of the Greater Quad City Area
PERSHING J. JOHNSON
Here is a brief account of my military service. I was a T4 Sergeant in the Ninth Armored Division, 16th Field Artillery Battalion, Headquarters Battery. Mostly I was a radio operator, a code operator and a voice operator to direct the fire from the fire direction center to the forward observer to the target.
We arrived in Europe August, 1944. Our 9th Armored fought in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. After May 9, 1945, I was with the Army of Occupation. In March-April, 1945, after crossing the Rhine we struck on into Germany. With that sweep we caused the liberation of concentration camps, slave labor camps and many that I do not know what they were called. I know of no camp that was ever liberated until the German SS and the Wehrmacht were first driven back or captured.
In late 1944 and early in 1945, the Army Times and Stars and Stripes came out every week. They had pictures and stories about the concentration camps, so I was aware of what was going on. With all the disruption as we moved in, there were lots of displaced persons and I became aware of the camps first-hand. I was in Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. By March, more and more displaced persons showed up because we were freeing up factories and camps. The majority of the people seemed to be Poles and Polish Jews. Our division made a spearhead through the area, and then we had to keep going. We always left a flank behind. Certain infantry divisions were assigned to go into camps as we moved on. That was prearranged. The Germans had emptied out most of the camps before we got there. Buchenwald was among those liberated first. That was about April 11. I think Dachau was liberated later, on April 27 or 28.
We did pretty well in helping the displaced persons. By that I mean we fed them a lot. The kitchen truck came in every day, and the cooks of our Headquarters Battery fed nearly 300 people a day. I've seen movies, but they can't depict an emaciated person. I thought we did a remarkable job helping people, but it's hard to put what we saw into words. We tried to bring order out of chaos, especially at the end of the war when the prisoners released from the camps came toward our lines. There's no telling how many people we fed. Most were former prisoners.
I remember a former factory worker who had a severe ear infection. The medics took care of her, and in two or three days she looked like a different person. Sulfa drugs did good work on a mean infection. The transformation was that quickly noticeable. We saved lives. The troops felt so much better when they saw hope, when they saw others being helped. The Americans were a happy, smiling bunch, and we gave the people hope.
I have a response to those who say it never happened. The world was slow to believe about the Nazi atrocities then, too. In 1938, one of the first activities we heard about was Kristallnacht. The world was slow to believe that. It is so extreme and drastic that we don't want to believe it. It's out of our experience to act that way, to behave this way! After all, Germany is the home of Mozart and Beethoven, a civilized country, a mother country to many of us. The minute Hitler started, he had his propaganda machine going to discount what was happening. Even after the war, during the Nuremberg trials, people who had lived through WW II in this country would come over there and ask was it really that bad, . Even Charles Lindberg had his doubts. There was a great force there to cause some to disbelieve all that happened. That force has always been at work.
Maybe the GI's have been left out of the Holocaust too much. I guarantee we can keep the memories alive. Stories always say the camps were liberated, but they don't say by whom. U.S. troops were the only ones that could do anything about it. Late as it was the U.S. was the final hope. You hear, "Why didn't we do something sooner!" All through the 1930's, there was the shout of disarmament. In the 1940's you couldn't do much. In 1940, we weren't prepared. In 1941, we finally started.
An important message for young people in the U.S. is to keep the military strong. And, I'd like to see people here look at the military in a good light, a favorable light. Decisions are made by civilians, and it's good to keep the military at our service. It's a tough world. Keep hoping for the best.