Going To Heaven, I’ve Been to Hell.


Posted Tue, Apr 30, 2013

“I wasn’t old enough to join the Navy. But I was tired of school, tired of my home life. I saw the Navy as an outlet. I couldn’t think of any other way, it seemed like a good idea.” — Gerald Johnson

Seamen Johnson

Seamen Gerald Johnson secures a line aboard The Blue Ghost.

There was only one problem. Gerald Johnson was 16-years old. The Naval Reserve requires individuals to be at least 17 to join. The person Gerald turned to for help, would be the one person who this decision would weigh heaviest upon — his mother. Johnson’s mother knew that the problems that festered at home, might cultivate into a dissolution much worse than joining the military.

“It was hard, but she knew it was better than anything else that could’ve happened,” Johnson says. She knew that I would leave anyway, and this just seemed like a better option for both of us. She would know where I was, that I was safe, and that was all that mattered.”

Johnson’s mother knew a notary who was willing to endow his request through a notarized legal document, lawfully identifying him as an individual of appropriate age to enlist. After supplementing his birth certificate with the official document, Johnson was accepted into the Naval Reserve.

“They couldn’t turn me down if I passed the written test and the physical,” Johnson says. “I was fit. I didn’t smoke or drink, and since they thought I was 18, I knew nothing could hold me back after that.”

Johnson began juggling school and training with the Reserve every other week and on the weekends at the Naval Air Station in Memphis. The arrangement would grow stagnant, Johnson had become anxious in his new situation, it was time for another transition. Johnson decided it was time to take the next big step.


“Finally, I told them I wanted to go to active duty. I was ready to leave home,” he says.

Johnson’s request was granted, and he was sent to the opposite side of the country at the Naval Training Center in San Diego.

“I went through basic training,” Johnson says, “and since I was already in an aviation reserve unit, they assigned me a job at the Air Navigation at North Island. It was a regular job. I was there from 8-5, off on the weekends. I got lucky. Some guys got some pretty bad jobs.”

But really there wasn’t too much to worry about. Johnson says his unit was well feed and had a place to sleep. “Three hots and a cot is what we called it,” he says. “We were taken care of and got paid. I probably only made $300 a month, but I didn’t have to pay for anything.”

With cigarettes 25 cent a pack, 75 cent gas and dollar movies, Johnson says the money he did spend was barely a piece of his check.

However, money wasn’t the reason why Johnson joined the Navy. There were the pressures of home, and he desired to experience life on his own.

“I got sick of that shit,” he says. “At 16, who wants to sit in an office all day? I probably had the mentality of a 15-year old, and the attention span of someone even younger. It was just like going to school or hanging around your parents.”

Johnson had felt displaced after being transported into a world he knew nothing about. Not only was he encountering experiences that were foreign to him, but they were instances that he hadn’t even become familiar with himself.

“They’d talk about women, drinking all night and problems with their wife,” he says. “I hadn’t even experienced anything they were talking about. I didn’t feel like I fit in.”


Johnson became restless to say the least. His restlessness became so overwhelming that he asked for a transfer to a ship. Once again his wish was granted. Johnson was transferred to the “Blue Ghost” — otherwise known as the U.S.S Lexington aircraft carrier.

“It was like going to a city, there were over 3,000 people on that ship,” he says. “They had a cafeteria that was open 24/7, a dental office, a hospital, people went to work there — it was crazy.”


Johnson and friend pose with a jet fighter aboard The Blue Ghost.

Johnson describes the Lexington as a whole different world, accompanied by an entirely new subculture of people.

“If you haven’t been in the military you can’t understand how people function in there. You have no idea what it’s like until you experience it yourself. And it’s still distant from anything else I’ve done in my life,” he says.

Johnson would travel nearly 6,000 miles across the Pacific to South Korea, where he would serve a mandatory 12 months.

Johnson spent most of his time patrolling the Demilitarized Zone, a boundary designated to show the barrier between North and South Korea.

A military structure built by the United Nations sits right on the line that separates the two countries. Inside the building there’s an ordinary room with a table, a few chairs and a bold line across the middle to visually establish the divide between the two countries.

Military police sit outside the building on each side at all times. Eventually they would switch at the end of their shifts, but the building is never unguarded. Someone is there all day on their respective sides of the border.


“We were assigned to maintain the DMZ and provide intelligence for the United Nations and South Korea. That’s why we walked the Zone up and down, we would just watch and listen,” Johnson says.

“Sometimes we’d talk to them. We weren’t supposed to, but hey, it was just us and them out there,” Johnson says. “They would say, “Hey G.I. what you doing here? Why you over here in my country? You need to go home. We didn’t do anything to you!”

Aside from the smack talk that was peppered in on daily patrols, the idea of walking up and down a fence seems mundane, but this was the furthest thing from a stroll in the park.

“We walked in the Zone, the DMZ on foot patrol,” Johnson says. “A six man squad with an armed jeep behind us during the day. We never walked at night. When it got dark, we took positions because they’d shoot at us at night. People would take pot shots across the DMZ, because no one could see where it was coming from. You would see tracers from the bullets flying all night.”

North and South Korea didn’t have a peace treaty, Johnson explains. They just had a cease-fire, there’s a big difference. They agreed to stop shooting at each other

“But that was bullshit,” Johnson says.

“In the summer, the sun burn through our clothes and bake our skin in the day. Mosquitoes spend the night eating you up. And in the winter, we would freeze our asses off. I had a sergeant who would bring a fifth of Jack with him. We didn’t know your blood got thinned by alcohol, and he almost froze to death trying to stay warm.”


Twelve months had lapsed, and Johnson had served his time. Or at least he thought he had….

“Right when I was about to get out, the Cuban Missile Crisis stuff started up,” he says.

“I had done my time, crawled through the mud, fought off every damn bug you could imagine, and you want me to stay longer? I didn’t have much of a choice,” he says.

Nonetheless Johnson perervered through his tour of duty while maturing as a person. Digesting each day as a new lesson to be learned, and each one has served him well to this day.

“The military gave me the guidance I needed. I wear that cavalry patch proud.”



About J.R. Johnson

J.R. is a student at the Metro State University of Denver pursuing his degree in journalism and communications.

View all posts by J.R. Johnson

One Response to “Going To Heaven, I’ve Been to Hell.”

  1. Aaron Lambert Says:

    Fantastic story, J.R. Paints a well-rounded picture of Gerald not only as a soldier, but also as a human. Awesome, awesome job!


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