Retired Gen. Harold K. Johnson, 71, the Army chief of staff from 1964 to 1968 who was a highly decorated combat veteran of World War II and the Korean War, died of cancer Sept. 24 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He lived in Arlington.
Before becoming chief of staff, Gen. Johnson had served his country in a variety of other tough spots. In April 1942, as a battalion commander with the 57th Infantry Regiment (the famed Philippine Scouts) he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and participated in the infamous Bataan Death March. When freed in 1945, he weighed 90 pounds. The physician who examined him reported that "there is no medical reason why Harold Johnson should be alive."
At the outbreak of the Korean War, he was ordered there as commanding officer of the 1st Provisional Infantry Battalion. Joining the 1st Cavalry Division, he and his unit participated in the defense of the Pusan perimeter, and some of the rest of the heaviest fighting in that war. He was promoted to colonel and at the end of the conflict was the assistant chief of staff of I Corps.
His decorations for his actions in Korea included the Distinguished Service Cross for "extraordinary heroism in action." It is the Army's highest award for valor except the Medal of Honor.
Gen. Johnson was a lieutenant general and deputy chief of staff for operations when he became chief of staff and was promoted to four-star rank. He was chosen ahead of 43 other generals with greater seniority. His tour as chief of staff included four of the Army's and the nation's most difficult and divisive years.
He was the head Army adviser to the president and the secretary of defense, as well as the Army's uniformed commander. He backed the general thrust of the war effort yet, as the war progressed, Gen. Johnson let it be known that while he believed the conflict could be won, he disagreed with his civilian superiors on the tools needed to win the struggle as well as its ultimate cost.
In 1967, he testified before committees on Capitol Hill that he opposed the Johnson Administration's bombing policy of "gradualism." While Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Johnson approved a few bombing targets at a time, Gen. Johnson favored hitting the enemy "as heavy a blow as possible over as short a period of time as possible." He told a Senate subcommittee that it was essential in a "militarily integrated" war to hit all facilities that helped Hanoi prolong the fighting.
Gen. Johnson worked for greater support for his men in the field. He testified in favor of more helicopters, both to aid the fighting and evacuate the wounded, and for larger reserve forces and better pay. He also became famous for orders he sent out telling Army drill sergeants to moderate their language and have greater respect for recruits.
He retired from active duty when he stepped down as chief of staff in 1968. At ceremonies marking that occasion, President Johnson recalled that when Gen. Johnson became chief of staff he was faced with the "awesome task" of directing a "logistical buildup that has had few parallels in all the history of warfare."
Gen. Johnson was a native of Bowesmont, N.D., and a 1933 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After World War II, he studied and taught at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. He graduated from the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk before going to Korea. Upon returning from Korea, he graduated from the National War College, and went to Europe as an assistant infantry division commander in 1956. A year later, he was chief of staff of the Seventh Army in Europe, then assistant chief of staff of all Army forces in Europe.
In late 1959, he was promoted to major general and chosen chief of staff of NATO's Central Army Group. In that post he headed planning units of French, West German and American troop operations for peacetime and war contingencies. He also gained valuable experience in international staff work.
From August 1960 to February 1963, he was commandant of the Command and Staff College, where he became famous for his slogan, "challenge the assertion," which called upon students to challenge their lecturers, who were some of the Army's best senior officers with considerable experience. He also helped direct planning for the makeup of new Army divisions.
In addition to the Distinguished Service Cross, his medals included Combat Infantryman's Badge with star, two Distinguished Service Medals, four Legions of Merit and the Bronze Star.
After retiring from active duty, he served for a time as president and chief executive officer of Financial General Bankshares Inc., as president of the Freedoms Foundation and on several corporate boards of directors.
Gen. Johnson was long active in scouting. He was a past president of the Boy Scouts National Capital Area Council and was a recipient of scouting's Silver Buffalo and Silver Beaver awards. He was a Mason and had served as director of education and Americanism of the Scottish Rite. He was a member of the Protestant Men of the Chapel. He was a member of the Army & Navy Club in Washington and the Washington Golf and Country Club.
Survivors include his wife, the former Dorothy Helen Rennix, of Arlington; two sons, Harold K. Jr. of Sykesville, Md., and Robert James Johnson of Bristol, Va.; a daughter, Ellen Kay Kimbrough of Columbia; two sisters; a brother; and eight grandchildren.