Prostitutes instead of fresh water. Then golf club-toting helicopters. All a part of Barry Johnson’s experience with a U.S. Army M*A*S*H unit in Korea. He arrived there in June, 1964 – the youngest Second Lieutenant in Korea. Some of the shady adventures Hawk Eye, Klinger and company were portraying on the hit show “M*A*S*H” were not far off the mark. MASH stands for “Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.” The show ran from 1972 to 1983 and the last episode was the most-watched in TV history.
But, by no means, was duty in Korea a lark. Even though the war had ended in 1953, South Korea was still threatened by invasion from North Korea, backed by China and Russia. The United Nations had taken charge of the defense of South Korea, but troops were largely from the United States. There was also civil unrest due to political turmoil. The South Korean president had been overthrown in 1960. Barry describes it as a very tense time. There were machine gun nests in the streets of the capital as young people were protesting the election of a new president, Park Chung-hee. Barry had occasion to attend a reception at which he met the new president.
**(The Korean War is referred to as “the forgotten war” as not much attention was paid to it by U.S. media. In fact, President Truman referred to it as a “police action” rather than a war. But there was always fear of a wider war, one that would involve China and Russia. But the fact remains that almost 5 million people died, more than half of them civilians. Forty thousand American military were killed.)
In Barry’s words, “the Korean people were very thankful for what the Americans had done for them.” He says that whenever he traveled on public transportation, someone would pay for his fare. When he would ask who paid the fare, the response was always, “it’s our tradition.” Barry said that when he would be walking in and around Seoul, the capital of South Korea, “young Koreans would walk with me to practice their English.”
Barry is one of the group we think of as “the originators” of Merry Lou Murray pickle ball. He remembers seeing a few people having fun playing an interesting looking game. A few days later he saw Bill Wen alone on one of the courts and asked if he could hit some balls with him.
He quickly took to the game and has continued playing for the exercise and the enjoyment of the people who play here at MLM. Barry has also maintained his life-long interest in tennis and still plays twice a week.
Dormant, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh, is where Barry was born and raised. He participated in baseball, football, track, and basketball in high school. At Bucknell University where he earned a degree in civil engineering he participated in track and soccer. Bucknell is a small liberal arts college located in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. It’s conveniently located about three hours from New York, Washington, and Philadelphia.
Barry met his future wife, Leslie, while they were both in grade school. He says it took him a long time to get a date with her because she was always busy. In fact, it took him several years to get on her social schedule. After graduating from college in 1963 Barry made another call just to say “hi,” His long-term quest to get a date with Leslie finally paid off. This time she was available! But Barry wasn’t. He was scheduled to ship out to Korea. So, a long-distance relationship was established.
While in Korea, Barry was able to put his engineering education to good use. His job was to insure a continuing supply of potable water for the southern area of Korea. He had been assigned to a MASH unit near Seoul.
A couple of stories Barry related are reminiscent of the M*A*S*H TV series. He describes being on duty on a Saturday night and receiving a call from an MP who was assigned to a check-point where water carrying tankers were stopped. The chlorine content was to be checked to make sure that the good water had not been sold somewhere along the route and river water substituted. When the MP told Barry that there was “NO water coming out of the tank,” Barry ordered the MP to open the tank to see what was inside. The MP reported that the tank was full of prostitutes. Barry replied “I don’t think the water’s safe.”
On another night, Barry’s unit was notified that there were “incoming helicopters” and to “get some jeeps ready.” His first thought was that wounded personnel were being flown in because the base did have a hospital and a helicopter pad – or that maybe they were going to have to evacuate. But, as the helicopters landed, and the jeeps were positioned and ready to roll – to everyone’s dismay, the helicopters landed and disgorged a general and a couple of colonels WITH THEIR GOLF CLUBS! Just trying to make the best out of fighting a war.
In June, 1965, now First Lieutenant Barry Johnson had orders to return to the United States because he had completed a “hardship tour” and he was free to choose where he would like to be stationed for the remainder of his active duty. He chose either California or Pennsylvania. So where did the Army send him? Fort Campbell, Kentucky where he was assigned to the 101st Airborne, then commanded by General William Westmoreland. Was there ever “free choice” in the Army? Leslie found a teaching job at Fort Campbell, and after Barry completed active duty a year or so later they moved to New Jersey. There Leslie found another teaching job and Barry completed a MS in Sanitary Engineering at Rutgers.
By now Barry decided he wanted to put to good use the things he learned and implemented in Korea – that infectious disease was minimized and general health was improved because of good waste disposal and good drinking water.
After attending a meeting of the American Public Health Association in Miami, Barry learned of a job opening in Ann Arbor. He soon found himself working under the direction of Dr. John Atwater who was then the Chief Health Officer. We all know John and Leah Atwater who are regular pickle ball players here at MLM.
Barry continued his work in Ann Arbor until 1995 when he took a job with a Detroit firm that had received a huge federal grant to clean up the highly-polluted Rouge River. The project resulted in one billion gallons of raw sewage being eliminated from the river.
So, Barry’s life has been one of the pursuit and application of knowledge for the betterment of people everywhere. And the long and successful pursuit of the elusive Leslie must be recognized as well. Great dedication on both counts!
Barry and Leslie have two adopted adult children, Dwight 46, and Suzanne, 43. We all know Dwight as a hard-hitting pickle ball player. He is currently a disc jockey doing weddings, parties, and a regular Friday night gig near Southfield. He also works with the kids at Peace Neighborhood Center. Suzanne is a marketing executive with an Ypsilanti company that prints lottery tickets for several states and also for France.
Since retiring in 2005, Barry and Leslie have been enjoying travel, typically a trip in Spring and Fall. Ask Barry about his and Leslie’s misadventure in Glacier National Park last September and their hurried departure from the Prince of Wales Hotel.
Barry Johnson has three brothers. He and two of his brothers have celebrated 50th wedding anniversaries!
Barry Johnson is 76.