When I was in the fifth grade, the Korean War was being fought. My teacher, a U.S. Marine whom I remember as “Mr. Anderson,” was called to active duty and within a few months was killed in action. It was my first experience with the horrors of war.
At the same time, 19-year-old Forrest Johnson, also a proud young Marine, was on a boat headed for Korea. He remembers wondering, as the California coastline faded from view, whether he would ever see it again.
He would, but not before seeing horrible battles fought in the darkness of night, many of his buddies killed close to him and charging into a stream of gunfire with a friend to get into a position to take out a machine gun nest.
After Forrest served for slightly more than 30 years with the Laguna Beach Fire Department, he and his wife, Marilyn, relocated to Atascadero.
I got to know Forrest when, in my role as a newspaper reporter, I interviewed him for a story about his exotic bird collection, which fills much of his backyard.
And I toiled with him when he volunteered to do concrete work for the Atascadero Historical Society and when we poured steps for the bandstand at Atascadero Lake Park.
I had heard bits and pieces about Forrest’s service in Korea.
Then, a little more than a year ago, he agreed to let me interview him about his exploits in that horrible “conflict” the nation found itself involved in during the early 1950s.
Forrest didn’t want to have to tell it more than once. I agreed that we’d record it; I’d transcribe it for him so his family had printed copies, and I’d do my story from that interview. It ran in the city of Atascadero’s magazine last year.
Last Friday, Forrest was among 27 war heroes to be honored in an event at Mitchell Park in San Luis Obispo hosted by state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo. They were honors that Forrest and the others so richly deserved.
Forrest has spent his life giving back to the community in appreciation for his life being spared in Korea. He worked with the Kiwanis Club in Laguna Beach before his retirement here. His laugh is infectious.
And Forrest is quick to volunteer for whatever task needs to be done. He’s an active docent in the Estrella Warbirds Museum and the Atascadero Veterans Memorial Museum, helping to see that latter project to fruition.
In fact, he was the Veterans Memorial group’s nomination for Blakeslee’s tribute. He’d be the first to tell you he didn’t deserve the honor. His story says otherwise.
Today, Forrest is maybe not so “lean,” and I don’t think he was ever “mean,” but he is certainly still a Marine, with plenty of reasons for us to be proud of him.
Lon Allan has lived in Atascadero for nearly four decades. His column appears on the Local page every Tuesday. He can be reached at 466-8529 or firstname.lastname@example.org.