Ellsworth Johnson, Last Survivor of a Secret Army Unit, Dies at 100

Ellsworth Johnson, an American medic who parachuted into enemy-occupied France and China during World War II and was believed to be the last surviving member of an Operations Group that spawned today’s Green Berets, died on Sept. 30 in Zeeland, Mich. He was 100.

His death was confirmed by his daughter-in-law, Anna Johnson. It came four weeks after he was presented with an Army Special Forces tab and a Green Beret in a ceremony at the assisted living facility where he lived near Grand Rapids, Mich.

“This is an extremely rare event and, quite frankly, the last of its kind that will ever occur,” Major Russell M. Gordon, the director of public affairs for the 1st Special Forces Command, said of the ceremony.

And Maj. Gen. Patrick Roberson, the deputy commanding general of the Army Special Operations Command, said during the event: “Everything that he did in 1944 — we model ourselves on in our training and the operations that we conduct. It’s our origin story.”

Mr. Johnson, who was known as Al, was born in an Army hospital in Ohio and spent his early years on bases where his father served in the military. When Al was drafted in 1943, he was trained as a medic but volunteered for an unidentified hazardous assignment while awaiting deployment in a Denver Army camp.

“My disappointment at being a medic was great,” he wrote in a memoir, “Behind Enemy Lines: The O.S.S. in World War II” (2019). “I knew that surgical training would at least keep me out of a ward where I could expect to be no more than a bedpan jockey.”

He drew a distinction between participating on the field of combat and treating its victims after the battle.

“I wanted to get into the fight,” he said in a television interview. “I didn’t want to see the results of the fight.”

He was assigned to an Operations Group of the Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, and was then shipped overseas and trained in North Africa.

In August 1944, he parachuted from the belly of a B-24 bomber 400 miles behind German lines to harass enemy troops and feed intelligence to London as the Allies were poised to invade southern France. His team and the French Resistance captured a vital dam and its hydroelectric power plant after forcing the German garrison guarding it to flee.

Mr. Johnson, top right, with fellow members of his Special Forces unit when they were training in England in 1944.Credit…via 1st Special Forces Command

After serving in France for about a month, he and many of his comrades chose to transfer to the Pacific Theater as members of an Operations Group rather than be absorbed into the regular Army.

Joining recently trained Chinese paratroopers, Mr. Johnson and other Americans, all serving officially as advisers, jumped some 600 miles into Japanese-occupied territory in the summer of 1945.

“We learned to live under the noses of the enemy,” he wrote.

They successfully intercepted enemy supply lines and communications and inflicted casualties in an unsuccessful attempt to retake a town.

“I could not help but wonder what I had gotten into again,” Mr. Johnson wrote. “I kept telling myself we had trained these Chinese as best we could. We had provided them with arms and food and put all we could into making them a viable force. Nevertheless, as I surveyed the 30 some men around me, I could not help but feel that any fighting we might get into would be done in large part by the Americans.”

As a medic, he stabilized and evacuated wounded troops and barely avoided injury himself when a shell exploded 100 feet in front of him.

Technician 4th Grade Johnson (he was commissioned an honorary colonel in the Chinese Nationalist Army) received two Bronze Stars. Office of Strategic Services veterans were also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for intelligence and special operations during World War II. His missions remained classified until 1995, after which the Army determined that he met the requirements to join the Special Forces Regiment.

Ellsworth Johnson was born on July 5, 1923, in Ohio, the son of parents of Swedish and Dutch descent. After leaving the Army, his father, John, worked as a handyman. His mother was Marie Johnson.

Ellsworth graduated from Central High School in Grand Rapids in 1942 and was drafted in 1943. After the war, he earned an associate degree from Grand Rapids Junior College and became a machinery and beauty supply salesman.

In 1947, he married Jeanette DeBoer; she died in 2021. Survivors include his children, Jim Johnson, Nancy Moseler and Vern Dulany; seven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Mr. Johnson recalled that when he and his fellow soldiers signed on to go to China after their harrowing experience in France, he wondered what they could have been thinking.

“The bunch of us must really be without common sense,” he wrote. “After all, how many G.I.’s would willingly go into two wars.”

By the time the war in the Pacific had ended and the Americans had made their way out of Asia, he and his comrades were ready to return home.

“When the news came that we were to leave, we were all happy to go,” he told Soldier of Fortune magazine in 2021. “We had had enough of war and all the stupid things that go along with it.”

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