Originally published in the Unita County Herald, Evanston, Wyoming,on Veteran’s Day, 2009
The names of the Johnston brothers engraved on the WWII and Korean War Memorial in Evanston, Wyoming.
As we remember our veterans on this Veterans’ Day, 2009, let’s also spend some time honoring the mothers and fathers, like Mattie and Clarence Johnston, whose story is below. These remarkable parents sent their six sons off in service to our country.
Martha Johnston, known as ‘Mattie’ to her friends, was very well known in the Evanston community in the 1940s and 1950s for her Parker-House rolls. She would make those light, buttery dinner rolls and sell them for .25 a dozen to help with expenses for her large household, and even raised money to help finance the building of the First Ward LDS Church. Mattie and her husband, Clarence, raised eight children during those days after WWI. Times were tough for the Johnston family, and Mattie sometimes took in laundry and washed the sacrament dishes in addition to selling her famous rolls to help out when the money ran thin.
But flaky dinner rolls were not the only thing Mattie was known for. She loved her children unconditionally and when WWII started, Mattie’s six sons were coming of an age when the military would look carefully at each of them. Mattie prepared herself and her family for the inevitable, and, one-by-one, she said goodbye to her six sons as they each donned the uniform of the Army or Navy and left home in service to our country. Mattie proudly hung a Blue Star Service Banner in her front window, adding a blue star to the red-framed white background every time one of her sons left.
After a short time working in an aircraft factory in San Diego, son Clarence, known as “Gene,” came home and became the first star on the Service Banner when he joined the Navy in August, 1942. Gene was the second oldest son, but the first to enlist in the armed forces.
Following shortly behind was Otis, just a year younger than Gene, who joined the Navy in October, 1942. He was on a work crew building a destroyer that he eventually boarded and lived on while it roamed the waters of the South Pacific. Mattie added Otis’s star right next to Gene’s on the banner.
Newell, the oldest of the six brothers, and the third star on the banner, joined the Army in 1943. He served in Brussels, where he worked with the German prisoners. Newell told stories about those prisoners, one in particular who was quite a good sketch artist. He drew a picture of Newell that supposedly looked just like him.
Thomas H. (Homer) was drafted into the Army at age 18 in 1945. By that time the War was coming to an end and, because the Army discovered he was able to type, Homer was sent to Fort Logan, Colorado, where he processed the paperwork for the soldiers returning from overseas. He was offered a $300 bonus to reenlist and was scheduled to go overseas when he was pulled out of the deployment and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky and was discharged 10 months later. Four years after that he joined the Army Reserves and was called up for active duty in Korea, but never went overseas, again because his clerical skills were needed stateside. Homer was the fourth star on Mattie’s banner.
The fifth star was added to the banner in 1952, ten years after the first star. Harvey was 20 years old when he joined the National Guard and was quickly called into active duty with the Army. He served as a tank commander and trained draftees who were being sent to Korea.
The last one to leave, and the sixth star on the banner, was Paul, who enlisted in the Navy to, as he said, “Even the score.” Two of his brothers were in the Navy and three in the Army. He joined under a program unofficially called the ‘kiddy crews.’ Members of the kiddy crews enlisted before their eighteenth birthday and were told they would be released before their 21st birthday. He went to Key West in 1954 to work with mines and torpedoes off the coast of Florida. The Korean conflict was going on then, but Paul never did leave the borders of the US and was discharged the day before he turned 21.
The Blue Star Service Banner was also used to show family members who died in the line of duty during a war. If someone was killed, a smaller, gold star was placed on top of the blue star. None of the six stars on Mattie’s banner had a gold star superimposed over it. All six of Mattie’s sons came home from their stints in the military and all six of them are memorialized on the Veteran’s War Memorial in front of the court house in Evanston. Four of the brothers are still alive today. Paul (73) lives with his wife, Betty, in Rock Springs. Homer (83) is in Ogden, Utah, where he spends time with his daughters. Harvey (79) and his wife, Amber, are in Evanston and Gene (88) is in Mesa, Arizona. Otis died in 1993 from adult-onset diabetes and Newell passed in 2004 at age 86 at his home in Evanston. Their mother, Mattie died on August 28, 1979, five years to the date after her husband, Clarence died. Clarence was exactly five years older than Mattie.
Janie Sullivan is a freelance writer living in Apache Junction, Arizona. Mattie Johnston was her grandmother and she helps her brothers care for their father, Gene, who lives nearby in Mesa, Arizona.
UPDATE: Homer passed in Ogden, Utah in 2011, and Gene passed away at the age of 91 on March 29, 2012 in Mesa, Arizona. Harvey passed in Evanston shortly after Gene, and Paul is in Salt Lake City.