw Man.”

The Royal Oak Democrat said he was glad to play a role in helping Johnson get his overdue Purple Heart.

“This is a story that makes what was down in the memorial come very much alive,” he said. “It tells the story of just two of the people of the tens of thousands who fought in that war.”

Levin said the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which opened in 1982, “was an effort to rectify the wrong of essentially attributing whatever mistakes were made regarding the war to those of you who bravely fought.”

Rivera said he worked to get Johnson his Purple Heart because “we leave no man on the battlefield.

“Hardest secret I ever had to keep,” he said of the plan to surprise Johnson with the ceremony.


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing