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Don Johnson helped build the software for the real life Top Gun system, but he’s also written about the lives of servicemen and will present a talk on one of them on Wednesday, March 27. (Photo by Nathan Hughart/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Don Johnson’s military life began in the Navy, but it continued through to 2009 as a computer programmer developing aviation training technology. At 75, he’s returning to his days on active duty by recounting the story of “the Crazy Dutchman” in an upcoming talk at the library.
Don was drafted in 1963 and, given the option, elected to join the Navy where he was trained to be a fire control technician. He learned how to operate the guns on a destroyer, like the USS Porterfield on which he would be stationed.
“What we did on a destroyer, what a destroyer does under normal operations (if you can call that normal), is that one day we’re doing shore bombardments…supporting the marines and the GIs that are on shore,” Don says.
His first combat station was in the ship’s magazine, at the bottom of the ship where the ammunition was stored. He would work his way up to the plot section, where he was an operator of the fire control system.
“It was my first laptop computer,” Don says. “What I mean by that is you lean your lap into this big metal thing with knobs and buttons and dials all over it. I was one of the knob twirlers on that.”
Beside Don worked his commanding officer, who had the job of actually firing the guns.
“He was a memorable guy,” Don says. “The hours were often times long, often times boring….This guy would elevate the atmosphere with dumb jokes and things like that.”
That man’s name was Adam von Dioszeghy. He had an accent and an unfamiliar last name. The other men thought he was Dutch and that belief coupled with his antics—like pulling the gun’s trigger behind his back, firing the destroyer’s five artillery pieces like a cowboy—earned him the name “the Crazy Dutchman.”
After his stint with the Navy, during which he spent some time in Vietnam and later in the reserves, Don says he had trouble finding a job.
“I started looking for a job and I couldn’t find any jobs that had my skills,” Don says. “My skills being, knowing how to lob a naval artillery shell 10 miles inland from San Diego harbor.”
So Don, already married and with a small child, went back to school.
“I started out to be an engineer. I didn’t know what an engineer was or did, but I wanted to be an engineer,” he says. “Well, that turned into a math major.”
He graduated from San Diego State University in 1970 and, recalling that a professor had told the senior class that “computers are the up-and-coming thing,” he made the transition into computer programming.
Eventually, he got a job with Cubic Corporation, where he worked on software for the “Top Gun” system that fit into a pod of the same dimensions of a sidewinder missile and, carried onboard a plane during training, would relay all relevant flight information to the ground for review.
Returning air crews would be able to debrief with all of the data from their flight to learn and improve.
“[It] started out with only four [aircraft]; the current generation tracks a hundred,” he says. “Even though I wasn’t on active duty, I still had a connection with the military in that sense.”
During that time, Don says his Naval history faded into the background somewhat and, with it, the memory of his memorable “Dutch” commanding officer.
“I got an itch that I wanted to scratch,” Don says.
He eventually began attending ship reunions, where his interest in history was sparked. He found a book containing names and pictures from the crew and that led him to a familiar name: von Dioszeghy.
Don reached out to him through the Internet.
“He wrote back almost immediately saying, ‘Yeah, I’m that crazy guy, but I’m not Dutch, I’m Hungarian,’” Don says.
Then, Don discovered von Dioszeghy’s memoir. He found out that von Dioszeghy became a veteran of World War II at age six when he and his mother found themselves caught between the Soviets and the Germans in Budapest.
“They survived that, but the only thing they had left was themselves,” Don says. “They survived the communist era from the end of the war to 1956.”
Von Dioszeghy was involved with the revolution that would eventually liberate Hungary and, wounded, fled to the United States, graduated from Stanford University, and was drafted into the military. After serving three tours in Vietnam, he became a lawyer and later retired to his native Hungary
In honor of von Dioszeghy, Don will present a talk on his life at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, March 27 at the Hagaman Memorial Library.
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