“From Here On, Everything’s Tactical”: An Engineer Officer In Panama And Vietnam

Jim Johnson


Jim Johnson grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. His mother was an English teacher. His father, who had been a History teacher, deployed to World War II as an Engineer, starting out as a Non-Commissioned Officer before receiving a commission, and he became a civil engineer after the war. Jim decided to become an engineer as well, attending Vanderbilt University as an undergrad and earning a master’s degree from the University of Illinois. While in college, he was commissioned through ROTC. His first assignment was with the Engineer Detachment in the 8th Special Forces Group in Panama from 1965 to 1967. He deployed to Paraguay, Ecuador, and Bolivia, where he advised host-nation engineer units completing civic projects such as building farm-to-market roads, and hot water showers for an orphanage. He earned his Ranger Tab before deploying to Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. He appreciated Ranger School because everything was focused on preparation for combat in Vietnam. He remembers the commander of the Florida Ranger Camp, Charlie Beckwith, telling the students, “Look to your left and right. A year from now one of you is not going to be alive.” The training was intense and realistic. When he arrived in Vietnam, he was initially stationed in Bien Hoa before moving to the Dak To area, where he focused on keeping the roads open and base camp defense. Later his unit moved to Tuy Hoa. In the 173rd, he served as a Platoon Leader, an Intelligence Officer (S2), and an Engineer Company Commander. Returning from Vietnam in the summer of 1968, he left the military, earned his PhD in Engineering at Vanderbilt, and was married. He moved to Houston, Texas, where he was a Civil Engineer until his retirement in 2012. Since retiring, he looks for ways to give back by volunteering at the Fisher House and at the USO. In this interview, he talks about his childhood, his parents’ influence, and becoming an engineer. He describes his deployments to Central and South America and Vietnam, and some of the positive leadership and friendships he experienced along the way. He recalls building a corduroy road to allow the movement of heavy artillery pieces during an especially wet and muddy period. Finally, he discusses what his service means to him, and the importance of “paying it forward.”


conflicts Vietnam War
topics Camaraderie Leadership Life After Military Returning from War
interviewer David Siry
date 02 November 2018


name Jim Johnson
institution Vanderbilt; University of Illinois
graduation year 1963
service Engineer
unit Engineer Detachment, 8th Special Forces Group; 173rd Airborne Brigade
specialty Civil Engineering
service dates 1963 1968