Johnson died in Vietnam, remembered as ‘bubbly’

By Christina O'Haver, The Union Democrat May 27, 2013 11:30 am

Dennis Johnson died May 31, 1967, while serving in Vietnam. Courtesy photo.
Nearly 46 years after her husband died in Vietnam, Sonora resident Jan Colombani can still vividly remember the day she received the news.

She was washing dishes with her father at their Tuolumne home when they saw a Marine officer and chaplain walking up Carter Street.

“I knew immediately,” she said. 

Colombani, a Tuolumne native, had just returned from Hawaii, where she had flown to visit her husband, Dennis Johnson, who was supposed to be on leave.

He never showed.

Colombani was told that Johnson had given his R&R to another serviceman who was having a difficult time.

Colombani stayed in Hawaii for a day or so, spending time with her brother who lived there, and was visited by the Marine Corps shortly after returning home.

She said the Marines first visited Johnson’s grandmother’s home in Modesto, where they thought Colombani lived. She had been staying there while attending Modesto Junior College.

“They made her promise she wouldn’t call anybody,” Colombani said.

Johnson was killed May 31, 1967, a day after Memorial Day, when he stepped on a land mine in Quang Tri.

He was leading a squad of servicemen who were patrolling for traps and land mines.

Colombani said he had already held the position, called “point,” but was repeating it in place of the man he gave his R&R to. 

He had attained the rank of lance corporal and was nearing the end of his tour.

Johnson was born in Modesto but spent most of his life in Twain Harte. He enlisted in the Marine Corps on May 1, 1966, and trained at Camp Pendleton near San Diego. 

He married the former Jan Friary on Sept. 3, after returning from boot camp. They were just shy of 19 years old and had been dating about 18 months.

Johnson left Twain Harte for Vietnam on Oct. 17, 1966 — 10 days before his 19th birthday.

He and Colombani met while attending Summerville High School but didn’t start dating until he moved to Fresno for his senior year.

“We were kind of like oil and water the first three years (of high school),” she said.

Johnson made the 100-plus-mile drive  from Fresno to Tuolumne County on weekends during his senior year and moved back shortly after graduating.

Colombani said Johnson loved driving his 1956 orange and white Ford. He also loved sports, dancing and being outdoors.

Nadine Fulkerson, who has been friends with Colombani since kindergarten and also attended Summerville High School, described Johnson as “a lot of fun” and “real bubbly.” She also said he always had good jokes.

“He never complained to me about his circumstances,” Colombani recalled.

Johnson wrote letters to his wife but was only able to place one phone call while overseas. When he called Colombani at her parents’ house, she was at work.

After Johnson died, Colombani’s grief was exacerbated by a slew of hate mail.

“It was a trying time because it wasn’t a very popular war,” she said. “I got a lot of hate mail and I was shocked.”

Fulkerson said Colombani didn’t tell her about the mail at the time and rarely talked about Johnson’s death.

“People had mixed feelings about Vietnam,” Fulkerson said. “There were so many

protesters … you were almost afraid to say something.”

Johnson had enlisted in the Marine Corps with a friend because he felt its what he needed to do for his county, Colombani said.

After Johnson died, Colombani moved to Sacramento and began working for a company that sold stocks and bonds. A co-workershowed Colombani’s photo to her brother’s single friend, Ron Colombani, who lived in West Sacramento. 

Ron Colombani had just gotten home from Vietnam, where he served in the Marine Corps from 1966 to 1967. He was a sergeant in reconnaissance.

“He called me up and asked me out,” she said.

Although they had never met in person, Jan agreed to see “Wait Until Dark” with Ron at a Sacramento movie theater.

They were married in November 1968.

But Jan said Ron felt guilty that he survived the war and Johnson did not.

“We had some times to get through,” she said. “A lot of the gals that lost husbands didn’t remarry. I’m really glad I did.”

The Colombanis have four daughters and five grandchildren with another on the way.

Jan sometimes takes her oldest granddaughter, who is 8 years old, with her to Johnson’s grave at Mountain Shadow Cemetery. She visits his grave every Memorial Day.