When Johnnie Mosby was wounded and captured near the end of the Korean War, it took 45 days before he would be returned to the American side. But it took almost six decades for Mosby to receive the medal he earned in combat.
Now, however, Mosby has his Purple Heart.
The medal, awarded to those wounded by enemy fire in combat, was approved in July and arrived at his north Baton Rouge home in October. Some of the credit belongs to the persistence of his wife of 57 years, Mattie, who kept pursuing the matter and pushing Mosby to do the same.
“My wife was the one,” Mosby said. “She followed up. I’m kind of short-tempered. If something doesn’t go my way, I sort of forget about it. She kept on until they called me back.”
Mosby, 82, was born in Natchez, Miss., and grew up nearby when he was drafted into the Army in 1952, arriving in Korea in June 1953. That conflict was in its third year and had settled into a stalemate, with each side occasionally grabbing pieces of real estate to earn leverage at the peace talks that were taking place in Panmunjom, Korea.
One of the squares in this bloody chess game was a place of no strategic or tactical value called Hill 255 on U.S. Army maps, but known because of its topographical contours as Pork Chop Hill. It lay in the no-man’s-land between Allied forces and their North Korean and Chinese enemies. It had traded hands multiple times in a spring battle, and the United Nations troops, mostly American, held it into early July.
Mosby, who operated a Browning automatic rifle as a member of the 7th Infantry Division, had been there three weeks when Chinese forces launched a surprise attack on the evening of July 6.
“We had a couple of skirmishes before the battle,” Mosby said “When they had that major attack, it looked like thousands of them.
“You could hear the bullets passing your ear. That’s hell, there. If there is such a thing as hell, that’s hell there when you get in a battle. You get scared when you first start, but after about five minutes, you ain’t scared no more. It’s like you’re doing anything else. You don’t pay no attention to the bullets. You get used to it, I guess. I paid some attention when I got hit. That hurt.”
Mosby’s company fought but was overwhelmed by the attackers’ numbers. Mosby was shot in the left elbow and taken prisoner. He and other soldiers were hauled to a prison camp hewn out of a mountain close enough to the front that they could hear the fighting continue. When bombs fell on the mountain, prisoners could hear the air rush in and out as the mountain moved.
Prison conditions were Spartan but not brutal. The armistice was signed three weeks after his capture, and he spent about three more weeks in captivity before being repatriated. Mosby was sent home, arriving in San Francisco, where he and his buddies celebrated.
“We were all drinking beer at a bar,” he said. “Everybody put $5. The bar owner put it up on a cabinet, and we were going to meet back there in 10 years and drink it up. I forgot about those 10 years. I don’t know if any of the other fellows came back or not.”
That $5 wasn’t the only thing that fell through the cracks. Mosby’s wound healed over in captivity, so it was not treated by Army doctors. Since there was no paperwork to verify his wound, the Army initially denied his claim for a Purple Heart.
“You can hear it pop, make a noise,” Mosby said, straightening his left arm to demonstrate. “They never did open it up. They just gave me medicine for pain.”
After the war, Mosby settled in Baton Rouge, where he and Mattie raised six daughters and a son. After driving trucks and working in the shop at Juban Lumber, Mosby struck out on his own as a master carpenter. In addition to building houses, he also tried to build a case to receive the Purple Heart.
Mosby and his wife appealed to U.S. Sen. John Breaux, whose entreaties to the Army were denied. But, when he tried again this year with U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, the Army changed its mind. The U.S. Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Ky., approved the award on July 26, and Landrieu wrote him on Aug. 10 to inform him.
The medal is now in his home, and a new license plate designating him as a Purple Heart recipient is on one of his cars. Another car has a plate noting he was a prisoner of war.