Harold K. Johnson was born in Bowesmont, North Dakota, on 22 February 1912. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1933, was commissioned a second lieutenant, and was assigned to the 3d Infantry at Fort Snelling. In 1935, he married Dorothy Rennix.
In 1936, he was promoted to first lieutenant and graduated from the Infantry School at Fort Benning two years later. Then he served in the 28th Infantry at Fort Niagara from 1938 to 1940. In 1940, he was assigned to the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts. Johnson also received a temporary promotion to captain.
Johnson served as a battalion commander in the Philippines following the opening of hostilities between Japan and the U.S. When Bataan fell, he was taken prisoner, survived the Death March and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war. He received temporary promotions to major and lieutenant colonel, and to permanent captain. Shortly after his liberation and the war, Johnson was promoted to temporary colonel.
In 1947, Johnson graduated from the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, then taught there until 1949. Johnson graduated from the Armed Forces Staff College in 1950; he then commanded the 3d Battalion, 7th Infantry. During the Korean War, Johnson was a battalion commander of the 5th and 8th Cavalry. He then served as the plans and operations officer of the I Corps, Far East Command.
Johnson graduated from the National War College in 1953 and headed the Joint War Plans Branch, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3, from 1954 to 1955. In 1956, Johnson was made a permanent colonel and temporary brigadier general. He successively served as the assistant division commander of the 8th Infantry Division, as chief of staff of the Seventh Army in Europe, and as chief of staff of the Central Army Group, North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In 1959, he was made a temporary major general and in 1960, Johnson was promoted to permanent brigadier general, and was the commandant of the Command and General Staff College until 1963. In 1963, Johnson was made a permanent major general and temporary lieutenant general; a year later he was promoted to temporary general.
From 1963 to 1964, Johnson served as the deputy chief of staff for operations. He then was the Chief of Staff of the Army from 3 July 1964 to 2 July 1968. During his tenure as Chief of Staff, Johnson led the Army during the expansion of the Vietnam War. He also oversaw operations in the Dominican Republic, the fielding of an airmobile division, and created the position of Sergeant Major of the Army. Johnson retired from active duty in 1968. He died in Washington, D.C., on 24 September 1983.
For more information, see: Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. Johnson and the Ethics of Command, by Lewis Sorley, University Press of Kansas, 1998.