The 78-year-old Navy boilerman filled up his fuel tank on his motorcycle, disregarded any nonsense from anybody who said he shouldn’t go after cancer and chemo – and went.
He left his little house on Elder Road in Rock Hill – the one with American flags in almost every room and the “You are not forgotten,” sign out front – and rode the 425 miles to Washington, D.C.
Because Bundy Johnson – whose real first name is Dixon, but he hasn’t been called that since first grade more than 70 years ago – wanted to honor Korean War veterans.
“I’m one, myself,” said Bundy. “Navy. 20 years I was in.”
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Johnson was not wounded in combat, but after 20 years in the service and 30 years driving a big-rig truck after that – not to mention the cancer and six months of chemotherapy that he shoos off as “nothin’ ” – he wanted to see the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
More, he wanted to clean the wall.
“He wanted to do it, so that’s what he did,” said Hank Johnson, a nephew who lives next door. “Tough guy, Bundy.”
Veterans groups and others often clean the memorials to war veterans at the nation’s capital. The National Park Service provides the brushes and hoses.
Johnson and four others from Rock Hill’s American Legion Post 34 Riders group rode to Washington, along with about 30 from five other Legion chapters around the state.
Johnson retired from the Navy after two decades as a chief petty officer, whose job that whole time was maintaining those brutally hot boilers in the deep bottom of those steel ships.
“I wasn’t any hero; I just did what young guys did back then,” said Johnson. “You wanted to get out of the mill, you went in the service. You served your country.”
This is a guy who comes from another era. Johnson quit school in the ninth grade to work in the Aragon Mill and help his family. He joined the Navy during the Korean War to get out of that mill that was hot as an oven, knowing full well he’d be in Korea, where people were dying.
“You had to weigh 117 pounds; I weighed 114 when I enlisted,” Johnson recalled. “They told me to eat bananas and milk and loaf bread, and two weeks later I made it and they let me in.”
This guy – about 5-foot-3, or 4, maybe – wasn’t in Korea long enough to shave before the destroyer he was on was shelled.
He got out of the service after serving aboard ship during the Vietnam War, then drove a truck all over North America while raising a family with five kids. But by the time Johnson retired from the road, he hadn’t seen the Korea memorial and wall, which was dedicated in 1995.
And he sure hadn’t had a chance to clean it.
“I figured I could help clean that wall with all those names on it, the guys who didn’t come back after that war,” Johnson said. “I came home; they didn’t come home.”
Korea is sometimes called the forgotten war – but Bundy Johnson never forgot.
The group made it to Washington, with Johnson, the colon cancer survivor who had been on motorcycles all his life, riding his Yamaha up front like Marlon Brando roaring into town in “The Wild One.”
The whole group cleaned and washed off the bird droppings and the dust and anything else that had fallen upon the granite.
“We picked up trash, too, and just made the place nice,” Johnson said.
Johnson scrubbed that wall with a brush on a stick. His left arm pushed up and down, with the 60-year-old eagle-over-anchor Navy tattoo that he got after a few beers as a teenager all those years ago on his left upper arm moving up and down. The tattoo is faded, blurry, but it still means Navy. The arm still works.
Johnson used great care, and because he was the Korean war veteran in the group, older than the rest, people made a big fuss over him and just about wouldn’t let him work.
“I was just doing what anybody would do who wanted to do his duty for others,” Johnson said. “I was honored to do it.”
The next day Johnson and all the others rode home, another 400-plus miles.
Johnson hopes to do it again, and soon. He wonders what all the fuss is about, too.
“You think about people who died for their country, or were wounded, and that ride don’t seem so long,” he said. “It’s not work to scrub that wall.
“It’s an honor.”