Just when things were winding down for Bob Johnson, a group of 90-something veterans turned his life around. Johnson's "second life" began in 1990 at his Air Force retirement ceremony capping a 21-year career.
Johnson invited his longtime neighbor, Jack, to the ceremony. Jack was a World War I veteran, but Johnson really didn't know much about his service. It was a subject that just never came up.
A couple of weeks after that ceremony, Jack invited Johnson to a quarterly district meeting of Veterans of WWI of the USA. Johnson didn't even realize that World War I veterans had their own organization. But he went, and was amazed at what he found.
"There were 10 to 15 men attending at that time and they were all in their mid-90s," Johnson recalled. "They were struggling to keep the minutes of the meeting and do the bookwork, and asked if I would like to help. How could I say no?"
That was the beginning. Soon the group made him an honorary member, and it was only a matter of time before Johnson had a new voluntary career.
"I realized these were our most senior veterans in need of help and assistance. That started me on a mission to help them in whatever way I could," Johnson explained. He went to many of the California World War I veterans' annual conventions, but by the mid-1990s the number of active members had diminished significantly.
As a result, the conventions ended because there were not enough of the old guys left and those who were left were too frail to travel. By 1996, his neighbor Jack ended up being the "last man standing" of his barracks (a term used by WWI veterans groups in the same way that "post" or "chapter" is used by more recent groups) before he died at age 100.
Johnson learned the French government wanted to award the Legion of Honor medal, their highest honor, to American World War I veterans who served in France. Knowing that there must be more World War I veterans out there, Johnson went to the French Consulate in Los Angeles and offered to help them find as many as he could in California.
On Nov. 11, 1998 (the 80th anniversary of the World War I Armistice), the French government, through their consulates, started awarding the medals. Approximately 25 were awarded around the country on that day.
The activity received a lot of publicity, prompting people to call the consulates asking about their own grandfathers, fathers or uncles who had also served in World War I. By this time, the consulate in Los Angeles knew Johnson well enough that they would call him when a new inquiry came in.
His role was to visit the family, assist them with the application forms for the medal, and help coordinate a ceremony. Since 1998, with Johnson's tireless assistance, the French government has awarded 55 of these medals to California veterans.
It was during that first busy year of award presentations that Johnson began working with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Los Angeles Regional Office of Public Affairs in coordinating media releases for the ceremonies.
Word of Johnson's good work spread and he began helping the French consulate in San Francisco, as well. He traveled back and forth helping to locate World War I veterans and arrange medal presentation ceremonies. There was no pay or reimbursement.
"It's a labor of love," he explained. "No one was doing this and I had the flexibility and time to do it. We needed to find them and give them their deserved recognition." It became his passion.
Having spent so much time with these veterans and being a part of their lives, Johnson is a valuable conduit in keeping the stories of these brave men alive. He's learned a lot from these "living histories."
Many of the stories make interesting historical footnotes. One combat veteran, Lucius Perkins, who died at age 105, told Johnson such a story. Perkins worked in communications in the Army. He was on a break from his duties one day when an Army captain came by and asked if he was familiar with communications. When Perkins said yes, the captain told him he needed a communications man in his outfit. Perkins ended up moving over to support the captain's outfit (an artillery unit) and got a promotion out of it. The captain turned out to be Harry S. Truman.
Another veteran Johnson found was still living in the log cabin he built in the 1930s near Sacramento. He also found that many veterans had lied about their age to get into the war.
"It was pretty common," Johnson said. "I ran into many veterans who were actually underage when they went into the Army. [The war] was looked at as an opportunity. Their spirit of patriotism was extraordinary."
Johnson became very close to a Canadian veteran named Clifford Holliday who lived nearby.
"He enlisted when he was just 16 as a bugle boy but ended up in the battle trenches in France before he turned 17," explained Johnson. "This was in 1914 before the U.S. got involved in the war. The trench war early on was horrible, with millions of soldiers killed on each side. Clifford served in the trenches for almost two years in some very difficult times. He was wounded twice. In one particular engagement, his battalion strength started at 1,200 as they tried to take a hill. Only 300 came back."
Holliday, who had become a kind of surrogate grandfather to Johnson, passed away about a year ago at the age of 105.
"It was fascinating to talk with someone who had seen so much in the development of this country," recalled Johnson. "Through Clifford, I learned a lot. It made me more compassionate realizing what these people went through and the difficult times they had compared to what we have today."
The most recent addition to Johnson's repertoire of good deeds for World War I veterans happened earlier this year. News from Puerto Rico about a 113-year-old veteran reached Johnson through family members living there. He knew he had to go there and meet the veteran, Emiliano Mercado del Toro, in person.
"I was trying to find him and was having trouble. A few days before I was scheduled to go back to California, we found him. I called, visited him and his family." Johnson can't help smiling as he recalls the meeting. "It was pretty amazing to meet someone that old Ã¯Â¿Â½ the oldest living man Ã¯Â¿Â½ and veteran."
Within three days back in L.A., Johnson was in touch with the Guinness Book of World Records and started the application process for Mercado del Toro. It took a series of documents to prove he was who he said he was Ã¯Â¿Â½ Guinness has a rigorous standard for accurate verification. One of the documents was a letter from VA verifying his birth date. The process took two months, with Johnson working as liaison between the family and Guinness.
On Jan. 17, Guinness certified Emiliano Mercado del Toro as the world's oldest man and announced it to the world. Johnson went back to Puerto Rico to present the certificate on Jan. 28 with much media attention.
"It was probably the highlight of my life," said Johnson, "to be able to personally present a Guinness world record certificate to the oldest documented living man and to have been involved in getting him certified. The family was very grateful."
It's hard to know exactly how many World War I veterans are left, but Johnson estimates there are about 30. The numbers are dwindling so fast that in another two years, there may be none.
Unfortunately, not everyone knows the sacrifices these men made, and Johnson dedicated much of his life to bringing their stories to the public. Asked what he's going to do once all the World War I veterans are gone, Johnson didn't miss a beat.
"I am beginning to get involved with World War II veterans," he said with a laugh. "I just started a project over the last six to eight months to identify any World War II veterans who received the Medal of Honor for heroism in France and were not nominated to receive the French Legion of Honor. I found six so far and most are already in process."
Had it not been for his old neighbor Jack opening his eyes, he probably would never have gotten involved with these veterans.
"It really was a bit of fate," Johnson said. "It was an extraordinary opportunity to share their lives and it's a very important legacy we can't let our younger generations forget."