Growing up in the rural Chesterfield County community of Skinquarter, Alfred A. Johnson cut short his formal education after fourth grade to cut wood and logs with his father.
By the time he was a young adolescent, he’d joined his father at work in a sawmill.
But on Jan. 27, 1942, at age 19, he decided he’d had enough.
“I needed a better life,” recalled Johnson, 96. So he traveled to Sixth and Marshall streets in downtown Richmond to enlist in the Army.
“My concern was leave here and do something,” he said during an interview at his home in Chesterfield. “I wanted to get in and see something and do something.”
He served in the Army and the Air Force during a military career that spanned three wars and took him to North Africa, Italy, France, Germany, Korea and Vietnam, among other places.
His first stop was North Africa, with an engineer combat battalion. Johnson had been trained at Fort Meade, Md., in combat bridge construction and maintenance.
He recalled that much of his time was spent on patrol in search of German troops.
“When you’re in combat, it ain’t like folks think ... you had to find somebody to fight. Because they’re going to find you and kill you. They travel at night, too.”
He looked for signs of movement by enemy tanks, trucks or personnel — scary and dangerous work, he said. The soldiers walked 6 to 8 feet apart so that the others might have a chance to duck if one of them got hit by gunfire.
After the Allied forces won the North African campaign, Johnson was among the U.S. soldiers who moved on to Italy, moving materiel from point to point. It was there that he met up with members of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, part of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
He remembers looking for German movement at the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the foul mouth of Gen. George Patton exhorting troops to kill the enemy.
During one especially tense moment while on patrol at night, he recalled laying in the bushes when “two or three Germans walked right by me,” rifles on their shoulders, speaking German. Johnson had a rifle and a pistol but decided not to fire unless the Germans detected him and moved toward him.
They didn’t, and walked away.
“I was ready to kill, and report back to my people,” he said. “Now that’s what you call war.”
Following the end of World War II, Corp. Johnson returned to Chesterfield. In 1946, he married Lucille Johnson, with whom he’d have four children. But the same impulses that led him to leave the county resurfaced.
He went to work at a box manufacturer, catching paper off the machines. “And I was thinking all the time, I can’t do this for the rest of my life.”
He quit the job and decided he needed to re-enlist in the military.
“There wasn’t nothing there. The military was different. Working in the military, we worked as a team,” he said.
Having seen the world and experienced a modicum of freedom on the job, he could not readjust to civilian life that seemed more confining.
Again, he made the trek to Sixth and Marshall streets. But this time, he joined the Air Force. The recruiter asked no questions.
“He just said sign here ... come back in five days, ready to go,” Johnson recalled.
He was shipped to Fort Worth, Texas. His parents, Walter and Mildred Johnson, learned by letter that he’d re-enlisted.
He got to keep the rank he’d earned in the Army, and was promoted in the Air Force. In 1947, he became a sergeant and was assigned to a supply squadron.
The Korean War broke out in 1950, but Johnson says he saw little action. He kept re-enlisting and eventually found himself in Vietnam.
One of his sons, who’d followed his father’s footsteps into the Air Force, landed in Vietnam while his father was there. The military wasn’t for him, but Linwood Johnson would become an air traffic controller following his discharge. He died young of Hodgkin’s disease, his father said.
Ultimately, Johnson returned to the U.S. and was stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C. He recalls the time fondly because he would drive home to Ettrick each weekend.
He retired from the Air Force as a chief master sergeant on April 15, 1973. But again, he struggled to find his place outside the military. And then he found it, working security in what was then First & Merchants Bank but would become Bank of America.
He was assigned to a branch on Broad Street in downtown Richmond, showing up to work each day in a blue blazer, gray trousers, white shirt, blue tie “and a .38 under your coat.” He sat at a desk in the front of the bank, smiling and charming customers.
“I ate it up. That was the best thing that happened to me,” he said, adding: “I got a wife from that bank.”
His first wife, Lucille Johnson, had died of breast cancer, and Johnson was feeling lost and lonely.
He’d met Alberta Holmes when she was working at the bank, but she’d left. One day, reading the newspaper, he learned that her husband had died. He reached out to his former colleague.
They married in 1985, a year after his retirement from the bank. Together, they have a total of six children from their previous marriages.
Johnson, who enlisted with a fourth-grade education, finished high school in the military and attended several years of college.
“The military did everything for me. The military made me a man. It made me smart. It made me helpful. ... The greatest decision I made was to retire from the United States Air Force.”