The grand marshal for the Calhoun County Veterans Day Parade is a soldier. Not just any soldier, but an American patriot who has spent more than 75 percent of her life serving her country and her fellow veterans.
The annual parade in Anniston, organized by area veterans, is set for 2 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 11, at 15th Street and Noble. The reviewing stand will be at 11th Street. The parade ends at Ninth Street. Limited seating will be set aside in the form of portable bleachers at 11th Street for Gold Star Family members and for veterans.
The grand marshal, Command Sgt. Maj. Helen I. Johnston, is from Jacksonville. Friends and veterans know her as Johnnie. She left the relative comfort and security of a small town in the Catskill Mountains of New York in 1952. Her home was a vegetable and dairy farm in Bovina.
Johnston said the Women’s Army Corps required a parent’s permission for a young woman, under 21, to join the Army. Helen, the youngest of five children, told her parents, T. George and Marjorie, she would either join the Army with their permission, or she would enlist the following year after her 21st birthday.
Her father was initially opposed to Helen’s intention to join the Army. However, her mother was supportive. Not too surprising, T. George did change his mind.
“Mom was in favor of my decision to serve from the get go,” Johnston said.
The consent from the Army required was signed by both T. George and Marjorie Johnston. Helen retired from the Army 28 years, four months, and four days later in June 1980. Johnston has called Jacksonville home since 1977.
Helen’s brother was an inspiration for military service. Allan Johnston was an Army Air Corps 1st lieutenant during World War II. He was a B17 bomber navigator who survived being shot down during his fifth mission. The French underground helped him evade capture. However, the Johnston family didn’t know where Allan was, just that he was listed as “Missing in Action.”
Following several anxious weeks, Allan returned to his base. He then cabled the family that he was ok. With the underground’s help, Allan walked over the French Pyrenees on his way to repatriation. Allan returned to the U.S. and spent the rest of the war training other Army aviators.
The Women’s Army Corps was the opportunity for women like Johnston to serve in the Army. The history of the Women’s Army Corps, and the thousands of women who have served, began in 1942. It was 12 years later that another chapter in the WAC history book was started. The “WAC Center” was dedicated at Fort McClellan in 1954.
In 1978, late in Johnston’s Army career, she was the command sergeant major of the 548th Supply and Service Battalion at Fort McClellan. Coincidently, through an Act of Congress, the WAC was disestablished. It was Johnston who helped then Fort McClellan Commanding Maj. Gen. Mary E. Clarke, case the WAC colors – its flag – for the last time on the fort’s Marshall Parade Field.
Before Johnston helped disestablish the WAC, she had developed a reputation as a dedicated and professional soldier and noncommissioned officer. Initially assigned to Fort Lee, Va., then Fort Monmouth, N.J., and Munich, Germany, Johnston exceeded all objectives and expectations. Due to her early success, Johnston was selected to be an Army recruiter. Johnston represented the Army and the Women’s Army Corps in Providence, R.I. and then in Albany, N.Y., as a recruiter for the next 13 years.
Johnston’s next assignment was at Fort McClellan. She was assigned as the first sergeant at Company D, WAC Training Battalion in November 1969. Her success as a company first sergeant, as well as her long record of exemplary service, led to selection to attend the Army’s Sergeant Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas. She was one of two women in the academy’s third class.
Johnston excelled at the academy and returned to Fort McClellan to serve as the acting command sergeant major of the 3rd WAC Basic Training Battalion. She then moved to the 2nd WAC Basic Training Battalion and was appointed a command sergeant major in January 1975.
Command Sgt.Maj. Johnston was then selected for another assignment in Germany. Johnston became the first female command sergeant major to serve overseas in a troop assignment in August 1975. She was the command sergeant major for the 303rd Maintenance Battalion which was headquartered in Nurenburg. When it was deactivated, she became the command sergeant major of the 87th Maintenance Battalion in Wertheim. With units spread over several locations, and responsible for the training and welfare of 1,200 to 1,300 Soldiers, Johnston dedicated herself to taking care of the Soldiers, improving unit morale, and establishing noncommissioned officer development programs.
Johnston returned to Fort McClellan in 1977 for her final assignment. That assignment was not at the WAC Training Center. Johnston instead became the command sergeant major of the 548th Supply and Service Battalion. She was also named the commandant of the fort’s Junior Leadership Course. She was responsible for more than 800 soldiers.
Johnston was awarded the Legion of Merit Medal upon her retirement in June 1980. Since then she has been active with the Women’s Army Corps Veterans Association and other local charity organizations.
Johnston was asked once if she thought it would take a long time for her to get used to life as a retired soldier. She said her retirement parade was held on a Friday. She then slept late Monday. When Johnston did get up that Monday 37 years ago, she put her uniform on again. She went to Command Sgt.Maj. Betty Benson’s retirement parade and then went to the Finance Office for her last payday.
The public is invited and encouraged to attend and salute all of the veterans who will be marching or riding down Noble Street. For more information people can email the parade committee at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or people can call 256-591-3093.