Memorial Day is when we remember those who sacrificed their lives while serving in our nation’s armed forces, but two local former military men say the families of fallen soldiers should also be thanked for the experiences and livelihoods they lost.
Tooele residents Ivan Draper and Greg Johnson said such thankfulness would help families of living and fallen soldiers to feel their sacrifices have been worthwhile.
Both men have traced their forefathers to leaders in the Mormon Battalion, the religious military unit commissioned by President James K. Polk to serve a year in the Mexican-American War between July 1846 and July 1847. They also have roots in early New England colonizers and Utah settlers.
Draper’s wife, Jean, had a great grandfather who was president of the Mormon Battalion. William Draper, who is Draper’s great grandfather, stayed in Iowa when the original Mormon pioneers headed west for Utah in 1847. He left Iowa a year later.
Jarvis Johnson, who is Johnson’s great grandfather and was a Mormon Battalion soldier, was one of the first settlers in Box Elder County.
The two men say leadership and a love for serving their country are in their blood. However, they say their wives and families were the ones who made it possible for them to serve their military careers.
Draper, who is now 87, served his country for almost half his life. He signed up for the Army in March 1951, just nine months after the Korean Conflict began. With another stint in the Air National Guard, he served a total of 40 years in the military, traveling the world and retiring just three months into the Iraq War.
Johnson, 61, was born in Logan, Utah and graduated from Bear River High in Garland, Utah. He graduated from Utah State University in finance and joined the Navy in 1982. He served until 2012 as a Navy Supply Corps Officer.
As a civilian, he has since worked at Hill Air Force Base doing more of what he had done in the military: shipping, purchasing and moving parts, and food and fuel on a contractual basis. He will retire from the base at the end of July.
Johnson says he came to Tooele County with his wife, Fe, in 1994 when he began working for the U.S. Postal Service.
After commuting to and from HAFB to work, he and Fe are moving to Spanish Fork to be near their three grown children. The couple also plans to split their time between summers in Utah and winters in the Philippines.
Johnson said he has changed the way he thinks about Memorial Day over his military service.
“I have taken the time to think about those who didn’t make it back,” he said.
When his unit deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, he said, “there were three who went to war and only two came back.”
The losses are tough, he said.
“It devastates the family. It devastates the wife. It devastates the children,” Johnson said. “There is a high price for service even if you come back. You have to come back and pick up and carry on.”
When Johnson was first deployed, some people told him they were sorry he was being deployed.
“That is an insult to me,” he said. “I consider it an honor to serve. People need to understand that we do want to serve.”
Draper was born in Wellington, Utah on Dec. 29, 1929. As a 20 year old, he started working for Utah Power and Light. He was drafted into the Army in March 1951 during the Korean Conflict.
“I went to radio school to work with the Army Signal Corps and became a radio repairman and instructed radio repair,” he said.
Draper’s job was crucial to success in the war, as he worked on developing communications, testing, managing and providing information systems support for command and control of the combined armed forces.
Johnson added that what Draper did was an extremely important job.
“If you don’t communicate bad things happen,” he said. “If you miscommunicate the wrong things happen.”
Draper downplayed his experience in the military, and since he never saw combat, he defers to his brother as the one who really paid the price in his military career. His brother, Ray Draper, was a 25-year-old pilot on the ocean at Pearl Harbor before it was bombed.
Draper recalled his brother spent seven dangerous days on the island of Sumatra, which U.S. troops found the Japanese had overrun.
“So they went on to Java, New Guinea and then Australia,” Draper said.
Ray contracted malaria in New Guinea and then flew 52 missions to five combat areas. Those areas included the Coral Sea and Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Ray flew a reconnaissance mission over Guadalcanal. The Japanese army was constructing a base on the island and Ray’s findings helped prepare the U.S. military for invasion and success.
Ray received the Distinguished Line Cross and the Purple Cross and a Silver Star during the early missions. He then went to Texas and Wendover for heavy bombardment training, Draper said.
Germans shot down his plane over Belgium after he was deployed to England. Doctors performed reconstructive surgery to replace his jawbone with one of his ribs.
“He stayed in the military another one-and-three-quarter years, worked at HAFB and received a BA and MA while he was active,” Draper said.
When Draper’s only son, Allen, graduated from high school, he looked into joining the Air National Guard as a father-son pair.
“I signed up and he went on a mission,” Draper said. He became team chief as the oldest in the squadron and as the non-commissioned officer in charge.
Draper said being in the military over four decades was eye opening. Serving in a world war is nothing like being in the military during peaceful times.
“I served during wartime. It wasn’t a game at that time. It wasn’t social,” he said.
He noticed that after World War II, soldiers came home and the American public showed gratitude.
“I was discharged from Korea and I came home and there was not much said,” he said.
After Vietnam, he said the lack of gratitude was at its worst and the soldiers received, “The worst of it. You can’t mistreat these people. They went through literal hell and deserve recognition.”
Johnson, like Draper, has traveled the world, spending time in Iraq and Djibouti, Africa, where he was Chief of Contracting Officers to 10 countries. He attended Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island.
“On June 4 it will have been 35 years [ago],” he said. Five years into his military career, he married Fe and now she has been a citizen for 25 years.
“I was stationed in Japan in 1986. Her father was an officer in the Philippine Army, so he served in the U.S. Army during World War II,” Johnson said. “He survived the Bataan Death March.”
The march was when the Japanese Army forcibly marched Philippine prisoners of war around 65 miles, executing many, starving many and mistreating the majority.
Johnson was set up on a blind date for dinner at his religious leader’s home. Fe was serving as a nanny to an Air Force officer who had 10 children, one of which was handicapped. She had been asked to move with the family to Japan. It was there the two met.
The couple laugh that Johnson started out in the Navy and Fe started out in the Air Force and then they switched. She married him and became a naval wife and he worked as a civilian at HAFB.
How will the two retired men spend their Memorial Day? For Draper, he said his age curtails his activities.
“I am going to rely on my children to go and decorate the graves,” he said. “We can’t travel. We will watch the programs and honor guards and services on TV. Times change.”
Johnson just closed on the mortgage for his Spanish Fork home.
“We go there two times a week,” he said. “We have a small trailer and we’re just filling it up and taking it down. We will be packing and moving. It is taking up every spare minute I have.”
With regards to remembering fallen soldiers this Memorial Day, Johnson said, “We owe a high debt, not just to those who died serving the country, but I have realized how important their families are … We need to look after the families of the deployed service members who lose a father or a mother and an income.”