As I watch the memorial service today, I’ll be thinking of my friend Ed Johnson, the visionary behind the North Wall.
Ed and I met first late in 1995, six months or so after the North Wall (officially known as the Canadian Vietnam Vet Memorial) was erected in Windsor, Ontario. We met again the following July and then again ten years later during the tenth anniversary of the monument.
In our first meeting, Ed told me how a chance meeting with a woman at the Wall in Washington in 1986 led him on a long journey to create the North Wall. The Canadian woman told Ed that she served as a nurse in Vietnam. Later he found out she lied about that, but her comments made him curious about all Vietnam veterans from Canada. He remembered serving with a Canadian in 1969/70 with the 2/47 Mechanized Infantry.
“During that time, it just never registered,” he said. “I didn’t know what that would mean or where it was. I mean, how many American lives did they save? I’m forever grateful for what they did.”
Johnson began looking for information about Canadian Vietnam Veterans. He found out that some associations existed in Canada, but that most veterans in our country were still isolated and on their own. He learned that many had to cross the border multiple times a year to get health treatment for injuries received during the Vietnam War.
“So I organized a committee here in the Detroit area and called it the Canadian Vietnam Veterans’ Welcome Home Committee. We began working to organize a Welcome Home event for them. The event took two years in the planning and I personally went out and signed a contract with the Michigan State Fair Grounds for $48,000.”
The Welcome Home party took place on July 4, 1989, but internal fighting between veteran’s organizations meant that two other similar events took place in Michigan the same weekend. The pressure also caused fighting at home. By Sunday night that weekend, Johnson had lost $12,000, his house, his credit rating and his wife.
Despite the turmoil, Johnson continued his efforts to bring the Canadians home. He, his buddy Ric Gidner and his brother-in-law Chris Reynolds began building a mini-version of the Washington monument for the Canadians. With the help of the associations in Canada, they researched 100 names to inscribe on the granite.
In March 1993, Johnson and Gidner started a non-profit association called the Michigan Association of Concerned Veterans to offer their monument to the Canadians.
Both the National Capital Commission and the City of Ottawa refused the offer, as did the ministries of Veteran’s Affairs and Public Works.
That led the Americans to split with the Ottawa and Toronto groups that wanted an Ottawa site and look for an alternate site instead.
In the end, the City of Windsor offered land in Assumption Park, right next to the Ambassador Bridge. The monument was dedicated on July 2, 1995 and continues to be dedicated annually every year.
Ed attended all of those dedications until he died from cancer on August 24, 2010. He was only 61 years old. There’s a neat memorial postcard in his memory.
I tried to find an official death notice for my friend, and found one for Edward George Johnson IV, who also lived in Farmington Hills and was born and died on the same dates as the Ed I knew. The picture looks like Ed to me. If this is indeed Ed, it’s nice to see that he built a strong relationship with family before dying despite his commitment to leaving a legacy for Canadian Vietnam Veterans.