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franklin county times

PROGRESS 2024: Veteran Spotlight – Johnnie Pounders

“I would do it all again. I’m very patriotic. I believe in America.”

Johnnie Pounders, now 82, spent nearly 30 years serving in three branches of the United States Armed Forces: the Navy from 1959-1965, the Army Reserve from 1978-1985 and the Air Force Reserve from 1985-2001.

Pounders and five buddies skipped high school one day to visit a recruiter and find out about volunteering for the U.S. Navy. Although the Navy recruiter wasn’t in the office at the time, he called them each the next day, and they all signed up. Pounders’ buddies left out June 8-9 – but Pounders backed out. He realized he just wasn’t ready. “I went to work and worked until they came home on boot camp leave – and that uniform just looked like it’d fit me,” Pounders said. “I saw how people treated them and how they had changed from teenage boys into young men.” Just that few weeks later, he was ready after all! He was sworn into the Navy not long after.

“It was the best thing I ever done,” Pounders said. “In 1959, if you lived in Alabama – which I was living in Missouri, but it was a similar scenario – no good company would hire you until you had satisfied the draft.” Through his military service, he got a good education, saw the world – and said he doesn’t regret a day of it.

Pounders took off to swear in and from there to boot camp without even telling his parents. “I was afraid they would talk me out of it,” Pounders said. “That was just something mothers did. Mothers are still trying to talk their sons out of going into the military.” He wrote home from boot camp in San Diego to let them know where he was; the Navy required it.

“Boot camp changed me. Everything Mother and Dad had taught me from the time I was old enough to know anything until I left home, except family and religion, boot camp took away from me,” Pounders said. “They broke you down a phase at a time for about five weeks, and then they started building you back up. When you left boot camp, you were a changed individual.”

Pounders said he “had a fair idea of what was going to happen” at boot camp from visiting his friend’s brother at Fort Leonard Wood. “There was a lot of marching, and a lot of hollering, and a lot of discipline if you didn’t do what you were supposed to do,” Pounders said. “It was alright. I had been hollered at all my life. The discipline did not bother me. I grew up knowing what the end results would be if you didn’t obey the rules.”

After boot camp was a 15-day leave, then aviation electrician school was in Florida. Based on testing, the Navy had determined his aptitude – “I scored real well” – which landed him at the aviation electrician school. That was six months of training, after which he returned to San Diego to the Naval Air Station on North Island, tailhook squadron. He was then assigned to the anti-submarine squadron 21 – just in time to ship out to sea for two weeks.

That was only the beginning.

“Within four or five months, we went on a six-month Western Pacific cruise,” Pounders said. “We went to Hawaii, Okinawa, Guam, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan. We were training all that time. And then back to the United States.”

Pounders got selected to be an air crewman, so when they got back to states, he went to survival school – in desert, water and mountain locales.

“Most of my time after I got on air crew was flying. I flew mostly at night,” Pounders explained. Briefing, flight and debriefing would be about an eight-hour ordeal. He served as the radar navigator on a crew of four – which also included a pilot, copilot and sonar operator – on an S2F Submarine Tracker. “They were really good people. They were friends. Once we left that flight deck and we were airborne, we were buddies,” Pounders said. “Once we caught the hook coming in, we were sailors, and they were officers. But we got real close, and we trusted them, and they trusted you.

“We won the outstanding air crew award two or three different times.”

As the Vietnam war started heating up, Pounders and his squadron headed to Okinawa to continuing training. They left the ship in Okinawa in July 1963 and stayed in Okinawa a week before flying to Hawaii for two days and then back to California from there, to Treasure Island Naval Base for discharge. They spent a week there processing out. “Then I came home,” Pounders said. His obligation was complete in August 1963, but he spent two more years in the reserves.

“I had thought about going to college and was planning on it until I got home. I got to looking at what it was going to cost and what money I had, and it didn’t add up,” Pounders said. His parents were still living in Missouri, so he moved home and got a job – first at the grocery store and then a hardwood flooring mill.

He met his wife Joann and soon moved to Washington state with his new wife, following the bride’s parents. “My father-in-law had lived out there, and there were a lot of relatives out there,” he explained.

They lived there from April through September 1964, but Pounders said it never really felt like home. They returned to Missouri and then back to Alabama, where Pounders parents had returned. In Shelby County he got a job in the mines – a job that eventually sent him back to Missouri, then back to Alabama, to Belgreen. Getting out of the mine business after a concussion, the family moved back to Missouri and bought a truck stop.

He hauled steel on an 18-wheeler. He worked at the TVA. Eventually he found his way back to the military when buddies encouraged him to join the Army Reserve, to get his military benefits in place for retirement. He served as a correctional guard at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and then as a mechanic in the motor pool.

In 1985 he transferred to the Air Force Reserves, rising from an army sergeant to an air force staff sergeant and then master sergeant. He served as a heavy equipment operator. His unit went to Grenada in 1992-1993 to help build a hospital, and later an officer gave him the opportunity to move from heavy equipment to another role, which is when he promoted to first sergeant for a new commanding officer “one of the better jobs I had in the military. I did that for four or five years.” When his CO changed, Pounders went into the office one day to find his position posted – and himself promoted to E8, electrical superintendent. “It was for the best, but I would have been happy to have retired as first sergeant,” he noted.

He retired at age 60 on June 28, 2001.

Today he provides care for his son, Billy, who is blind and has autism. His other children are Vicki Hall, who lives in Tuscumbia, and Kimberly Allen, who lives in Mountain Star. He has one grandchild, Katelyn Little, a science teacher at Russellville High School.

He is active in local veteran activities. He served as the grand marshal of the Russellville Veterans Day Parade in 2023.

“Veterans are getting more respect now than they did three or four years ago. Ten years ago, they didn’t get any respect,” Pounders said. “It’s a changing world. The day the United States stopped the draft and went to an all-volunteer source, people lost their respect.

“Most people in today’s society don’t even respect themselves, and if you don’t respect yourself, there’s no way in the world you’re going to respect someone else,” Pounders added. He credits the military for giving him a unique look at the human struggle. “I just think I’m a lot better person than I probably would have been.”

“It’s been a real good life.”

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