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State’s first black general retires from guard

Brig. Gen. William J. Johnson, Jr., retired Saturday as the state’s deputy adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard after 36 years service.

A standing room only crowd of more than 500 fellow guard members, friends and family turned out to pay respect and to honor Johnson, who joined North Little Rock’s 212th Signal Battalion as an enlisted man in 1977.

As one of the first minorities to join the Guard shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, the crowd facing Johnson Saturday was much more representative of the public with several female guard members and a multitude of minorities from several different races.

Just two years before Johnson’s enlistment, the Guard undertook a recruiting campaign to add both women and minorities to its ranks. Before that campaign, women were only allowed to join medical units as nurses or in another medical position.

In the 1960s the guard units around the country became a Who’s Who for each state’s politically connected young men who choose to serve at home to avoid being drafted to serve in Vietnam. Not many minorities were included in that list of power brokers.

Maj. Gen. William Wofford, the state’s adjutant general praised Johnson for his role in helping to bring in more minorities and for his leadership role as a mentor to fellow guard members.

“Google integrity and you’ll see a picture of William Johnson pop up there,” said Wofford. “Those that have worked with him over the years know his character and the type and quality of the man he is.”

Wofford related that the climate was quite challenging for all minorities, especially blacks and women coming into the military service during the early to mid-1970s. He credited Johnson for not only joining the Guard, but also accepting a number of jobs and transfers throughout his career, which he would not have likely volunteered to assume. “He not only accepted these challenges, he excelled in them,” said Wofford.

Johnson began his career as an enlisted soldier with the 212th Signal Battalion as a communications operator in 1977. He later completed officer candidate school and received a commission as an officer in 1981. He rose through the ranks serving in a variety of leadership and command positions in the 39th Infantry Brigade, then as a senior operations officer, human resources officer and chief of staff for the Arkansas National Guard before being promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and assuming his duties as deputy adjutant general for the Guard.

“His patience and mentor-ship have served to benefit his superiors and subordinates alike,” said Wofford. “There are countless officers and senior non-commissioned officers who have sought council and mentoring advice from General Johnson, and he’s always glad to give it.”

Wofford also credited Johnson for leading by example and setting the standard for all the soldiers of the Arkansas National Guard.

During the ceremony Johnson was presented the Legion of Merit Medal and the Arkansas Distinguished Service Medal in recognition of his long and distinguished service to the nation and the state of Arkansas.

In addition he was presented with letters of thanks from President Barack Obama and Gov. Mike Beebe on behalf of the citizens of a grateful state and nation for brave and diligent service.

In his remarks to the crowd Johnson was characteristically humble and took the opportunity to thank a long list of current and former commanders and senior non-commissioned officers for the impact and assistance they provided him through the course of his career.

“None of us are capable of doing this alone,” Johnson said.

Johnson closed the ceremony by thanking all the current soldiers and airmen of the Arkansas National Guard for their service and sacrifice, and that of their families, which help to make their service possible.

Among those who came to pay tribute was the state’s first black pilot who later became famous as a leader of the Tuskegee airmen, 93-year-old Milton Pitts Crenshaw. Crenshaw, a native Arkansan learned to fly in Arkansas and became an instructor pilot at Tuskegee not just for fellow black pilots but also for all pilot candidates.

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William Pitts Crenhaw, 93, left — the original Tuskegee airmen and the sole surviving Arkansan who taught flight instructors at the training base joined Johnson in his receiving line.

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