Johnny Pieters raises the United States flag every morning at Merriam Feed and brings it down every night when the store closes. Pieters is a Vietnam veteran, but the deep sense of patriotism was rooted long before his service. It comes from his parents, who survived World War II in occupied Belgium and immigrated to the United States in 1948.
Now, on special occasions, the flag that flies over Merriam Feed will have added significance. Stoney Bogan of the Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce Wednesday gave Pieters a flag that has flown over the U.S. Capitol Building, a flag Bogan had acquired some years earlier.
During the war, Pieters’ father was a member of the Belgian underground resistance, captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp to spend more than a year in captivity before the war’s end. Pieters’ father and uncle were among just three captives from the resistance in their town who survived.
Pieters’ father weighed only 75 pounds when he was liberated from the camp. A gymnast before the war, he credited his good physical condition with giving him the ability to survive, his son says. After liberation he was sent to a convalescent home to recuperate and that is where he met his wife. Johnny Pieters’ parents made an attempt to start a sporting goods store in Belgium after the war, but that failed in the face of the war-ravaged economy.
Pieters’ mother had an aunt in Kansas City, Kan., and in 1948 the family, which now included Johnny, came to the United States. They lived with the aunt and uncle for a year to get established in their new country.
His father had worked in a feed mill in Belgium and went to work at Purina mills in Kansas City, but was on the lookout for a store. With $75 in the bank, he bought a business across Johnson Drive from the current location of Merriam Feed. Johnny Pieters says that in 1952 the business served the mostly farm community of the day and has evolved over the years to a city business. His mother started working in the business after the first year, and worked until her death at age 83.
Every day for the 63 years the Pieters family has owned the business, the flag has flown over Merriam Feed. It was their deep love of their new country that inspired them. During the Iraq invasion of Kuwait, the business added flags representing all the branches of military service to the front of the store.
Johnny Pieters spent 15 months in Vietnam, arriving just two weeks before the start of the Tet Offensive in 1968. He was with a bridge company moving up and ran convoys up and down the coast, stationed in Tuy Hoa.
Bogan said he had seen Johnny Pieters’ display of Vietnam service medals in the store and knew he raised the flag each day. He wanted him to have the flag from the capitol and decided to make it a gift to Pieters on Bogan’s birthday Wednesday.
Pieters, who also has a flag that flew over the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said the new flag won’t fly everyday because it is too important. But on special days, it will take its place on the flagpole at Merriam Feed on Johnson Drive where the flag will continue to be raised each morning.