NAUGATUCK — Franklin Johnson, Sr., who’s credited with shaping the borough’s ardent patriotism and improving morale during the uncertain times of the Vietnam War, was remembered at a solemn funeral Saturday morning.
There were tears and there were smiles, with people braving the bitter cold on the Maple Street bridge, holding flags, and veterans saluting, as Johnson’s funeral procession made its way to Grove Cemetery.
Johnson was an American hero, a proud husband, father and grandfather, Army veteran of World War II, and organizer of the borough’s elaborate Memorial Day parades. He leaves a legacy of love for his country and support of its troops, whether actively deployed or retired. During the Vietnam War, when protestors shouted insults about the military, he’d stop and try to explain, in a calm but commanding demeanor, why their views were misguided.
“When patriotism didn’t have the same identity that we appreciate today, Naugatuck remained largely supportive of veterans at all times,” said Kevin DelGobbo, a former state representative who knew Johnson since DelGobbo was young.
Johnson participated in all five major battles in Europe, including the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach, St. Lo, and the Battle of the Bulge. He was a decorated member of the 110th Artillery Division, Battery B.
“Frank told me that he never thought he’d see his 19th birthday when they landed on Normandy Beach,” said his first cousin, Rosemary Aquavia of Naugatuck. “I will miss him. The whole community will.”
Johnson, a coach, church deacon, and retired educator, was chairman of the Naugatuck Veterans’ Council for 20 years. He was organizer of the borough’s Memorial Day parades that were among the biggest and most well-attended parades in New England and featured floats and military flyovers.
He did all the work with a pad of paper, No. 2 pencil and Jeanne, his trusty secretary and wife of 58 years. Johnson received many accolades, certificates, plaques and honors through the years, which he displayed proudly on the walls of his home.
Among those waiting outside to honor Johnson was 8-year-old Nicholas Perugini.
Nicholas, cheeks rosy red, is a member of Cub Scout Pack 109. He played on a football team coached by Johnson’s son, Franklin Johnson, Jr.
“I take the trash out for Mrs. Johnson,” Nicholas said, referring to the senior Johnson’s wife, Jeanne.
The service at Naugatuck Congregational Church started around 10 a.m. Before its start, a dozen or more members of the Patriot Guard Riders held flags in front of the church.
“We lost our leader and our hero, but we are compelled to move forward. He would have it no other way,” said his son, Franklin, Jr. “When you met my father one time, you were his friend. By the time you met him again, you began to love him,” he said during the church service.
Johnson was a man of integrity who treated people the way he wanted to be treated.
“I was always honored to walk in his giant shadow. I always saw dad as a great paradox a soldier, a serious man with remarkable wit. A man of the people who could be intensely private. He was an extraordinary man who tried to live an ordinary life,” said Frank, Jr., imploring the more than 200 people at the church to “tell your children and grandchildren that you knew an American hero. His legacy will live on and on through all of us.”
Johnson was written into the Library of Congress, he was a member of the 2006 State of Connecticut Veterans Hall of Fame, and received the Naugatuck Citizenship Award in 2001 that is now named the Franklin Johnson Citizenship Award. The walls of his home were filled with citations and honors bestowed on him through the years.
The Rev. Gordon Rankin said whenever Johnson attended public gatherings, he asked that the Pledge of Allegiance be recited. And as part of the service, Rankin called three of Johnson’s grandchildren to lead everyone in the pledge.
Richard Robinson was a colleague of Johnson’s at Naugatuck High School. Robinson said his friend of 40 years had a great sense of humor.
“He was my mentor. After he retired in 1989, Frank would call and say ‘This is your former mentor and now tormentor,’” Robinson said, bringing laughs from the crowd. “He was an honorable man who had integrity beyond approach. He was a dedicated family man, veteran of World War II and helped thousands of students achieve their educational goals during 38 years as a teacher.”
For the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, Johnson, Robinson and others visited Normandy in 1995. They also went to the American cemetery where thousands of white crosses mark the graves of America’s military.
Robinson said he hugged Johnson, thanking him for America’s freedom.
“Without hesitation, he said don’t thank him and pointed to the sea of white crosses,” Robinson recalled. “’Thank them. I am not the hero.’”
Johnson was laid to rest with full military honors at Grove Cemetery.