Times Past

Cal Poly’s former animal science leader ‘hit the dusty trail’ in World War II

Richard Johnson with his fat, ginger-striped cat seated on his walker just a month ago. Johnson died recently.
Richard Johnson with his fat, ginger-striped cat seated on his walker just a month ago. Johnson died recently.

Editor’s note: This is the second of two columns on a beloved Cal Poly leader.

Richard Johnson was raised in a Chicago suburb, but he had the opportunity to work summers on a farm owned by a member of his family. He grew to love horses and large farm animals — and ultimately became a legendary teacher of animal science at Cal Poly.

Richard, who died recently, was accepted at Iowa State University, one of America’s foremost agricultural colleges. He was fascinated by the rapidly evolving, science-driven aspects of the field of animal nutrition. Through his part-time work as an illustrator for classroom and textbook art, he came to appreciate the role of graphics in effective teaching.

At Ames, he did ROTC training with horse-drawn French 75mm howitzers (relatively short-barreled cannons) and caissons, a two-wheeled cart for carrying ammunition. He was among the last soldiers in the Field Artillery to experience the meaning of the lyrics to the Army’s “Caisson Song,” put to music by John Philip Sousa in 1918.

Once with a group of children at the San Luis Obispo County Library, I urged him to explain how the field pieces would be hauled “over hill, over dale, we will hit the dusty trail” until they arrived at their assigned firing position. In 1943, the role of Richard, then the officer in charge, was to “shout out the number loud and strong,” disclosing the coordinates for aiming and firing the weapon.

He explained that by the time they got into actual combat in France and Belgium, the coordinate would be telephoned rather than shouted.

The armed forces of the United States were segregated until 1947. Richard was assigned to the 349th Field Artillery Battalion training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. This battalion had the distinction of being the first black artillery unit in the regular Army. He was serving as a training officer retooling the Army National Guard units for the new realities of mechanized warfare with tractor-trailer artillery.

Black soldiers were not allowed to become officers in the Field Artillery. Richard as a young lieutenant was in command of a group of weathered noncommissioned officers and enlisted men who often had far more experience.

He told his daughter, Kay Lewis, “These men had volunteered for the Army. I wondered how these guys could have volunteered to fight for a nation that considered them second-class citizens.”

Richard told my wife, Liz, and me that the white units got all of the USO shows with Bob Hope, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth. While the “official” record states otherwise, he couldn’t recall his men ever getting to attend a USO performance.

Richard never liked to speak of his own combat experiences. Our searches through the official records show that the 349th Field Artillery Battalion arrived in Belgium just as the final German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge was beginning in the Ardennes Forest in December 1944. The heavy, slow-moving 155mm tractor-trailer arrays were at a great disadvantage when compared with the German Panzers in the severe weather conditions.

There were foul-ups at the command level leading to the dismissal of the most senior white officer and his being replaced under orders of the famed Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe.

On Dec. 23, 1944, days after McAuliffe’s Bastogne headquarters had been cut off, C-47 air transports finally came over with the first resupply for the besieged area, but no 155mm howitzer ammunition was included.

Richard recalled one “perk” that he could pass along to his black noncommissioned officers. White officers were given bottles of Scotch whiskey or “requisitioned” French brandy after combat operations. Johnson didn’t drink, so he placed his allotment in the back of his NCO’s Jeeps.

This modest son of the Midwest had acquired an immense knowledge of how to live with others who were outwardly different from him, while he was still in his early 20s.

In last week’s column, we introduced Richard as he guided us into the cattle barns at Cal Poly in 1971. A line of “barn cats” followed him. We asked if he liked cats. He replied, “I don’t, but they keep the rodent population down.”

Mary Caballero, Richard’s marvelous caregiver over the past three years, just sent us evidence to the contrary. It’s an image of Johnson with his fat, ginger-striped cat seated on his walker just a month ago.

This column is special to The Tribune. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association. Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian for the San Luis Obispo County Library.