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Shep Johnson Remembered

by Chuck Sheley (Cave Junction ’59) |

Shep passed away April 20, 2016. The July issue of Smokejumper was already in layout at that time, so we’re doing a bit of catch-up in this issue.

Starting in about 2001, I wanted to do articles on the Smokejumper/CIA connection. Besides being an interesting subject, I wanted to get some of these stories recorded before this aspect of our history was lost.

Jack Mathews (MSO-48) was a major player in Southeast Asia (SEA) and other parts of the world involving smokejumpers and the CIA. Jack and I had started to develop a good line of communication when he died in January 2001 and that source of information was lost.

I then came into contact with Thomas C. “Shep” Johnson (MYC-56) and realized that here was a story that covered years of operations from Tibet to Southeast Asia and beyond. A former Marine, Shep had already received a Purple Heart in Korea when his brother Miles Johnson (MYC-53) recruited him to the smokejumpers in 1956. Shep was working on an Idaho cattle ranch at the time. As it happened, it was off-season on the same ranch when he was recruited for the CIA.

James E. “Jim” Parker, author and paramilitary officer in Laos writes the following about Shep on his blog:

“I’ve stared at the computer screen for some long time, remembering Shep stories, trying to write something appropriate. But I hurt inside. I am not smiling. I hurt and feel my age.

“What makes Shep stand out in my mind so much was that, like Hog (Jerry Daniels MSO-58), he was a cowboy, laconic and weathered features. Had no rough edges. Smiled a lop-sided smile. Beer drinker or whiskey out of the bottle. Worked hard from sunup to sundown. And he was CIA.

“Unbelievably, this throwback to men, who broke trail for wagon trains to the west coast a couple of hundred years ago, worked for the CIA with its Harvard men and persuasive boardroom thinkers. Who, as long as I knew him, had callouses on his hands and could get drunk on a pair of beers at night.

“I wrote something recently about the Battle for Skyline, that first ridgeline north of the Long Cheng valley, that was a line drawn in the mountains to hold off a North Vietnamese invasion force of 27,000 main line soldiers. The job of this big NVA force was to kill the 4,000 ragtag CIA army, which was the only force standing between them and the Lao capital of Vientiane.

“Three Americans stood out in my mind in the successful effort of the CIA army to hold the line at Skyline – Hog (Jerry Daniels), Hardnose and Moose. I should also add Shep. His job was to get war supplies and food in at Long Cheng and then out to the CIA army in their dozens and dozens of locations on the battlefield. He had many Hmong helpers, but Shep, with his clipboard, took in all orders from the field, prioritized them, got them fitted for delivery, either by sling load or configured with parachutes for any of five or six different types of delivery aircraft and sent them on their way – one man – Shep Johnson – made it all possible. No one you know could have done it.

“Only person I ever knew who could do this, day after day, with incoming rounds landing nearby, was Shep. Never complained. Broke down tons and tons of supplies and got them to where they needed to go out there on the battlefield.”