JOPLIN, Mo. — As a 17-year-old boy, desperate to fight for his country, Paul Johnson stopped a stranger on the street and begged him to be his poppa — temporarily, of course. “I just said, ‘I wish you could help me out. I want to be a Marine,’” the 86-year-old war veteran said, chuckling now at the memory dating back to 1944.
Johnson at the time was far from his Joplin home. He was, in fact, living in Oak Ridge, Tenn., visiting his two brothers there, and he was desperate to join the military so he could head east and fight the Japanese in the Pacific before the war ended.
Unfortunately, the recruiting station in Oak Ridge would only be open for a few more days. There wasn’t enough time for Johnson to drive back to Joplin, beg his parents for their consent, and drive all the way back to Tennessee to apply.
So, like a good U.S. Marine, he improvised. “I asked the man, ‘Would you be my father?’ And he did,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “He was very nice about it.”
Had he gone back to Joplin, he never would have received his parents’ blessings to head off to war, he added — particularly from his mother. “I know my mother would have said no,” he said. “And my dad did what my mom told him to do.”
But thanks to the help from a sympathetic stranger, all of that didn’t matter. Within days, Johnson was a U.S. Marine. His actions on that summer day in 1944 would launch a career that would see Johnson rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel by the time he retired in 1971. It would be a career that would span three wars — from World War II to the tangled jungles of Vietnam — and would involve three of America’s four armed forces.