Johnie Webb, this relentless searcher for lost soldiers, began his half-century of national service as an officer in the United States Army who in 1969 led convoys of tankers supplying troops in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese enemy once attacked a convoy he was leading – fired a grenade into the lead truck, fatally injuring the driver. It could have turned into a massacre if the truck had stalled, but the dying driver did what Johnie had taught him – he knocked his truck off the road, letting Johnie and the convoy escape.
In 1975, the Department of Defense asked Johnie to lead Thai search teams tasked with locating American dead during the Vietnam War. “I don’t know anything about this kind of work,” he protested.
They told him to do it anyway.
“Johnie has an incredible story,” said Kelly McKeague, director of all Department of Defense search operations for our lost soldiers around the world. “As an army lieutenant colonel, he was the first commander of the new mission (in the Pacific) establishing the Central Identification Laboratory-Hawaii.”
It was Johnie who then returned the Thai teams to the United States and oversaw the establishment of the Pacific search operations at Pearl Harbor. In 1985, he led the first joint American-Vietnamese research teams in Vietnam. In 1989, he expanded the tasks of the teams, adding the missing Korean War and WWII to the global searches. In 1996, he negotiated, with the North Koreans, the first agreement allowing American researchers to search for remains in North Korea.
Johnie has made finding Father Emil Kapaun part of his routine for decades. And it wasn’t just about Kapaun.
“I don’t know how to put it any other way, but for those of us who wear the US military garb, there is a creed. He says we won’t leave a comrade behind. We follow this credo. It is something we owe to the veterans who fought, but also to the serving military, that if anything happens to you, we will do everything humanly possible to bring you home.
For 11 years he led researchers in the Pacific – and when he retired he continued to work for the agency as a civilian deputy director, dealing with public communications.
He and his fellow researchers found and identified hundreds of once-lost remains and sent them home. McKeague, who heads what is now called the Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency, considers him a legend. Because of him, the Department of Defense sent the remains of once lost loved ones to hundreds of families.
“As well as being the longest-serving member of our organization, he has the best connections and relationships with families, who respect and revere him,” McKeague said.
The search for the missing has continued in the Pacific since World War II, but accelerated dramatically after the Vietnam War, when Ann Mills-Griffiths and other family members of that war’s lost soldiers began. to demand that more be done to find them. One of the results was the creation of several federal agencies that searched for and identified the lost people. These groups have been combined into today’s Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency; but throughout this agency story, Johnie was often a central figure.
“I harassed this man”
Johnie met Deanna Klenda of Pilsen, Kansas, because her brother Dean was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965 while on an attack mission in an F-105 Thunderchief fighter jet. And at first, Deanna didn’t tell Johnie anything about Father Kapaun, although she did know her parents.
Dean Klenda was 25 when he died – a mischievous farm boy who once sounded a trainer plane over his hometown of Pilsen. Dean and Deanna, as children of the farm, had known Enos and Bessie Kapaun, who lived next door to them.
Most of the military, including Johnie, believed Dean’s remains would be impossible to find.
Dean had ejected as his plane was heading down but could not detach from his ejection seat; he died when he hit the trees. The North Vietnamese Communists hated America as much as the North Koreans, so getting him out of Vietnam would, as Johnie told him, perhaps impossible.
Deanna refused to accept this. For five decades, she’s been building little sanctuaries for Dean in her home, with her photo in the center. She drove or flew for family member updates conducted by the Defense Office of Missing POWs. She has traveled several times to Colorado Springs, Denver, St. Louis, Omaha, Kansas City, Detroit, Chicago, Houston; she went to Washington DC every year
She called Johnie and her colleagues several times a year. She remained polite, made fun of them, showed respect. She did this while raising children, getting a divorce, having a job, and running the Klenda farm outside of Pilsen.
She listened politely when Johnie said Dean’s remains might never be found. The Vietnamese are difficult to deal with, he told her. And Dean had “fallen into the jungle”.
“I knew what he meant by that,” Deanna said. “Growing up on a farm like Dean and I, you know what happens to bodies when they die in the woods. They get eaten.
Deanna admired Johnie but didn’t spare him. “I harassed this man for 28 years.”
One day in the early 1990s, Johnie told Deanna that he had been appointed one of the negotiators with the North Koreans to find the lost soldiers of the Korean War.
Johnie’s researchers had mainly focused on those missing from the Vietnam War before that, but now he would go to North Korea and talk to those difficult people.
“Well then,” Deanna said. “You have to start looking for someone else I know.”
“Who is it?”
“Father Emil Kapaun.”
“Who is it?”
She had known Bessie Kapaun, she told him. “He and Dean were heroes of this same little place. They both deserve to come home.
Johnie looked for who Kapaun was.
“And after that Deanna would call,” Johnie said. “’Johnie, you can’t abandon my brother. You have to find him, bring him home. You made promises – and don’t forget Father Kapaun.
A Kansas farm girl pestering Johnie Webb over Kapaun may seem insignificant. It was not.
Johnie would eventually go to North Korea 25 times. And because of Deanna Klenda, Johnie brought up Kapaun every time he visited North Korea.
Everyone assumed, after all, that Kapaun was still there.
The work was dangerous. “Everywhere I went I had spotters watching me,” Johnie said. “On a trip, where they let us bring one of our search teams, they put us in a camp in the middle of nowhere to go to work. There were North Korean guards all around us. The situation was very tense with these guards. They told us the guards were there to protect us from the locals, but the joke, as we said, was “so why are all their guns pointed at us inside the camp and not at people outside? “”
Johnie and his researchers found Deanna’s brother, Dean Klenda, in Vietnam after all – not much, just a small piece of DNA confirming jawbone – but enough for the military to hold a funeral for Dean in 2017. Before closing Dean’s coffin, Deanna took the small package with the bone fragment. She hugged him to her chest.
And after that, she kept reminding Johnie, “Keep looking for Father Kapaun.”
And he did.