By Melissa Ziobro
Albert Clinton Johnson, the man who would become the first African American colonel in the U.S. Army Signal Corps came into this world 27 May 1921 in the old Vandalia neighborhood of Charleston, West Virginia. He later attended Garnet High School and, in 1938, enrolled in what was then known as West Virginia State College (now University), graduating with a degree in Mathematics in 1942. Soon after his graduation, he enlisted in the Army via the local recruiting office.
Johnson was initially assigned to Tuskegee, Alabama, in support of the famed African American airmen training there. This posting, however, lasted for just a few weeks. The Army soon sent him to the Signal Corps School at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, to become an electronics repairman. He recalled taking classes in a former airplane hangar that dated back to the Army Air Service days at Fort Monmouth during World War I.
Military and civilian workers alike noted that Fort Monmouth was a place uniquely accepting of African American personnel. In the words of African American electrical engineer Thomas E. Daniels, who worked at the fort for thirty-five years, “Fort Monmouth was known as the Black Brain Center of the U.S.,” and as an installation that “provided a place where black scientists and engineers could find jobs and advance their careers.” Other research facilities largely closed their doors to African Americans. Johnson expressed similar sentiments. When he and twenty-one other young black men arrived at the fort in January 1943, the post commander, Major General George Van Deusen, told every company commander that there was to be no segregation. The men were to be “scattered around,” as Johnson recalled, noting, “That worked out very well and I began to admire Fort Monmouth very much…this was one of the few posts that I was assigned to where everybody was considered as good as everybody else, and everybody worked in harmony trying to get the best things accomplished.” At this time, the Army (like much of the nation) was segregated until President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces by issuing Executive Order 9981 on 26 July 1948.
Despite progressive attitudes by the leadership at Fort Monmouth in the 1940s and 1950s, African American civilians and soldiers alike cited racism off-post during those years. Johnson encountered this, too. For example, once, when going to see a movie off-post with a white friend, Johnson was told he had to sit in the balcony. Neither Johnson nor his friend took kindly to this. They conducted a little experiment, trying to sit together at movie theaters in other local towns. They encountered the same problem in each. They promptly reported this to Van Deusen, who reportedly called all the local mayors and told them that they would either treat his African American personnel as equals, or face a boycott by the thousands of personnel under Van Deusen’s command. Johnson remembered Van Deusen fondly, saying “I became very proud of him.”
Johnson, who scored high on IQ tests, completed his coursework so quickly and thoroughly that a captain suggested he attend Officer Candidate School (OCS). Johnson recalled thinking, “Well, I’ve only been in the military two and a half months, but I’ll be glad to do whatever I can do.” Johnson did attend OCS at Fort Monmouth, finishing in August 1943. Tradition dictated that, following the graduation ceremony, new lieutenants had to give a dollar to the first soldier that saluted them on their way back to their quarters. Johnson fondly recalled that he and the other newly minted officers happily complied.
Additional electronics training at Fort Monmouth followed, until Johnson transferred to Arlington Hall Station in Arlington, Virginia, a cryptanalysis site that was supposed to make use of the German language skills he had learned in college. Instead, superiors mandated that he take charge of the janitors “because they’re black and they need somebody to lead them.” Johnson, understandably, disagreed. He then managed to get transferred to the Signal Corps Plant Engineering Agency in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which, as George Raynor Thompson and Dixie R. Harris wrote in The Signal Corps: The Outcome (Mid-1943 through 1945), “furnished the equipment, material, engineering, and installation service for Army fixed communications and Army Air Force airways communications.” It was there that he celebrated V-E Day in May 1945, even though the war in the Pacific and Asia was still being fought.
In June 1945, Johnson went to the Philippines by way of Hawaii, helping to set up telegraph, telephone, and other communications support. He was preparing for the invasion of Japan when B-29 bombers dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August and brought World War II to an end. He ultimately became a part of the occupation forces with the 1st Signal Construction Company. As he remembered it, they brought in many Signal Corps people to repair destroyed communications systems. Johnson remained in Japan for some three years and recalled the Japanese population as very welcoming. He also remembered they thought of General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander in Japan, as a god.
While in Japan, Johnson was promoted to first lieutenant. It was in the years immediately following World War II that he decided to make the Army his career. As he told it, “I wasn’t so sure I was going to stay in the military, because I had always leaned toward being a doctor.” One wonders if Johnson regretted this decision when, from Japan, he was sent to Texas to help establish communications among White Sands Proving Ground (later known as White Sands Missile Range) in New Mexico, Fort Bliss in Texas, and other such sites in the area working on missile and other weapons technologies.
Unfortunately for Johnson, Texas and the command leadership at posts throughout the region were not as progressive on race relations as Major General Van Deusen had been at Fort Monmouth during the war years. Despite the fact that Truman had by now desegregated the armed forces, not everyone embraced the new rules, and change came slowly. For example, African American personnel were banned from the pool at Fort Bliss. Johnson approached the post leadership with the issue, telling them “You know, we’re really tired of being in positions where we could get killed as well as anybody else could, and we should be provided with the same things as everybody else.” His pleas were met with resistance, and he was ultimately told that the post would deal with the issue when he returned from the leave he had planned to take for his wedding.
Johnson left Fort Bliss to marry his fiancé, Norma. While they were honeymooning with family in West Virginia they discovered that they had been transferred back to Fort Monmouth. Johnson felt “that was the best news…I had, because I knew how Fort Monmouth is.” Upon arriving, Johnson and his wife were relieved to see “it was almost just like it was when General Van Deusen was there and we were…very happy.” After some refresher courses at the Signal School, Johnson became an instructor there. The young couple settled off-post because they wanted to own property and have some choice over where their future children would go to school.
This domestic idyll was short-lived. The Korean War intruded, and Johnson was soon sent to Korea and assigned to the 51st Signal Battalion, which provided communications support for United Nations (UN) forces at the front. While in Korea, Johnson was the only black officer in his battalion. He was soon promoted to captain. His new position brought about some concerns about how the white officers under him would respond to this. Soon, though, they were too busy fighting off the Chinese to worry about such trivial matters. As Johnson recalled it, he was there in the fall of 1950 when approximately 300,000 Communist Chinese troop stormed into North Korea and drove UN forces back south. According to Johnson, “None of them had quality weapons…most of them we saw had these hammers loaded with a firing element where they could throw at somebody and it would burst around them, but they didn’t have any weapons. They didn’t have any big guns or anything like that but they did have people.” Johnson’s battalion retreated. The war eventually settled into a stalemate around the 38th parallel. One of the highlights of the war, if there is such a thing, was USO support, when civilians like Betty Hutton visited the region.
Following the Korean War, Johnson returned to Fort Monmouth (by now becoming a home base of sorts for him) and served again as an instructor at the Signal School. In the early 1960s, the Army assigned him to West Germany to serve as commander of the 144th Signal Battalion in Heidelberg. Johnson, who during World War II had arrived at Arlington Hall Station hoping to put his German language skills to good use only to be offered command of some civilian janitors, was now in West Germany acting as the first black commander of the 144th.
A return trip to duty at the Signal School at Fort Monmouth and additional promotions followed Germany. This tour at Fort Monmouth included service as Director of the Signal School’s Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS). Established at Fort Monmouth in 1925 by amateur or “ham” radio operators, the MARS station’s primary mission, according to a 1967 press release, was “to create interest and further training in military communications,” and “act as a backup or auxiliary communications system for military commanders during national or local emergencies, and provide a source of additional trained volunteer radio communications specialists.” During the Vietnam War era, it served the critical function of sending “personal, morale-type messages between military personnel overseas and parents, relatives, and friends at home.” That press release quotes then Lieutenant Colonel Johnson as saying, “We try to live up to the true tradition of the Signal Corps in that we do our utmost to ‘get the message through.’ MARS is fortunate to have the dedicated, conscientious operators who fully appreciate the importance of providing our men in Vietnam a communications link to their loved ones in the States. The ability to use MARS as a means to contact their families from a remote outpost is one of the biggest morale boosters provided to our fighting men in Southeast Asia.”
In 1968, Johnson became the first African American to achieve the rank of colonel in the Signal Corps. He deployed to Vietnam and was assigned to the 1st Signal Brigade from 1969 to 1970, serving as the chief of staff to Major General Thomas M. Rienzi, the brigade commander. The 1st Signal Brigade was the largest signal brigade organized for the war and had a peak strength of 21,000 soldiers in 1968, making it the largest brigade in the entire Army at that time. The 1st was tasked with providing communications to U.S. forces scattered over more than 60,000 miles of territory that included jungle, mountain ranges, and coastal lowlands. The brigade also emphasized training, and one of the brigade’s first acts was to establish the Southeast Asia Signal Training Facility in 1966 to supplement the Army’s stateside training programs. Eventually, the facility would train signalmen from other U.S. services and allied nations involved in the war. In addition, the first centralized photographic coverage of the war began with the creation of the Southeast Asia Pictorial Center. Photographers from the center’s operating unit, the 221st Signal Company, would go on to capture much of the combat action in Vietnam.
During his time in Vietnam, Johnson and his wife discussed whether he might stay in the service in the hopes of being promoted to Brigadier General. Norma reportedly told him, “No, the only star you are going to get is me when you come back.”
Johnson returned to Fort Monmouth to work for the U.S. Army Electronics Command now headquartered there. He retired there in 1972 with thirty years of military service. He and his family remained in Monmouth County. After multiple tours at Fort Monmouth, they had put down roots in the area. Norma Johnson had worked as a special education teacher in the nearby Long Branch School District, in addition to being a registered nurse.
Following his retirement from the Army, Johnson kept busy. He worked alternately as a stock broker with Thomson and McKinnon Auchincloss, Inc.; as a senior project engineer with Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc.; and as President, Chief Executive Officer, and Board Chairman of LTH Systems, Inc., and Communications Electronics Systems Engineering, Inc. A May 1984 Asbury Park Press article feted Johnson’s role as a small business owner, stating, “As little as ten years ago, it would have been unheard of to find Johnson in such a position, and today, it is still rare. Johnson is a black business owner in an industry that has traditionally attracted few minorities.” In that article, Johnson spoke about wanting to join LTH Systems “to help open up the high tech field to other minorities…I was ready to retire…but I saw a big challenge to provide a valuable opportunity for minorities.” Even in civvies, Johnson was committed to breaking down barriers and blazing a trail for those who might follow him.
Johnson finally “retired retired” as he put it, in the early 1990s. Despite the travel his military and civilian jobs had sometimes required, Johnson found time to remain active in the Fort Monmouth Post Chapel, Fort Monmouth Officers Club, Monmouth County Men’s Club, Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, NAACP, and the Eatontown Chamber of Commerce. He died 8 February 1998 at the age of seventy-six at the Jersey Shore Rehabilitation Center in Eatontown. The cause of death was multiple myeloma, a cancer believed to be linked to Agent Orange exposure during his tour in Vietnam. The Army never disputed this. Johnson was survived by his wife, three daughters, and two grandchildren.
Upon Johnson’s death, Lieutenant Colonel Avery W. Grant, USA-Ret., eulogized him in the Fort Monmouth newspaper, the Monmouth Message. His remembrances tell us much about Johnson’s character, the type of intimate details not generally available in official records. Grant wrote, “His distinguished professional career greatly enhanced the professionalism and credibility of all Signal Corps soldiers.”
Johnson, so many times a pioneer himself, was particularly sensitive to the needs of his fellow African American soldiers. As Grant wrote, “Colonel Johnson was our mentor, teaching us how to network and work with each other. He saw that some of the white officers studied in groups and he reached out to those of us that were isolated and worked with us…wherever he went, he opened his home, realizing that black officers had few mentors…Colonel Johnson laid the foundation for many successful careers in the Army and later in private sector positions. Quite simply, we were successful because Colonel Johnson cared and that is the greatest epitaph.”
Johnson was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His awards include two Legions of Merit, two Bronze Stars, a Meritorious Service Medal, an Air Medal, an Army Commendation Medal, and numerous other decorations. On Veterans Day 1999, he and others were honored at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Holmdel, New Jersey, by the Friends of the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a fundraising and advocacy group whose “In Memory” program honors those who survived the war only to succumb to war-related ailments. As Dale Watson, a member of the group’s board, put it, “Thousands who served in Vietnam returned home only to die as a result of their tour. Some of these deaths were due to Agent Orange exposure and others were due to physical or emotional wounds. The deaths of these individuals are no less tragic than those that occurred in country, but their names do not appear on this memorial.” Today, a paving stone at the Holmdel memorial bears Colonel Johnson’s name and commemorates his life of groundbreaking service.
Johnson’s most recent honor came in September 2016 when West Virginia State University honored him as an alumnus for his outstanding military career. Although there was no ROTC program at West Virginia State College when he attended, he was inducted into the university’s ROTC Hall of Fame.
About the Author
Melissa Ziobro is the Specialist Professor of Public History at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey, and a former Command Historian at Fort Monmouth (2004-11). She would like to thank Colonel Johnson’s daughters, Deborah M. Johnson-Kinnard, Diane J. Johnson, and Donna L. Johnson; Bob Anzuoni, Director, U.S. Army Signal Corps Museum; Steven J. Rauch, Signal Corps Branch Historian; and Dr. Christopher DeRosa, Monmouth University, for their assistance with this piece.