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FBI agent helps Army buddies reunite after 50 years

Michelle Stuckey -   Sep 15, 2011

Willy Johnson (left), of Norco, smiles after meeting John “Pete” Phelps, an old war buddy that he had not seen in 60 years.
Courtesy photo
Willy Johnson (left), of Norco, smiles after meeting John “Pete” Phelps, an old war buddy that he had not seen in 60 years.

Norco’s Willy Johnson traveled across the country last month to reunite with a man he had not seen in 60 years. John “Pete” Phelps was more than just Johnson's war buddy - they shared one of the most dangerous jobs of the Korean War and both lived to tell the tale.

Johnson, 83, and Phelps, 85, did not volunteer for the war - they were drafted. During the war, they both chose to be forward observers on the front line at some of the most dangerous locations in Korea - Heartbreak Ridge and Bloody Ridge. As forward observers, they would watch the enemy to see where they could be fired on by mortars.

“It was an experience that I wouldn't trade anything for, but I wouldn't want to do it again,” Johnson said, laughing.

The two were on the front lines at Bloody Ridge and then Heartbreak Ridge for three months, but on Sept. 20 Johnson was hit by enemy fire and as he was carried down the hill by medics, he passed Phelps who was going to replace him.

“There were pieces (of shrapnel) all over, but the largest were in my chest, some in my legs, some in my back,” Johnson said. “I met my friend Pete on the way down - he was on his way to take my place.”

Johnson said that when he finally made it home from the war, he didn't try to contact any of the guys he met in Korea. He settled down in Norco as a shop foreman for Shell, but he was really close to Pete and always wondered how he was doing.

“I tried for years to contact him,” Johnson said. Ten years ago, an FBI friend of his found Phelps in Arizona and the two men started a correspondence - 50 years after their last meeting on Heartbreak Ridge.

After writing and sending pictures back and forth for a decade, Johnson decided he should make the trip this year.

“We're getting kind of up-there in age and I wanted to visit with him one more time before we passed on,” Johnson said.

During the visit, the men shared a warm reunion and remembered more difficult times together. Phelps took Johnson around his Arizona ranch and the two shared stories about their lives since the war. Even though it was against regulations, Phelps kept a journal during the war and he shared excerpts with Johnson from the day he was hit by shrapnel. Although they were only small descriptions of Johnson being injured and Phelps taking his place, the conversation brought back bloody memories from the war.

“There were a lot of deaths and body parts laying about (on the ridge)…I had a problem with that, it always bothered me,” Johnson said, remembering the place where he was shot.

Phelps' niece, Susie Mathews, also shared a book she wrote about her uncle complete with pictures from the war of both Phelps and Johnson. The book is entitled “Not Just Another Cowboy: A Diary of a Korean War Soldier.”

Johnson was awarded a Purple Heart and both men earned Bronze Stars for their service.

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