The Little Boy Who Grew Up To Be A Hero

The morning of April 25, 1980 was a typically beautiful Spring day in Laurens County. Ardelia Dixon decided to go fishing that morning.  She had seen her brother briefly in the last few months and only knew that he was working on some secret military mission.  Just a few hours later, she got the news - the news she had feared, but hoped would be true.  That night the evening news carried the story of the ill-fated attempt to rescue fifty-two Americans being held hostage by the Iranian government.   School children and thousands of others displayed American flags printed by the Courier Herald and tied yellow ribbons around their trees as symbols of  hope for a quick and safe return of the hostages.   As the story began to unfold and night began to fall, a pall was cast over the county.  We began to realize just how close we were to the death and destruction that we were seeing on our television sets.

Staff Sergeant Dewey Johnson was born and raised in Laurens County.  Dewey, the son of Elmer and Lucille Johnson, attended the East Laurens schools.  He, like most boys of my generation, probably played army. " The most important thing I remember about Dewey was that he truly loved the military," his sister Ardelia remembered.   At the age of seventeen he entered into the military service of his country.   Dewey married Dianne Gaillard.  They had two fine children, Lee Ann, 8, and Wesley, 2.   Sgt. Johnson was stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station near New River, N.C. as a quality assurance specialist in the maintenance of helicopters.   When the Pentagon began planning a super secret mission to rescue the hostages, Dewey Johnson was among the one hundred and eighty  men who volunteered to serve in Operation Blue Light.  Dewey didn't know any of the hostages.  He knew that they were not his friends, but he knew that they were Americans.  He knew that they must be brought home.  After twenty practice missions, the men were ready to go.  It would be a dangerous mission. The refueling stop had to be done at night.  The commandos would have to transfer to helicopters, which would fly them to a secret mountain hideout.  From the mountains, the assault on the compound two hundred miles away, where the hostages were being held, would have to be swift.

Six C-30 transport planes, half of them carrying men and equipment and the other half carrying fuel, rendezvoused with helicopters in an Iranian desert.  The nearly moonless night sky hampered the refueling operation.  The hydraulic systems of the Sigorsky RH53 helicopters began to fail.  When the number of effective helicopters was down to four or five and their ability to bring all of the hostages out safely was in serious jeopardy, the ground commander scrubbed the mission.  As one of the helicopters began to lift off and move above one of the C-130s to top off its fuel tanks, one of the copter's rotors clipped the cargo plane. Both aircraft burst into flames.  Ammunition inside the aircraft was ignited. Eight Americans were killed.  One of them was Dewey Johnson.  Another was Capt. Lyn McIntosh of Valdosta, (left)  who was  piloting one of the two aircraft. McIntosh's father managed the Sears-Roebuck store here in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

As the news of the maelstrom came into the news office of the Courier Herald, so did Buddy Kight, father of Marine Corporal Kenneth Kight.  The elder Kight had received a call from his son earlier in the week telling him of a secret mission.  Kight was relieved to find that the name of his son, who had also volunteered for the mission, was not on the casualty list.

A special memorial service was held for the men in the Amphitheater of Arlington National Cemetery on May 9, 1980.  President Jimmy Carter personally consoled the families of
Johnson, and McIntosh, and the other fallen heroes.  A granite monument was placed just west of the amphitheater in honor of the eight men.  It lies in a section dedicated to  heroes - just to the side of the monument honoring the astronauts of the space shuttle Challenger and within a few yards of the grave of  another Laurens County hero, Congressional Medal of Honor winner Capt. Bobbie E. Brown. Another memorial service was held in North Carolina, where Johnson and two of the other men were stationed.  All of the members of Johnson's squadron and Johnson's family came to the Johnson home to show their support and give comfort to Dianne.

The body of Dewey Johnson was escorted home for his burial in the military section of Dublin Memorial Gardens.  Lt. Col. Ed Seifert, Johnson's commanding officer, presented a Marine Defense Meritorious Service Medal and an American flag to Diane Johnson, along with six other flags to family members.   Lt. Col. Seifort once flew missions in Vietnam with Lt. Tee Holmes of Laurens County.  A Marine squad honored Johnson with a twenty-one-gun salute.  Almost immediately, members of community began a fund-raising drive to honor Dewey Johnson.  Led by Bo Whaley and Doug Hall of the Courier Herald, Leon Green, Dahlia Wren, Cecil Passmore, and Wendell Zeigler, the generous and grateful citizens of Laurens County raised the funds and secured the presence of Veteran's Administrator, Max Cleland, himself a victim of war, for the dedication of the monument on the courthouse square.  Rev. James Frost recited a verse from John 15:13: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."  The Strickland family displayed a collection of Marine memorabilia, which included a model of Johnson's helicopter,  in the window of their storefront across from the site of the monument

Nine months after his death, Dianne Johnson traveled to Washington to meet the hostages following their release on Inauguration Day.  She appeared on the Today Show and shared a special time with President and Mrs. Reagan along with the widows of the other men, which brought a sense of closure.  The women talked with each other until the middle of the night, sharing their deep pains with each other.

Two years after his death, a second monument to Johnson and his fellow comrades was
dedicated on the grounds of the Dublin-Laurens Museum.   Ron and Vicki Miller of Florida
decided to honor the eight men with a plaque to be placed in their hometowns.  Doyle Dominy
donated a flag pole.  Charlie Garbutt put it up.  Wilkinson & Son and Georgia Power Company
lent a hand.   Dublin Burial Vault donated a block of granite. The ladies of the John Laurens
Chapter, N.S.D.A.R. donated an American flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol.  State
Representative and soon to be Congressman, J. Roy Rowland,  dedicated the monument.
Rowland, a decorated hero in World War II, dedicated the monument as a symbol of the men's
courage and self sacrifice.

Dewey Johnson Bridge, Dedicated October 2017 

Monuments, roads, and bridges are reminders.  They remind us of our accomplishments.   They remind us of our heroes.  They remind of us of little boys, like Dewey Johnson, who grow up to be heroes and lay down their lives for their friends.