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MEMORIAL DAY: Remembering Sgt. James Fred Johnston

BRISTOL, Tenn. (BP) — Robert James Johnston Moore and I sat at a table together as we do almost every Wednesday morning and shared prayer requests. Our prayer group is made up of five men. Not all of us get there every week but we always pray for each other and communicate via text message with those not present.

This day, just Jim and I showed up.

Before sharing prayer requests and checking texts, I made a different request of my friend: “If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear the story about your biological father again.”

Having heard pieces of the story before, I wanted a reminder as Memorial Day approached.


James Fred Johnston of Coeburn, Va., enlisted in the Army in 1940 between the outbreak of World War II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Sixteen years old at the time, Fred, like many patriotic young men of the day, found someone to “sign” for him and left his heartbroken mother in Wise County to fight the Japanese until the war finally ended.

In five years of combat, this man/boy traveled all over the bloody Pacific theater, from Kiska in the Aleutian Islands to the Philippines.

After the war ended, Fred stayed in the Army but returned to Virginia long enough to court his sweetheart, Theresa Kennedy, and take her as his wife. In 1950 he was sent to Korea to return to battle, this time against the communists of China and North Korea.

Before being “shipped out” again, two very important things happened. Theresa became pregnant and Fred committed his life to Jesus Christ.

The second of those events took place when Fred and Theresa, out for a stroll near Fort Bragg, N.C., passed a tent — not an Army tent but a revival tent. Fred’s curiosity got the best of him, and he insisted they go in. There he heard a simple Gospel message about the saving grace of Jesus Christ and he responded. “Hitting the sawdust trail,” he made a lifetime commitment to follow Christ.

That lifetime was cut short at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, where Fred Johnston became one of thousands of U.S. casualties. Sgt. Johnston named their baby in a letter written to Theresa from a foxhole in minus-40-degree weather. Thousands of miles from the beautiful mountains of southwest Virginia, outnumbered about 10 to one, with a wind chill factor more than a hundred degrees below zero, fighting the elements and the enemy, Sgt. James Fred Johnston gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country.

Less than four weeks later, Theresa gave birth to his only son, Robert James Johnston.

Forgotten by most, Sgt. Fred Johnston deserves to be remembered. When the telegraph boy rode his bicycle to deliver the yellow paper telegram to Fred’s mother in Virginia, she suffered a heart attack and in a matter of minutes joined her precious son in death.

Within three years Theresa married Bob Moore, and he adopted Fred’s and Theresa’s son, Jim.

Jim followed in the footsteps of his (stepfather) dad and served in the U.S. Air Force, then worked as vice president of facilities and construction for Welmont (Ballad) Health System until his retirement last year. Jim and his wife Brenda have two sons and seven grandchildren, and Jim is an elder at Celebration Church in Blountville, Tenn.

Sgt. Johnston’s sacrifice, along with thousands of other heroes, has helped to preserve our freedoms in this country. That’s good news.

The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross, an act which Fred Johnston embraced, ensures the opportunity to know forgiveness and freedom from sin — and that, my friends, is great news all the more.


As Jim shared his story, tears filled his eyes and mine.

We agreed it was no accident that Fred and Theresa saw the tent at Fort Bragg many years ago. His father’s steps were certainly guided by our heavenly Father.

    About the Author

  • Steve Playl

    Steve Playl, a retired Baptist pastor, is a chaplain at a Bristol, Tenn., hospital, a newspaper columnist and college instructor.

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