War veterans share combat stories with Braden River High students

srocco@bradenton.comNovember 8, 2013 

BRADENTON -- George Johnston still remembers the 3-year-old boy who was shot after stepping out of the jungle.

He was dirty, poor. No shoes, rags for clothes.

Slowly, the boy neared camp.

The orders were, Johnston said, to get the boy to stop, fearing the enemy had packed him with explosives. If not, they were to shoot.

"How do you live with that?" he said. "And then you come home after you've served your year and anti-war demonstrators spit on you and call you a baby killer. We went through holy hell."

Johnston, 72, who worked on a missile submarine during the Vietnam era, spoke to nearly 100 Braden River High School students Thursday in honor of Veterans Day.

He told his story, they asked questions.

"Most Vietnam vets are angry that United States didn't support them," he said. "We resented the fact that they didn't honor our sacrifice."

After college, Johnston enlisted in the U.S. Navy while young men around him were drafted into the Vietnam War against their will.

"People ran for their lives. Some went to Canada, some went to prison rather than fight," he said.

Draft dodgers, they were called.

One student raised his hand: "When you were in the submarine, what were you doing down there?"

"You stood watch," Johnston explained. "We watch the missiles, the temperature in the silos ... for six hours. Then we had 12 hours off."

Johnston came to Braden River High along with fellow veteran Richard Kichline, who served in the Navy during World War II. Both are members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 12055 in Bradenton.

"I think it's real important that students today stay in tune with what went on in the past because the left-wing media tends to demigod us, that we're the aggressors, the bad guys in this, and we disagree with that," Johnston said.

Gill Ruderman, vice chairman of the Manatee County Veterans Council, was responsible for enlisting the speakers.

"You probably knew that Kennedy was assassinated," Ruderman said. "I bet there are some kids here who might not know that."

Kichline, 88, spoke about his days on the ship, how he and his crew had to be completely self-reliant.

"On a Navy ship, you have to remember you're out there by yourself. No one can help you," he said.

They had to learn to patch leaking holes to keep the ship floating. If they were captured by the Japanese and bound by hand and foot, they knew how to survive if thrown overboard.

"You swim like a fish," he said.

Kichline's wife, Marianna, also a veteran, sat nearby behind dark sunglasses. She said her husband doesn't normally do speaking engagements, but was happy to take this one.

"He decided it would be really cool to talk to high school kids and tell them about his life," she said.

Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee, reporter can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter@sabrinarocco.

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