Originally published May 25, 2009

A Patriot and Pro Stocker at Heart … The Tough Story of Morris Johnson

mojo.jpgIf tomorrow all the things were gone,
I’d worked for all my life.
And I had to start again,
with just my children and my wife.

I’d thank my lucky stars,
to be livin here today.
‘Cause the flag still stands for freedom,
and they can’t take that away.

And I’m proud to be an American,
where at least I know I’m free.
And I won't forget the men who died,
who gave that right to me.

And I gladly stand up,
next to you and defend her still today.
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land,
God bless the USA.

Morris Johnson Jr. can’t help it. Every time he hears those lyrics from the famous Lee Greenwood song “Proud to be an American” his eyes well up with tears.

“I am the kind of guy who looks at the flag for the greatest country in the world and gets goose bumps,” Johnson admits. “I get a tingle that I don’t know that everyone gets when they see the flag or the Star Spangled Banner is sung. When Lee Greenwood sang that song it became almost as popular as the national anthem.”

Johnson, of Smith Mountain Lake, Va., remembers the day a pair of brothers approached him on behalf of their deceased brother who lost his life during the Vietnam War. The Pro Stock driver was already emotionally charged after watching the skydiver fly above him carrying the flag as the Greenwood song played over the public address system.

They wanted Johnson, then a Pro Stock driver on the NHRA Pro Stock tour, to pin their brother’s pilot wings on his firesuit and race with his memory that day and beyond, if possible.

Johnson was taken aback.

“You want me to have his wings?” Johnson asked. The brothers nodded in agreement.

Johnson obliged but the tears streaming down his face made it nearly impossible to race, much less stage his car. He was beaten badly that day but suddenly at that moment, winning or losing didn’t matter.

“They pinned those wings on me and needless to say I was useless from that point on,” Johnson admitted. “I had tears streaming down my cheeks and that was the only time Darrell Alderman was able to beat me.”

Just being there for the brothers meant the world to Johnson. It let those brothers know someone cared and that their brother’s military service meant something that transcended far beyond drag racing wins and losses.

Johnson, one of the leading underfunded NHRA Pro Stock drivers, is a disabled veteran having served in the Vietnam War. He was honorably discharged with three purple hearts and two bronze stars for his courage under fire.

Johnson raced this weekend at the ADRL Quarter-Max Memphis Drags for the first time in almost two decades, a triumphant return to the one place where the man who grew up as a poor sharecropper felt at ease following the tours of duty in the U.S. Army which would forever shape his life.

National DRAGSTER Photo

Johnson is the kind of guy everyone liked almost instantly. He was the guy who quickly gained the respect of his peers back in his day of competitive drag racing.

Johnson was inspirational to the point that he reportedly inspired the late tough-as-nails NHRA starter to shut off two Top Alcohol Dragsters on the starting line and put down his starter box to pay tribute to Johnson, the ultimate underdog, when he defeated the unbeatable Bob Glidden in the first round of the 1988 NHRA Winternationals.

The capacity crowd rose in a standing ovation.

“It never ceases to amaze me when one small group with the help of many behind then can affect so many masses of people to the point that it stops the world, makes them the center of attention and brings the onlookers to tears,” Johnson said.

BEN HET, THE REAL SURVIVOR SHOW- ben-het-news-6-24sml.jpg
Only 65 Men With the Will to Survive, 10,000 Enemy Soldiers – Life through Mojo’s Eyes
mojo_vietnam.jpgJohnson was assigned to a unit in the Central Highlands of Vietnam known as Pleiku. His extensive training at Ft. Sill enabled him to outrank a Korean War veteran, who didn’t take too kindly to the young officer schooling the troops on how to fire their howitzers more efficient than in the past.

Johnson and his group of sixty artillery soldiers were moved to Ben Het where they were placed in the area without any U.S. infantry support. There were 10 – 12 Rangers at the base that were departing as Johnson and his group arrived.

The interesting thing is that one of those rangers was former NHRA Pro Stock racer and team owner Dave Hutchens of Wayne County Speed Shop fame.  He didn't find out that fact until 1988 at the U.S. Nationals when the were standing around in pre-race promos for the Mr. Gasket Pro Stock Showdown. Hutchens was in the group as Johnson was entering.

“We just embraced there at the race track,” Johnson said with a smile.

Shortly after that Hutchens and his group had left the base Johnson said the action heated up.

“We had a captain with us in Ben Het and when we’d get some artillery fire, he’d report in that we were under major attack,” Johnson recalled. “We’d get a few shells and he’d run in the bunker and hide. The military sent crater analysis teams up there to check out his reports and they pulled out our support.”

After the pullout, Johnson said, they really began to get hit.

But, Johnson and his group weren’t overly concerned with the Viet Cong weaponry which was manufactured in Russia.

ss_ben_het_news_6_26.jpg“We’d see the pull of smoke up on the hill, know there was something coming and we’d take cover by the time it hit,” Johnson said. “Twenty-five seconds later the round would explode.”

The fighting intensified to the point that Johnson and his team donned gas masks for multiple days and eventually they were surrounded by as many as 10,000 Viet Cong soldiers.

“Sixty five versus 10,000 is not an even fight,” Johnson said. “Then we ran out of ammo, food and water. I was using ammo plastic to catch water and using the chlorine pills so that we could drink it. If you didn’t use those pills you would get sick in a hurry.”

Johnson and a trio of soldiers had sought to slip by the enemy in an effort to procure the much needed supplies and return to the base.

The enemy saw their attempt to escape in the fleeing truck and immediately tried to thwart the effort. Johnson and the group exited the vehicle when the shells began dropping and sought refuge in a ditch. The shells came in like clockwork and as Johnson said, walked their way to their location. He directed the group to safety just in time.

mojo_2a.jpg“When the one came next to the ditch, we knew where the next one was coming, when we saw the puff of smoke, we ran like crazy to the track and it hit where we had been,” Johnson said.

They drove the trucks quickly down the road where they saw an incoming convoy of support. Their support drove right into an ambush as Johnson and his soldiers watched.

“They never knew what hit them,” Johnson said. “They were the support that was supposed to be coming to us but needless to say, they didn’t get there.”

Johnson finally got into the next city and he and his group stole a five-ton, water truck and before they could get back to the parked truck they had left, someone had stolen it.

One of the trademarks of Vietnam was that the war was broadcast into the living rooms back home. Johnson’s mother had learned on the news that a truck had made it into Ben Het. Mother's intuition told her that it was her son.

“I stopped into a monitoring station and called home to Virginia and my mom told me she knew that was me,” Johnson said. “The military advisor on the phone interrupted and asked me to tell her to refrain from discussing military business.

“She didn’t stop. All she could say was that, ‘I knew that was you in the truck.’ They couldn’t get her to shut up.”

Johnson made it back to the base and a few days later the military showed up with support.

Had it not have been for one of the soldiers in his unit being able to get a letter out to his dad, a high ranking colonel, Johnson wonders how they would have made it out of there alive when those procured supplies ran out.

But they did make it out. The military sent in enough firepower and Air Force air support that lit up the entire mountain like nothing he’d ever seen. It didn’t hurt that journalist Peter Arnett, whom Johnson met and escorted out of the line of fire, was there to witness the fireworks.

Johnson left the hill with an experience he’ll never forget.

Johnson’s story will bring you to tears. It is one of valor in the face of adversity, camaraderie and inevitably pain and anguish … one of a man who bravely served his country, developed a successful livelihood and pursued a dream of professional drag racing only to lose it all due to the effects of a traumatic condition that wounds the emotional psyche of even the strongest of the strong.

Johnson’s disability, which made his whole world come crashing down, was the result of his faithful service to his country. He suffers from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

His initial orders in 1968 would have sent him to Germany but the fear of not being able to save any money prompted him to volunteer for Vietnam, plus the extra money for combat pay.

The reassignment sent Johnson to special military school in Fort Sill, Ok., where he boasts he learned how to operate every single weapon in the United States arsenal.

Johnson did a event-filled tour of duty in Vietnam, ending up outmatched by the enemy at the Ben Het fire base. His group consisted of 65 soldiers while the enemy surrounding the camp was measured by intelligence at 10,000 Viet Cong guerrillas.

He was wounded three times during his tour at Ben Het, and admittedly lost a lot of good men. His injuries were sustained during a sixty day period, one of which came when an an enemy shell landed in the middle of Self Propelled Artillery Units, causing a stockpile of one of the staged shells to detonate sending a large amount of shrapnel into his back down to his legs.
Johnson was awarded three purple hearts and two bronze stars. He declines to discuss what inspired the pair of awards which arepresented for heroic acts or meritorious service.

Johnson believes, “There’s no ‘I’ in team and you need teams to win drag races and wars.”

He’s always tried his best to be a team player but has second guessed his Vietnam assignment for many years.

“I’ve always wondered why such a small group was sent up there to that hill … all I know is that we did our job and got out of there alive,” Johnson said.

Surviving the hell of Ben Het was one challenge, readjusting to civilian presented another.

“I came home from Vietnam and I became dormant,” Johnson said. “I did nothing and the V.A. called me after I had been out for a year. They wanted me to come in and they worked on my teeth, my ears and everything. Next thing I know they are sending me a letter telling me that I am 30-percent disabled.”

The disability had nothing to do with his physical but rather his psychological injuries.

“I was having severe nightmares,” Johnson said. “My dad had to nail plywood over the windows of the house to keep me from kicking them out from the nightmares.”

The one injury that hurt Johnson the most, one he was never compensated for by the military, happened during one of the nightmare episodes.

“I could lay on the bed with only a sheet on me and could flex every muscle I had during one of the nightmares,” Johnson said. “I could flex so quick that I could hit the sheetrock in the wall. I just tore my spine to pieces from this and had to have back surgery to repair the damage. The V.A. wouldn’t help me with anything.

“They told me it wasn’t Vietnam or service related.”

The nightmares subsided over time and by 1990, he’d all but pushed them out of his mind.

“I had already built a pretty good name in racing and had a successful business,” Johnson said. “I had thought that everything we did in Vietnam was what we were supposed to do. I thought it was honest and had a purpose.”

Then Johnson’s war returned.

“I got to where I would see a kid with dirty clothes playing while I drove down the street and it would tear me up to the point that I would pull over and start crying,” Johnson said.

The depression of the repressed memories set in and eventually caused Johnson total financial destruction.

“I lost everything I had and ended up spending 17 days at the V.A. Hospital in Richmond,” Johnson admitted. “I just lost it and felt awfully close to a complete mental breakdown.”

It has taken Johnson every bit of ten years to recover from the breakdown. 

“I couldn’t race because I lost everything I had,” Johnson said of his time away. “I had to try and find a reason to want to live again.”

Slowly Johnson began to put his life back together and did some tuning on several prominent Pro Stock teams. He joined his son George, a Marine veteran, and together they started a small irrigation system business that has prospered.   

Over the last few years, Johnson has taken the necessary steps to return to racing. The last decade and a half has been a struggle to get to this point.

“I went from being one of the most newsworthy racers out there to not being able to go to the race because I couldn’t get a $200 credit card with $250 cash,” Johnson revealed. “I literally lost everything after building a net worth of $5 million. I grew up poor and figured I was going to have to go back to eating potatoes and picking beans. I was afraid to see that happen and was fearful, yet helpless, to do anything about it.”

According to Science Daily, one in five veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan duty suffer from PTSD or depression. Reports suggest that as many as 30-percent of the Vietnam veterans suffer from what has proven to be a debilitating psychological disorder.

Johnson believes he has his condition in check and brighter days are ahead. He recently won an award from his town’s Chamber of Commerce for his efforts to bring business to the community.

“Each year they give an award for outstanding work within the community,” Johnson explained. “It just shocked me when we went to the banquet and they started talking about this guy who had done this and that. I thought for a moment, he sounds a lot like me. I was surprised when I found out that it was me.”

Johnson walked to the podium unprepared. His words were priceless.

“The last time something like this happened was December 21, 1969 … when I came home from Vietnam,” Johnson said. “I walked around the farm roads of Huddleston, Virginia before anyone ever said, ‘Welcome home.

“One morning a local pastor walked up to me and said, ‘My son was in Vietnam and I know he was at Cameron Bay where they didn’t have to do much of any fighting, but I know you did because I saw you on television. I want to say, thank you and welcome home.'”

On behalf of drag racing community who saw Morris Johnson Jr. rise to the top, only to fall out of existence and then return this past weekend, Thank you Morris.

Thank you and Welcome Home.