December 21, 1994
Interviewer: Rheba Massey
Johnson was born to a Nebraska farm family on October 1, 1919. He worked his way through Grand Island Business College, attending classes during the months he was not needed on the farm. He went into the service with the first draft call out of Nebraska in February of l941. He was with the 134th Infantry Regiment of the 35th Infantry Division and was in Southampton, England, when the D-Day invasion began. He recalls his first experience of war on about July 8, landing on Omaha beach, despite torpedoes, bombs and shelling in the canal as their PT boats crossed.
Johnson's first battle was in capturing the town of St. Lo. His division helped take Hill 122, considered a major battle, for which they received a battalion presidential citation. The fighting was difficult because the Germans were behind "hedgerows," man-made barriers of concrete or rocks built by the farmers to divide their fields. These provided excellent cover in battle, especially for the Germans who were in a defensive position. "It was real slow moving. We would get through and put enough fire power in there to move them back. Then we could advance to the next hedgerow."
The weeks of marching through France and Germany, capturing and liberating some 130 towns are hard to recall. "We were on the move so much, in and out of the lines, and communications were not all that great. Time and days didn't mean that much to us because we just couldn't keep up with it."
Although these troops were actually liberating the towns, it was the supply divisions that came later that received most of the cheering and the celebration gifts of wine and food from those being liberated. Johnson recalls mostly exhaustion. "Day and night and we couldn't even light fires anytime. The good food we had-we couldn't heat it. We couldn't light a fire and heat and warm ourselves 'cause we couldn't have lights or anything or you'd just be gone. And the nights - we moved a lot at nights. It was a grueling experience, throwing hand grenades, trying to knock out gun turrets and take prisoners. But the hardest part was probably at night when the German artillery would bomb. First, flares would be dropped to light the way, and then the bombers would come. They called this "Bed Check Charlie."
In December, Johnson was in the Battle of the Bulge. "I think the big thing that bothered most of us was that it was the dead of winter and was really cold. We were outside for the most part . . . We had heavy coats and heavy equipment . . . We had to clear the roads and get the dead bodies out. They were just all frozen." The bodies were of peasants and Jews. "We just bulldozed them out of the way. There was nobody to take care of them either or get them out. We were lucky to get our own people out. . . You hardly knew it was Christmas and didn't worry about it. . . you had more to think about than Christmas."
When Johnson was asked if he worried about his survival, he replied, "Never worried about it. . . Had to do it. People in our time accepted it and just tried to live through it to get the job done."
Johnson was near Berlin when the war ended. The Americans freed prisoners along the way. Johnson recalled one place that was especially moving where some Polish and Jewish prisoners had been held. "They had run these people into a large barn and set it on fire and burned a lot of them to death. When we got there. . . We set up a flogging line by using Nazi Germans and made them carry all those bodies and bury them in a big common grave."
He described the response of the German people to being "liberated" as being positive. "They were average people who were glad to see us . . . The down-to-earth German people were super people. They were caught in between everything and they couldn't do too much 'cause if they did, they wouldn't be here either. They'd just kill them."
He contrasted the Nazi and Allied treatment of prisoners. "We always took good care of their prisoners. I don't know of any case that we went out and just killed their prisoners. In some cases when they took us as prisoners, they'd just strip off our clothes and equipment and just kill us."
Johnson did not enter Berlin as it was agreed the Russians should liberate Berlin. He was just outside Berlin when Victory in Europe was declared in May of 1945. He does not recall a big celebration. "We were glad it was over."
Preserving the history of Fort Collins, Colorado & the Cache la Poudre region