Congressman helps family find lost military record, medals

FARGO--What was once lost is now found for the grandson of a World War II veteran and his family who wanted more information about his grandfather's military service.

Sgt. Robert Johnston
Sgt. Robert Johnston

FARGO-What was once lost is now found for the grandson of a World War II veteran and his family who wanted more information about his grandfather's military service.

Levi Otis of Fargo knew his grandfather was patriotic. The late Sgt. Robert Johnston served in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was a prisoner of war for 15 months after his plane was shot down in a mission over Italy. Johnston escaped and returned home to later serve in the Korean War, but that's the extent of Otis' knowledge of his grandfather's service.

That all changed a few weeks ago when Otis got a phone call from Congressman Kevin Cramer's office. Now on Wednesday, Dec. 28, Cramer will present Otis and his grandmother, Lila Johnston, with five medals in honor of Johnston's service and his military record. The presentation ceremony at the Fargo Air Museum will have close to 50 family members in attendance.

Otis, 33, who works in government affairs for Ellingson Companies, contacted Cramer after getting a few leads about his grandfather from the Facebook group Fans of the B-17 Flying Fortress. Although his family was always told that Johnston's records were destroyed in the St. Louis, Mo., National Personnel Records Center fire of 1973, as many families were told, he refused to give up hope.

"All these things have started to open up, this family history that we've never had," Otis said.


Johnston, originally from Northwood, Iowa, and later residing in Henning, Minn., died 20 years ago from pancreatic cancer. He was 73 years old. Early on in life he was orphaned and raised by his uncle and later joined the military. The rest is, well, historic.

"When we said we recovered a POW medal, that's always an eye-catcher for me," said Randy Richards, field representative for Cramer. "The statement he (Johnston) gave the Army was that he stole a German officer's car and escaped to allies. I've never seen anything like that."

Newspaper clippings recently recovered also provided insight to Johnston's escape from Nazi guards with another POW "hiding in a threshing machine with little food for three days." When the plane was shot down Jan. 30, 1944, Johnston parachuted down only to be made a prisoner until his escape April 21, 1945.

Richards said he gets about two or three requests to recover World War II medals a year, but Johnston's case was impressive considering his involvement in historic air campaigns that "really cleared the way to taking Italy off the board before the D-Day invasion."

Recovering records pre-Vietnam are difficult due to the fire, which makes "the reward that much greater," Cramer said. "Sometimes what was lost can be found."

"It always stands out for me when it's a World War II veteran. It's just one of those touching things. It's a very special group because they saved the world. That war itself and the U.S. involvement was so massive and historically significant," Cramer said.

If a family member is willing to lead the charge in recovering records, like Otis, Richards said congressmen have the ability and resources to recover what information is out there. And with technology advancing, electronic record systems are making it easier to connect families with valuable information.

Johnston's family will be presented with the Air Medal and Oak Leaf Cluster, the POW Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal and Bronze Star Attachment, the World War II Victory Medal and the Honorable Service Lapel Button.

Related Topics: KEVIN CRAMER
What To Read Next
Neil Joseph Pfeifer was released Friday, Feb. 3, on $5,000 cash bail.
State lawmakers hear from both sides as parents and educators weigh in on the potential impact of the bill
“We see that when things happen in the coastal areas, a few years later, they start trending toward the Midwest,” said Rep. Ben Krohmer, serving his first term in the House.
Stark County prosecutors prepare for pretrial conferences and jury trials scheduled for March