Defense Secretary Hagel finds long-lost "brother"

CHICAGO -- It was 1968, the worst year of the Vietnam War, and Sgt. Chuck Hagel didn’t know from one day to the next whether he would live or die.

"We lost something like 16,000 dead Americans in that year, 1968," Hagel says.

Lt. Jerome Johnson
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 His life was in the hands of Lt. Jerome Johnson, his platoon commander.

"Steady, careful, never excitable -- and in combat, that's who you want leading," Hagel says of Johnson.

Now secretary of defense, Hagel keeps a photo of one of their battles together on his office wall.

While the Viet Cong was trying to kill them, racial tensions, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King in April, were threatening to tear the unit apart.

"It was a terribly difficult racial year in the Army in Vietnam, as well, where African Americans and whites were not getting along," Hagel says.

Johnson, now retired and living in Chicago, told his men it had to stop.

"Our fight was not with each other," he says. "Our fight, our whole purpose in being there together was to protect each other so that we would all come home safely."

When then-Sgt. Chuck Hagel was serving in Vietnam, he didn’t know from one day to the next whether he would live or die.
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 "He personalized it a little by saying something to the effect that this is not just an order from your commanding officer, this is from me, Jerome Johnson," Hagel recalls. "'You will deal with me personally on this.'"

Johnson grew close to Hagel and to his brother, Tom, who served together and were wounded under his command.

"I guess I kind of considered myself brother with them," Johnson says.

Jerome Johnson
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 Hagel says he "absolutely" considered Johnson a brother. "In every good, deep sense of it," he adds.

But Johnson and Hagel have not seen each other since.

"I admired him so much and liked him so much that I always wondered what happened to him," says Hagel, who tried to find Johnson while he served in the Senate.

Johnson says he never knew Hagel was looking for him.

Then Hagel got a new job. Forty-five years after their time in Vietnam, Hagel finally reached Johnson by phone.

"He said, 'You don’t know how long I've been looking for you,'" Johnson says.

While CBS News was talking with Johnson, an envelope arrived from the Pentagon. In it was a photograph of Hagel with a note reading, "To my commanding officer Jerome, with respect."

They will meet this spring in Washington, but right now, the man the secretary of defense calls "one of the best military officers I've ever known" has to pick up his grandkids from school.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.