Dear Mr. and Mrs. Johnston

“Don’t send me out. I have a bad feeling about this one,” Medic heard Sgt Gary Johnston say to our commanding officer.  A few minutes later the patrol was ambushed and Gary was dead.

Gary Johnston, his younger brother, sister and mother. Texas, 1969Several years back a Cav friend put Medic in touch with Nubbin Johnston, Gary’s younger brother. From the jungle, Delta 1/7 Cav 4th platoon had sent the family a condolence letter. Nubbin, now a grown man, wanted to know how Gary had died. Medic contacted former Sgt. Odell Newton, and not long afterward Odell and Nubbin spoke by phone. Odell is profiled in Jeff Wolin’s remarkable photo/oral history book Vietnam Veterans: Inconvenient Stories, from which the following is taken:

On my very first day in the field, our old platoon Sergeant, Gary Johnston, got killed. I was a ‘shake and bake,’ a ninety-day wonder just out of Fort Benning, Georgia. They picked me up off the LZ pretty late in the evening and wanted to make it back to a safe place away from the LZ.  Johnston took me over to introduce me to the platoon I was going to be in.  He gave me my ammo, my C-rations. He said, “We’re going to go back out there.  We’re going to take a main trail. Don’t ever take a trail, but right now we have to get there quickly.

So we went down the trail. I was walking in the middle with Patch, the gentleman who later got killed on LZ Ranch in Cambodia.  I heard a ping. I couldn’t figure out what it was but everyone else was on the ground. I looked down the trail and saw these two little people with a great big gun, a .51 caliber. They were running down the trail. Gary had been walking point and I looked to where he was lying.

I walked up to Gary who was on his stomach. I rolled him over and my hand went all the way through his chest. The .51 caliber bullet went through his chest and took almost his entire back out. I put one of his dog tags in the body bag with him when the medevac arrived and I kept the other. As a matter of fact, just last year (2008) I gave Sgt. Johnston’s dog tags to his brother.  I carried Johnston’s dog tags since April 1970, right after I came in-country. That was my first day in the field.”

Excerpt from Vietnam Veterans: Inconvenient Stories used by permission.

2018 KFDX TV news video, VFW Post re-named after Gary Johnston

Below is Jeff Wolin’s 2005 interview of Odell, which is archived in the Veteran’s History Project of the Library of Congress. The edited interview and a portrait of Odell are in Jeff’s book.