My parents were assigned to Nakhon Ratchsima (Korat), Thailand for language training, which would last two years. While learning Thai, my Dad also taught English to the cadets who were learning to fly F-86 jets at the Korat Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) Base. My Dad had a knack for names and remembered all of his students; even years later when they became the top officers in the military, and one became governor of Bangkok (then the owner of the Rose Gardens, a popular tourist attraction an hour west of Bangkok). When Mom was pregnant with me, she needed a doctor who turned out to be Dr. Supoch, an army doctor from the local base. Dr. Supoch eventually rose in rank to become the Surgeon General and one of the King's doctors. When my parents retired in 1986 many attended their retirement dinner at a Bangkok hotel.
16 November 1949 – My first trip from Korat was by train to Bangkok, where Dr Marshall Welles delivered me at 4:20 pm at the Bangkok Nursing Home (BNH) on Convent Road. My trip into this world went well, and two weeks later we returned to Korat to a grand reception with banners.
(Note: In 2007 I took my three children to BNH, which today is a large modern hospital, catering to medical tourism, and is more like a five start hotel than a hospital. They have a museum to the right of the main entrance, with some of the old beds and equipment. Who knows, the bed on display could have been mine. From the upper floors you can look out the rear windows and see the old hospital, now used as a school.)
My second trip from Korat was by freighter to Hong Kong in the summer of 1951. I don’t remember anything about this trip, and neither does my Mom. We just have a picture of me holding my sailor cap sitting on the ship's railing with my Mom’s holding on to me.
Locally, we visited the Khmer temple ruins of Phimai, an archeological site about an hour north of Korat. The complex was built in the late 11th century in Angkor Wat style.
My sister Sue was born on January 14, 1952 at the newly built Bangkok Christian Hospital on Silom Road. Dr Welles did the honors again.
In April 1952 as we were
preparing to return to the States for our first year long furlough, a tragic event happened. The following is a description of that trajic day from a letter my Dad wrote to his parents on April 22, 1952:
“19 May 1952 Saturday 8:10 am. Neal and I were loading things in the car to leave on an all day country trip when Mr. Chrisman (the mission chairman) came and said that he had awful news. He then told us that Priscilla was shot and killed and Paul was in Udorn Hospital. The tragedy had happened the night before while the Johnsons were having a village service. Mr. Chrisman had just received the news in a telephone call from (Theo) Zeimer in Khonkaen, who had in turn received a phone call from the Siamese evangelist at Udon. Chrisman asked me to get plane transportation for him to Undorn.”
“Neal and I raced out to the Air Corps (7 miles) and immediately contacted the acting commander (who has replaced Col. Noi) along with P’aneang. He gave us permission for P’aneang to fly Chrisman to Udorn, since the Americans and the C-45, 7 seater plane was in Bangkok. He also gave
me permission to wire Major Foster at MAAG (Military Assistance Advisory Group) in Bangkok to see if he could come up and assist. I radioed something like this: MISSIONARY JOHNSON KILLED BY DRUNK NEAR UDORN STOP CHRISMAN PROCEEDING BY AT6 TO PREPARE BODY FOR TRANSPORTATION STOP PLEASE FLY UDORN TO ASSIST STOP WIRE REPLY. On the information we received through Theo we didn’t think Paul was seriously injured and I thought the most urget thing was to get Priscilla’s body to Bangkok for embalming. As it was my telegram took several hours to get there and then it was all garbled up so that when MAAG got the wire, the word “BY” was left out and the radiogram read MISSIONARY JOHNSON KILLED DRUNK. Foster tried to assure the MAAG office that he was sure that none of the missionaries drank, etc. MAAG didn’t see that it was so urgent to get a plane up to Udorn to bring the body out so since Foster wasn’t well they didn’t change his proposed return trip to Korat for Saturday afternoon leaving Bangkok at 3 pm.”
“After sending the radiogram we rushed to the city (Korat) and brought Chrisman out for him
to ride to Udorn in the AT-6 advanced trainer – two cockpit. Group Capt P’aneang flew Chrisman personally and landed in Udorn about 11 am after an hour and 20 minute flight. In the meantime we wired Zeimer who was standing by in Khonkaen to proceed immediately by jeep and take nurse Norma Pater with, and that Chrisman had left by plane. Zeimer didn’t get this urgent wire until 11 am, but left immediately and arrived at Udorn about 1 pm. The Sahlbergs arrived by Rover about the same time from Nongkhai.”
"Throughout the morning we stood by for the reply from Foster at MAAG and get various messages from the local telegraphic office. The Governor of Udorn sent a wire to the Ministry of Interior; this wire had to be relayed by Korat and it said that Johnsons were shot by a group of 8 or 9 bandits, that Mrs. Johnson was dead and that Mr. Johnson was dying. We got a wire from Corrine Sahlberg who had been called by Johnson’s worker from Udorn saying “Priscilla killed, Paul dying, bandits, children safe. Elmer Sahlberg in country, leaving for Udorn in three hours.” So from these bits of
news we realized that Paul was in urgent need.”
“We went out to the Air Corps about 1 pm to wait for P’aneang to return from Udorn with news of Paul and for Foster to come from Bangkok. Shortly after we arrived at the Airfield I received this reply from MAAG: ATTENTION CARLSEN NO AIRCRAFT AVAILABLE FROM MAAG STOP FOSTER WILL WIRE NOT RECEIVED UNTIL 9:30 SATURDAY. FOSTER WILL RETURN KORAT THIS AFTERNOON.”
“About 3:50 pm we heard an airplane motor from the south and in a few minutes the Foster plane was circling the field. At the same time the AT-6 appeared in the sky coming from the north. Foster landed first, but we had to wait for P’aneang’s plane to land before knowing whether Foster was needed at Udorn definitely or not. P’aneang taxied up with Becky and Billy Johnson and their nursemaid in the rear cockpit and P’aneang gave me a note from Chrisman saying that “Paul’s condition may be bad – passing blood through bowels. Sure hope we can get him out by plane. Otherwise will take Paul down by express train. He wants me to stick with him…go to Bangkok with him. He
wants Theo to take the body to Khonkaen for burial.”
“I gave the information to Foster that they needed a plane and although he was feeling a little groggy from the medicine he had taken, he ordered the plane to be gassed. I had my suitcase along so said that I would go along in the event that they needed me at Udorn. At first Chrisman thought I might escort Paul to Bangkok while he took care of the burial, but it was more necessary that Chrisman take care of the living and let the rest of us who were less qualified in assisting Paul, take care of the burial.”
“So at 4:20 pm we took off for Udorn with Foster at the controls and Sgt Hughes as co-pilot and a Siamese mechanic sitting with me in the cabin. We passed over Khonkaen and as we drew near Udorn (about ten minutes out) everything got black and there was rain and dense clouds ahead of us. Siamese air maps are inaccurate so you have to fly by sight. As I sat on the right side of the plane and looked out through the left windows it seemed like
the tip of the wing was almost touching the mountains. Then we started to circle and sweep low to see if we could find some landmark in the near vicinity because we had no visibility ahead. Foster was really sweating and I was praying. The mechanic thought the railroad line was in one direction, but after we surveyed that area for a few minutes, Foster headed in the opposite direction and in a few minutes there was the railroad line and the truck road next to it. That was vertainly a welcome sight. It seemed then too that the sky began to clear a little at the same time and we followed the railroad to Udorn where we landed at 5:30 pm.”
“I should say that Neal drove Bonnie and Johnson children home where they have been ever since. The children are happy and have not asked for their parents. Becky prayed for her mother whom she thought was sick – the first night and then when I called for mail at the post office yesterday (the 21st- two days later), I had all the kids – Bonnie Gay, Phyllis Sjoblom, Bobby (me), Becky, and Billy – and Becky
asked if there was a letter from her mommy and daddy. (Bryan Johnson is at school at Dalat and will be coming back to Bangkok with Bob Moseley and the Davis and Miess boy on May 2nd)” (Note: My Mom told me that so as not to spoil their trip back to the States, the decision was made to wait until they returned to their grandmother so that they would have family to tell the children the news of their parents death.)
“The airfield at Udorn is right next to the Army compound and Paul was in the army hospital. I got in a truck to go to the hospital and tell Chrisman of our arrival, but while I was going on the car road soldier carried Paul on a stretcher on a more direct route. When I got back to the plane, Paul was lying on the stretcher next to the plane with hundreds of soldiers standing around gawking. I went up and knelt by him and said the children are safe and happy in Korat, and he responded “The Lord is good.” I commented about Easter being the previous Sunday and what a blessed hope we had.
Paul hadn’t slept a wink since the tragedy and he had commented to Theo earlier in the day that he hadn’t cried yet. Paul was living on his nerve; the shock of his wife’s death hadn’t hit him yet.”
“Since Chrisman was going to Bangkok with Paul and also Norma; I decided that I would take the express train to Khonkaen since the mission jeeps had already left with Zeimer and Sahlbergs. Since the train was to leave at 6:20 pm and it was now about 6:00, I left for the station. The plane got off about 6:30 and while taking off the rear tire blew out. Hughes, who told me about the following events says that he doesn’t think that anybody but he and Foster heard it. Paul was in good spirits and slept for almost the entire two hour trip to Bangkok. As they approached the airport Foster wired the field to turn on the landing lights, but evidently the control tower operator was listening to his commercial radio and didn’t hear Foster calling. Foster circled the field several times; finally radioed that he was landing lights or no lights. Just then the operator woke up to
the fact that a plane was trying to get in and he turned on the lights on the far runway so Foster had to taxi all the way across the field with a flat tire.”
“Although we had wired Voth to meet Johnson at the airfield the wire didn’t get through, so they had to phone far an ambulance. The ambulance covered the 25 miles from the city to the airport in good time, so I think they must have gotten Paul to the hospital by 9:30 pm. Since then we have received a wire from Chrisman saying that Paul has undergone a major operation and that his condition is very critical.”
“Foster and Hughes decided to return to Korat that same night and land by flares since there are no lights (electric) on the Korat field. So when they got their new rear tire they took off and flew by instruments to Korat, but they couldn’t find any lights along the way since it was past 11 pm and they had to fly at 6000 feet to be sure not to hit any mountains on the way up. They had previously instructed the Korat field to light
flares at 9 pm, but because of their flat tire, they were delayed and the flares had been put out. When their instruments indicated that they were in the vicinity of Korat they circled several times and finally saw some lights at the railroad station. Finally the Air Corps was awakened to their need and the flares were lit giving them the lay of the field. They made a safe landing.”
“Since being at the funeral at Khonkaen and having seen the other missionaries and having heard the story of the servant girl who came with the children and who was an eyewitness of the shooting, we have pieced together the following story: Paul and Priscilla with the children had been in the village for five days holding services for the Christians. Friday night was the last night and of course the whole vicinity knew that the foreigners were in that village and they also knew that Paul didn’t have nay guns. It was 7 pm and the Christians were gathered in one house having a prayer service before the evening service. Becky and Billy were sleeping in another house. As Paul was standing in prayer and Priscilla was
sitting at the organ, the bandits opened fire and shot at just Paul and Priscilla. Priscilla screamed and ran outside the house, a Siamese worker taking her by the hand. The robbers went to Paul demanding money and his car keys. The band divided and one group went to the house where the children were staying to get the clothes and things belonging to the Johnsons. One of the brigands kicked two year old Billy. After the bandits left, Paul who had thought Priscilla had escaped, called for the worker to get her to drive the Rover. The worker said that she died, and he asked if she died peacefully, and the worker replied “peacefully,” so Paul said “Praise the Lord.” They then loaded him in the back of the Rover and the two children with the servant girl in the front seat. Neither of the two children cried, even when they saw that their father was hurt. As far as I can gather from reports the villagers pushed the Rover along the cart road which in itself is very treacherous for the Rover could have easily been hung up if they didn’t keep on the high places. Then they
found a fellow that had a little experience driving and he managed to get the Rover to the army hospital where they tried to give Paul the best care possible – dressing his wounds and giving him shots. Paul wasn’t shot in the leg as we first thought, but in the hip; five pellets entering and three coming out. The Governor of Udorn and all the officials did all they possibly could. As far as we know in over 100 years of missionary work in Siam this is the first missionary that met death at the hands of people. I suppose during the Boxer Rebellion in China some Alliance missionaries were killed, but in recent years I don’t think anyone has met death in this manner.”
“The whole country will know of this incident and we believe that the Lord shall use it for the furtherance of the Gospel. Last night at the Air Corps I had a wonderful opportunity to give the Gospel to the 50 or more officers in the class and to show them that we missionaries held no hated in our hearts, not even of the bandits, but we pray for their salvation. I gave
them the Bible teaching on the resurrection and life after death, and the Spirit of God seemed to be present in a very real way. Please pray for this group and all the officials who have worked on the case, Up until now the missionaries have only had occasion to show the people how to live, but God has chosen Priscilla to show them how to die.”
Paul died the day after this letter was written. Group Captain P’aneang remained good friends of my parents. In a letter to his parents dated May 19, my Dad reported that the police had arrested one of the bandits who told them that he was forced to be a member of the gang because he owed the leader sewveral thousand baht. The night they killed the Johnsons they had been on their way to rob a rice mill, and had stopped at the village where the Johnsons were preaching to ge something to eat. They were attracted by the sound of the organ and upon seeing the foreigners thought they would have plenty of money, so shot to kill. He gave the police the names of the rest of the bandits and
where they could be found.
As we were traveling back to the States shortly after the murders, the plan was for my parents to take the three orphaned children, Becky, Billy, and Bryan, with us to hand over to their grandparents. On June 10, 1952 we flew from Bangkok on a Lockheed C-69 Constellation headed west to Europe and then the U.S. As propeller planes were slow and had limited range, we had numerous stops, some involving overnight and a couple day stopovers, so that the passengers could rest. We stopped for refueling in Calcutta, India, Karachi, Pakistan, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, before stopping for a for four days in Damascus, Syria.
Syria was recently granted independence from the French mandate that was in place since the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI. Mom recalls Damascus as “being so clean and bright.” When we checked into the hotel, since the Alliance Guest Home was undegoing renovation, the receptionist had reservations for both families, with the two rooms on different floors. When she saw that one family was three small children, she arranged for adjoining rooms with extra cribs and cots. Us kids had never seen
a bathtub before. In no time at all we had all undressed and jumped into the tub! The next morning we went down to the restaurant for breakfast that the maître de experienced the same initial reaction as the receptionist. He gave us one large table with booster seats rather than the two reserved tables. He brought the kids bread and butter to keep us satisfied until he brought the rest of the food. After breakfast we all went shopping. We played hide and seek among the textiles.
On June 15 we continuued on our way, with refueling stops in Athens, Greece, Naples, Italy, and Frankfurt, germany before stopping for a day in Amsterdam which Mom described as being “cool and beautiful.” The receptionist at the hotel offered to babysit when she saw Mom with five children (she thought they were all hers!). She also took our laundry home with her to wash and iron so that we would have clean clothes for the rest of our journey. Try to get that kind of personalized service today! Meanwhile we took a tour of the canals, which was a safe thing for five kids as the boat had a Plexiglas
We departed Amsterdam on June 17 with refueling stops in Glasgow, Scotland and Gander, Canada before landing at Idylwild Airport in New York City. We spent our furlough year in Nyack, New York; at Rockwood Cottage right next to the Nyack College women’s dorm. I was too young to remember much of our time in New York. We visited my Dad’s parents in New York City and his father’s brothers and sisters and my cousins on Long Island and New Jersey, and his mother’s farmer relatives in western Pennsylvania, and my Mom’s parents and brothers and sisters and my cousins in Toronto, Canada.
My earliest memory is from the visit to Toronto. As I was difficult to keep track of, my grandfather had connected my by a least to the clothes line in the back yard. I was really tempted to use the tricycle, and managed to get loose. The police found me on the trike on the median of a six lane highway (Yonge St) and carted me off to the police station. They asked me where I was from. I answered "Thailand." That was the end of their interrogation. All they could hope for was
that my mother would soon notice her loss and call them. Meanwhile, I found many interesting objects under their desk; including a revolver which I pointed at them. I don't remember being handcuffed, but they were relieved when my Mom showed up. I believe they told her to be more careful watching me.
My mom reports that two months after we dropped the Johnson children off with their grandmother we did drive to Minnesota to see the children and their grandmother. When my Mom was putting the children to bed, Becky who was four years old whispered in Mom’s ear that she wanted to go back to Thailand with us. However, her grandmother didn’t want to give them up to us for adoption. (Note: In 2005 I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Becky and Brian Johnson again).
In June 1953, at the end of our furlough year we flew to Los Angeles. One of my earliest memories was going to Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park (Disneyland wasn’t built until 2 years later), and particularly the train ride which the bandits attack and hold everyone up for their money. (Note: My wife, Linda, and I returned there in
1982 and took the ride for old time’s sake, and it wasn’t nearly as traumatic!) I also remember a day at the beach with Uncle Wayne, his mother, Aunt Minnie, Bonnie Gay, and Joy, who were just returning to the States for their furlough.
Our next flight was across the Pacific on the Pan Am Clipper Flying Boat. We stopped in Honolulu, Hawaii; Nadi, Fiji; Sydney and Darwin, Australia; and Singapore before arriving in Bangkok. I remember in Darwin seeing kangaroos on the other side of the airport perimeter fence. In Singapore we stayed at the Raffles Hotel, one of the famous colonial hotels, at the time of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth. I remember the grounds of the hotel being lit with colorful Chinese paper lanterns for the occasion.
Upon our return to Thailand, my parents were assigned to the mission station in Sisaket. We were the first foreign family ever to live there. They were busy with mission work, so my sister Sue and I had an amah to take care of us. My earliest memories are of playing with the children in the neighborhood. I essentially became a Thai kid, learning Thai just as the
other children, and dressing just as they did…mostly naked. We would swim in the nearby river, where I almost drown twice except for being rescued by my amah who should have kept me from such danger in the first place.
One of my earliest fears was of rabies. It was very common for dogs to contract rabies, and for the people to chase it and beat it to death. These brutal deaths left me with an enduring fear of contracting rabies. (Note: In 1966, while visiting missionaries in Pak Chong, Thailand, I was bitten by their German Sheppard pet during a playful wrestling match. A few days later it died, apparently of rabies. The U.S. Army vet from the Fifth Field Hospital in Korat went with my Dad and me to cut the dogs head off and take it to Bangkok for testing. Sure enough it was rabies. As I was allergic to feathers, I couldn’t have the duck embryo shots to the stomach, so had 19 days of shots in my arm. After that I wasn’t afraid of anything!)
I also got my first pet, a dog I named Punky. He was short and had white hair.
He was a great dog, other than biting me when I tried to break up a fight he was in with another dog. I still have the scar on the palm of my hand. My other scars from this time are on my knees. We had a concrete road in front of our home, and I was always falling and skinning my knees. I still remember the smell of the Detol antiseptic my Mom used to wipe the wounds.
My sister Judy was born on October 22, 1954. My parents kept Dr. Welles busy. (Note: I recently sent a birthday card to Dr. Welles in Pasadena wishing him well on his 100th birthday.)
One trip I took with my Dad and the Ellisons, another missionary family from the next province over, was to the Khmer temple ruins at Khao Phra Viharn. At the time it was in Thailand, on a high ridge looking over the Cambodian plains below. (Note: In 1962 the World Court ruled in favor of Cambodia in the border dispute…but you can still only approach the temple from the Thailand side. Even today there are frequent minor clashes between the Thai and Cambodian armies as
Paul and Phyllis Johnson
with their children Bryan, Becky, and Billy; with Ms Ratzloff on the left and Ms Hearn on the left
it appears that the Khmer Rouge moved some of the border monuments so that it appeared that they were in Thailand, and thus couldn’t be attacked, while in reality they were still in Cambodia. So no one really knows where the original boundary is.) At the time of our trip there really wasn’t much of a road; just a mud track that we had to get out of the Land Rover every once in awhile to clear rocks, tree limbs, and brush. I can still remember the grand temples and the look over the distant plains of Cambodia although I was only 4 years old at the time.
In April 1955, after two years in Sisaket, my parents were reassigned to Khon Kaen, also in Pak Isan. I remember continuing my life as a Thai kid, but I don’t remember having an amah. Mom says "You did, but that you had your own plans." I guess I was raised on a pretty long leash.
Most of my days were filled with going to the nearby rice fields with other Thai children to ride water buffalo, usually pretty docile animals. The only difficult part was climbing on the back,
which was pretty high off the ground for a five year old to be able to reach. On one occasion as I was climbing up, and the water buffalo turned its head to look at me. Its long curved horn got me right in the eye. Luckily I wasn’t blinded.
Another time I got on the back of a young water buffalo which was much lower. However, when it noticed that its mother had wandered off into the distance, it panicked and charged full speed after her with me barely hanging on.
Mom taught English, and some of her students would report sightings of me on water buffalo. She wondered where the amah was.
Another activity I enjoyed was fishing in our nearby klong (canal). I would tie a string to the end of a stick, and attach a fish hook, and then dangle it into the water. I remember catching 13 fish one day this way.
Perhaps to keep me out of trouble my Mom decided to send me to Thai school. I readily agreed to this idea. However, on the first day of school the school nurse started to give every student shots. I was
having nothing to do with that and immediately fled home. Next door to us was a house of ill repute. I remember the “ladies” would climb on their roof with not much on; actually nothing on, perhaps to advertize. Whenever this happened, my Mom would call us inside, warn us that they were witches, and tell us to hide. Prostitution was a regular part of Thai culture well before the American military and sex tourists arrived.
We occasionally made trips to Bangkok, but the roads were very bad, especially in the rainy season when they were flooded. Usually we took the train. I loved the train rides. Sometimes the engineer would allow me to ride in the cab or engine. At each stop vendors would bring their food to the windows. I liked the barbecued chicken on a stick (called gai yang) and the stick rice cooked inside bamboo (called kao lam). I especially liked the fried rice (kao put) with a fried egg on top served in the dining car.
I remember my parents taking me to the American Club in Bangkok for a fancy dinner. There was an aquarium at the entrance. I could see through
the glass sides the fish swimming around. I wanted to get closer, and thought I could look through the glass cover on top; only there wasn’t a glass top, and I ended up in the fish tank.
I had a particular fascination with animals. One day my parents left me with Mr. Chrisman who volunteered to babysit me and another missionary kid (MK). He took us to the Dusit Zoo in Bangkok. Somehow we ended up in the giraffe enclosure.
Up country we were mostly removed from the politics of Thailand. At the time, the king was just back in Thailand after going to college in Switzerland. He was a constitutional monarch, following the coup d’état on 1932 in which the military gained control of the government. Soon the king began to do good works in order to win the affection of the Thai people. The prime minister had to compete with the king. On one occasion Prime Minister Pibulsongkram (also a Field Marshall, as the military were in charge) came to an experimental farm built with U.S. aid. We went for the ribbon cutting ceremony and the steaks that were roasting on a spit over a fire.
Somehow I ended up on the Prime Minister lap on the stage…not sure whether I cut the ribbon.
Growing up I had an appreciation for the Thai political system, which had a benevolent dictator. I remember stories of how the prime minister’s wife went to the market, and found the price of meat to be skyrocketing. She complained to her husband, and he immediately issued an edict to cap prices. There was still plenty of meat, but the speculators didn’t make much money. Another time there was a problem of racing bus drivers resulting in many accidents and deaths. He issued a decree that henceforth any bus driver caught racing would be shot on sight. That took care of that problem. I don’t think democracy works until the electorate is both moral and educated. I believe most western democracies have become corrupted by special interest groups; but enough of that.
My family lived in Khon Kaen until we left for furlough in 1958. Meanwhile, in August 1956 I went to Dalat School for first and second grades.
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