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Bob Lind, Published September 12 2010

Lind: The legend of ‘Legion Jim’

“Legion Jim” Johnson loved to play baseball when he was growing up in New Rockford, N.D.

And he was good at it; so good he was inducted into both the Junior Legion Baseball Hall of Fame and the Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame.

New Rockford actually had two Jim Johnsons. To tell them apart, this one became known as “Legion Jim” because he was manager of the New Rockford American Legion Club for 54 years.

Jim was born in 1920 in New Rockford, graduated from New Rockford High School, worked for Swift & Co. and played baseball any chance he had.

He married Patricia Bass in 1940. They had children. Then came the Army.

Busy man

After the war, Jim did many things: He managed the Legion club; measured grain bins and fields for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation

Service; was a substitute rural mail carrier for 30-some years and then did it full time; served as the Eddy County Selective Service Board clerk; sold Christmas trees; and was active in the Eagles Club, the United Methodist church, the VFW.

He loved the outdoors, hunting, bowling and, above all, his wife, Pat, and their five kids: Jim, now of Grand Forks; Jackie Johnson of St. Paul; twins Patricia Hilbert of New Rockford, and Peggy Richter of Bismarck; and Bill, deceased.

And playing baseball.

Old rifles

But baseball probably wasn’t on his mind that day after Christmas 1944 when his Army unit sailed from Naples, Italy, in a rickety wooden Italian vessel bound for southern France.

The Allies had invaded southern France that August and had pushed German armies back. Now reinforcements were being trucked toward the front lines.

Eventually Jim’s company left the trucks and began marching, hearing gunfire nearby. But they were handicapped; they hadn’t been issued rifles.

Finally, rifles arrived: rusty, bolt-action rifles from World War I. But the troops soaked them in gasoline and got them to work.

Now they faced a formidable challenge: going into a forest in which the Germans had built thick concrete pillboxes.

Somehow, though, Jim singlehandedly captured one of those pillboxes. For this, he was awarded a bronze medal.

For him, war ends

March 7, 1945. Jim was wounded in his knee. He could have been hospitalized, but he was determined to stay with his buddies.

March 22. Jim was crawling toward a pillbox when a mortar shell exploded in front of him, shattering both of his arms.

He was carried to a field hospital for surgery. This led to more surgeries in various military hospitals.

With his hands and arms in bandages, he couldn’t write to his wife; nurses had to do it for him.

He became depressed. How, he wondered, could he go home and support his family in this condition?

Coming home

Back home, Pat and the three children she and Jim had at the time didn’t have a car. But they’d ride the Galloping Goose train to Sheyenne to shop, and Pat rode around New Rockford on a bike, hauling the kids and their dog, Blackie.

But things got better in 1946. That was when Dad came home. Badly wounded, yes, but he was home.

He found a job managing the Legion club.

He bought a Chevy coupe, meaning Pat didn’t have to get around on a bike anymore.

Life was looking up. Except for one thing; Jim figured he couldn’t play baseball.

Then one day, when his arms and hands were somewhat healed, Jim tried something. He put some extra leather webbing in his baseball glove to create a larger pocket. Then his wife tossed baseballs to him.

And he caught them.

He caught them.

And both husband and wife wept.

Playing it out

Despite having arms and hands full of shrapnel that couldn’t be removed, Jim began playing first base for the New Rockford independent team, doing so until the league it was in disbanded.

After a game was played out of town, the players’ wives would provide a picnic of fried chicken, and the guys would chow down while replaying the game. Few people knew what this meant to Jim and Pat.

Legion Jim Johnson died in 2006 at age 85, leaving his wife and their family, which by now includes 14 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, all of whom have the legacy of having a war hero grandfather who kept fighting down to the last out.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to 241-5487; or e-mail blind@forumcomm.com