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Vietnam veteran Larry Johnson poses for a portrait in his home on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Johnson volunteered for the United States Marine Corps and served as a rifleman in an outpost near Danang from 1967-1968, where he was shot in the leg while defending a bunker.

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A Vietnam volunteer:Former Marine reflects on his combat time

Larry Johnson, 69, didn't want to be a soldier, he wanted to be a Marine.

As the U.S. was plunged into Vietnam, he and hundreds of thousands of other young men faced the draft, but rather than waiting to be picked for service, he signed up.

"Me and my cousin were talking, we were building houses, and we knew they were going to draft us. And when you're drafted, you go into the Army," he said. "That didn't appeal to us at all, so we decided we were going to go join the Marine Corps."

After training in the states, Johnson was shipped to Vietnam to serve in a rural village outside Da Nang as part of a Combined Action Program (CAP) unit, strategically situated to work with locals and serve as a barrier from Vietcong fighters.

The rifle squad manned bunkers and trenches, running lines of wire in the forest and conducting patrols on the lookout for the enemy. While there, they also helped the villagers in their areas of operation.

Bio:

Name: Larry Johnson

Age: 69

Home: Chattanooga

Military branch and rank: Marine Corps, lance corporal

"They'd come in our CAP unit and bring the little kids who were sick and felt sick," he remembered. "We had a nurse out there with us. She was Vietnamese. And I believe it was in September or October of '67, we were hit, and the next morning, we were out there getting the ones out of the wire that was killed. That nurse was one of them."

On one particularly grueling night of combat, Johnson was shot in the leg but managed to haul himself to a machine gun he used to fire back at the enemy.

"I got up on the bunker and got on the 60-cal machine gun and I stayed on it until it was over. My sergeant put me in for the Bronze Star," he said. "It wasn't like being a hero, it was like being scared to death. I think most people who got some kind of award didn't get it because they were gung-ho, it was because of what was coming if you don't stop it."

By the end of the war, Johnson was awarded three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for his service, but when he returned for good, he and his fellow Marines were shocked by the reception.

"We didn't get a welcome home. We landed in San Diego and there were a bunch of them out there throwing stuff. Instead of throwing paper up in the air, they were throwing rocks or bricks or bottles," he said.

"We didn't know what was going on. In Vietnam, you didn't know anything about what was going on in the United States until you got here and then it just blowed you away. You couldn't understand it."

Johnson now lives back in Chattanooga and, despite what they came home to, said he's glad to have served with the men he did. Years after they came home, they finally received a special piece of recognition from the Marine Corps for their service.

"I met some of the nicest guys in the world. In a CAP unit, it's different. It's like being with your family," he said. "I think it was about eight years or 10 years after Vietnam, they finally recognized the CAP units and they gave us hats that we can wear. That really made us feel proud.

"I was really pleased and I wear that thing proudly."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.

This story was corrected to clarify that Larry Johnson did not receive the Silver Star. He said his superior officer put him in for one, but he did not receive it.

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