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Unique Journey: From WWII veteran to golf champ, Perry Johnson now lives quiet life of retirement

Sun - 12/24/2017

Amidst the rows of homes in a local housing development, a small golf putting green sits in the backyard like many homes, but unlike some, therein lives a World War II veteran who worked hard at the few opportunities afforded to him at the time, and who eventually found the game of golf.

While living in Yuma, Perry Johnson has garnered the attention and respect of his neighbors and fellow retirees. One such person is Jim Mercer of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who visits during the winter months with his wife. Mercer, impressed by Johnson's accomplishments, gathered his life story.

"A few years back we met, what Reader's Digest used to call, 'My Most Unforgettable Character,'" Mercer wrote. "In this case, it was Perry Johnson, a WWII veteran with a story to tell, about growing up dirt poor in the South, enlisting in the Army and seeing action in Europe, about becoming a U.S. postal worker in California, a nationally recognized golf champion ... and finally settling down in Yuma to buy his own house in the suburbs and live out the American dream."

Johnson was born in August 1921 just outside of Brazoria, Texas. At 6 years old, Johnson's mother passed away and his family moved to Houston. To support the family, Johnson's father worked at the Houston Compress, which was a cotton processing facility.

Johnson paid a visit to his local Army recruiting office after he graduated high school in 1940 while he was searching for work. He was called to active duty in January of 1942 following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"I was unable to find work, so I just told my father I was going to enlist in the Army," Johnson said in an interview with the Yuma Sun. "At 17 years old I went in and that was it."

To begin the processing for military life, Johnson was sent to Fort Sam Houston in Texas. Following that, he was transferred to Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri, for basic training. Johnson then went to Pensacola, Florida, for advanced training in motor vehicle maintenance and various combat skills.

In late 1942 Johnson was shipped off to England. He ended up on the country's east coast, north of London, becoming a member of the 829th Engineering Aviation Battalion, which was tasked with building airfields for the 8th Army Air Corps.

Johnson was relocated many times during his tour in England, and was sent to many different airfields. Johnson also worked with his unit on the repairs needed for the Orly Airport near Paris.

According to the Paris Orly Airport website, the facility opened in 1932 as a secondary airport to Le Bourget Airport, but it was controlled during the Second World War by the German Army when France was occupied by Germany. During the occupation, the airport had sustained damage.

While in France, Johnson did make an attempt to join the Red Ball Express, a truck convoy system made up predominantly of African-American drivers who drove supplies to Gen. George S. Patton'sThird Army.

The convoy lasted for only about five months in 1944, so Johnson was unable to join it before it ended. After the European Theatre of World War II ended on May 8, 1945, Johnson was shipped back home along with his mates.

Following his arrival at Bayonne, New Jersey, Johnson was later shipped to Fort Sam Houston. He told of traveling on a separate train from white passengers and recalled being instructed to pull down the blinds as they rolled through Mississippi.

At Fort Sam Houston, Johnson spent 52 weeks getting $20 a week in pay as part of a program to help GI's to transition to civilian life. After he returned home, Johnson landed a job caddying, a position he had gained experience in as a young child.

"My brother was older than me at the time," Johnson recalled. "He took me to this golf course and I think I was about 10 years old when I first started. From then on I liked it so well that I used to observe players that I caddied for."

One such player, he added, was none other than Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, considered by many to be the greatest female golfer of all time.

While in Houston, Johnson had one son from his first marriage which ended in divorce. He moved to California in 1950, landing a job with the U.S. Postal Service. In November 1956, he married his current wife, Bettye.

After retirement, Johnson pursued the game of golf, winning several tournaments and being featured on the front cover of Golfer's World Magazine. In a contemplative tone, he noted that as a black man, limitations were placed on him in the game.

"Well, I am sort of disappointed with golf because at the time that I started playing golf, we weren't allowed to play with the pros and things," he said. "I was 35 years old before I played on my first real golf course. It turned out to be such a good thing to do because it was so easy to make a living if you had a sort of a decent game, but I never did get to play professional. But through it all we managed."

Bettye took up the game herself as well.

"When we got ready to get married, he said, 'If you don't want to be a golf widow, you better get you some clubs,'" she chuckled. "I fell in love with it."

After she began playing tournaments in Yuma regularly, the two moved to the area. With a putting green in their backyard, the pair still dabble in the sport and spend their retirement years in the quiet of their neighborhood.

"The man we know is a gentle man who inspires all around him with a calmness rarely found today," Mercer said. "He visits our campground weekly to engage in quiet conversations about the people we know and the life we all live in our retirement years.

"Perry Johnson has known hard times," he added. "But through it all he has lived a hard life with integrity, with pride in his accomplishments, but most of all, with dignity and honor. We salute him as among the finest of the greatest generation."

 
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