Dakota Datebook

General Harold K. Johnson

Friday, July 2, 2004

It was on this date in 1968 that General Harold K. Johnson finished his tenure as Army Chief of Staff, a position he held under President Johnson during the build-up of the Vietnam War.

Dr. Lewis Sorley’s biography of Johnson describes him as hard working, determined, religious, intelligent and honorable – all traits that raised him to a position that was, at one point, out of the question, because his prisoner of war experience disqualified him for career-enhancing assignments. Today we start with Johnson’s early years in North Dakota.

Harold was born in Bowesmont in 1912 to parents who were both born in Dakota Territory. With a name like Johnson, you’d think they came from Scandinavia, but their ancestral heritage was Scottish and Irish by way of Canada. Johnson’s mother, Edna, was a direct descendent of Myles Standish, the leader of the military who guarded the folks of the Plymouth Rock Colony during the early 1600s. Edna passed on her love for music and drama to her son.

Johnson’s father, Harold Cecil, was a religious leader, a Mason, and when Harold was 8, he moved the family to Grafton, where he managed the lumberyard. Harold’s maternal grandfather farmed, and his father’s father was a postmaster, a car salesman, implement dealer, and the owner of a general store that also served as a funeral parlor – all at the same time.

Every summer, young Harold spent time at one of his relatives’ homes. His maternal grandmother made a particularly deep impression on him. Sorley writes, “Johnson’s grandfather milked twenty-five cows morning and night, and his grandmother could handle more than that.

The youngster tried to do his share. ‘I got along where I could keep up and maybe get four done while she was doing ten,’ he remembered.”

Harold seems to have been fearless. At six, he was allowed to help a neighbor by driving a team of horses pulling a wagon-load of goods; the farmer followed on horseback, herding his dairy cows and a couple of sheep. A mechanical potato digger startled Harold’s team and they took off. Three-quarters of a mile later, the wagon was flashing past Mrs. Johnson just as the farmer caught up and brought the team under control. Once Edna was convinced that her son was okay, she let him continue his job. When about 10 years-old, he was picked out of a ditch by the town doctor. He had been driving his grandfather’s Ford pickup when he ran into a horse and buggy.

In highschool, Johnson was known as “Curly.” He had three jobs – janitor of the post office, gas-pumper at Roy’s Teapot Dome, and carrier of special delivery letters. He was also in the drama program and played basketball and football, but he said he had no athletic gifts, recalling one basketball game that his team lost… the score was 6-5.

Johnson particularly admired 3 of his teachers: Cora Lykken taught him discipline, “steadfastness of purpose and kindness to others;” 7th grade teacher Alice Holt introduced him to the possibility of attending West Point and helped him get an appointment through the local congressman; Ellen Carlson agreed that if he could find 8 students to enroll, she would teach an additional advanced-math class that he needed for acceptance to the Military Academy.

In 1929, he became the first person from Grafton to attend the prestigious school… which is where we’ll pick up in a future episode.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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