A final goodbye to an old friend Childhood buddy attends funeral of U.S soldier killed in Vietnam.

April 25, 1991|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Evening Sun Staff

Floyd Gwynn came to say a final goodbye to Vernon Johns, one of the guys from "around the way."

Gwynn always thought that someday Johns would come home from the Vietnam War a war hero and they would gather the old gang to run the streets of West Baltimore again or maybe hang out in the shoeshine shop off North Avenue.

Gwynn always thought that the "missing in action" tag that hung next to Johns' name for 23 years would be lifted and his boyhood friend would come home worn, if not hardened, from captivity.

When he last saw Johns two decades ago, Gwynn never dreamed that the next time they'd meet would be at Johns' funeral.

"Just every day we thought he would come home," Gwynn said. "We didn't know when, but we knew he would."

As Gwynn spoke yesterday, the hearse bearing Johns' coffin eased into the Baltimore National Cemetery under a gentle rain.

After 23 years of being missing in action in South Vietnam, Army Sgt. 1st Class Vernon Z. Johns had come home.

Johns' remains were among those of 21 soldiers repatriated to the United States by Vietnam in April 1989. Eight of them have been identified.

His body was placed among the 42,000 soldiers buried at the National Cemetery, where war heroes are denoted on plain, white marble tombstones.

Johns, taken prisoner in 1968 by the Viet Cong after his armored personnel carrier was hit by enemy fire, was entombed between two officers who served in World War II.

"The time of my departed is at hand. I fought a good fight," Rev. A.C.D. Vaughn, pastor at Sharon Baptist Church, read during the homily. "He paid the supreme price for his family and friends."

Marshall Pittman never knew Johns but he served in Vietnam and Vietnam veterans have a bond, he said.

"I can be anywhere and meet someone from Vietnam and feel as though I know him," Pittman said.

Pittman served as an infantryman in Vietnam for six months at Da Nang. He said Johns' coming home shows the length of the Vietnam War.

"This is the longest war that this country has ever been involved in," Pittman said. "This shows it's still going. Think about all of the soldiers still over there. It's not over as long as they are still there."

Having the remains returned will at least give Johns' family comfort, Pittman said.

"Many people like him were only 19 or 20 when they were reported missing," Pittman said. "He was a young man. No one knows where they are or what has happened. You think about the guys who never come back and you never know what happens to them.

"I still grieve for him although I never knew him. He was a real hero."

To Floyd Gwynn, Johns was more than a hero. He was his best friend through childhood.

"I remember when we used to always be around North Avenue and Fulton Street. We'd do a lot of things to make money. We would flip burgers and make ice cream cones at the Arundel," Gwynn said of the job they both held at the West Baltimore ice cream parlor.

"The Arundel is not there, either. Vernon's been gone so long he probably wouldn't even know the place."

He also said Johns, who graduated from Douglass High School and played on the basketball team there, was the "spark plug" of their West Baltimore neighborhood. He remembered when they used to play football on the North Avenue median strip.

"We used to work all day and stay up all night. We'd just try to stay up all night to see who could stay up longest," Gwynn said. "Sometimes he'd win, sometimes I would."

Graveside services ended as an Army honor guard fired three shots and Taps echoed throughout the cemetery. Gwynn bowed his head and quietly said goodbye to an old friend.

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