MONTVILLE, NJ – All 110 seats in the Montville Library’s Pia Costa Auditorium were filled Wednesday night, July 15 as residents gathered to hear local hero Sergeant Hjalmar Johansson speak about his experiences during World War II.
The event was part of the library’s Adult Summer Reading Program, whose summer theme is Everyone is a Hero.
“Sergeant Johansson is a local hero,” said Montville Library Adult Programming Coordinator Pam O’Gorman. “So we asked if he would do the honor of speaking to us.”
Johansson, a first-generation Swedish American who has been a Montville resident for the past 50 years, doesn’t consider himself a hero, despite what he endured during the Second World War.
“I don’t particularly think I’m a hero,” Johansson said. “A hero is someone who does something marvelous or incredible. I just did my job.”
The residents of Montville Township beg to differ.
The now 90-year-old Johansson was just seventeen when he volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he was assigned to the 15th Air Force, 461st Bomb Group, Squadron 767. As a nose gunner on a B-24 bomber aircraft, Johansson was shot down in his very first mission and then survived six-months in a German Prisoner of War camp.
Despite the seriousness of the lecture’s subject, Johansson was able to joke with the crowd about his experience and ultimately said he has no problem sharing his stories with others, unlike many veterans.
“When I came back, a lot of guys couldn’t talk about their experiences,” said Johansson, who has been sharing his story for over 60 years. “I was the odd ball. It made them feel worse, but it makes me feel better.”
Johansson started the presentation off with an explanation of the aircraft his bomb group used. The B-24 bomber was the most highly produced bomber aircraft in the world at the time, with 18,300 of the bombers made throughout the war, according to Johansson
Johansson was a nose gunner on the B-24 bomber’s 10-man crew and recalled the harrowing and highly uncomfortable experience of flying in the aircraft.
“It was an interesting ride,” said Johansson. “What’s difficult about the B-24 is as the plane went higher you had to put on an oxygen mask. Then it kept getting colder and there was no heat. Finally it was negative 50 degrees and with the oxygen masks it condensed your breath, making it hard to breath.”
Johansson’s first mission was to bomb a German oil refinery in present-day Poland. But as his squadron made their way to the refinery, Johansson’s aircraft was hit by German anti-aircraft fire and lost two engines on the same side of the plane.
“Position counts in everything,” Johansson said. “All the new recruits are placed in the way back of the group, where it’s more vulnerable. We were at the very end of the line and we were crippled.”
In their vulnerable state, the pilot of Johansson’s B-24 bomber put down the aircraft’s wheels as a sign of surrender, but the Germans just kept firing.
“The pilot said everybody out,” said Johansson, who had never actually parachuted out of a flying aircraft before. Practicing the jump, he said, was simply too dangerous.
“Kids at schools always ask me if I was scared to jump,” Johansson said. “But I tell them I was scared not to jump.”
If the crew didn’t exit the plane before it went into a nosedive, he explained, the centrifugal force would make it impossible for them to escape.
While Johansson hoped to land his parachute among the trees where he could find cover, he said it was impossible to control the parachute, which nearly collapsed at one point.
Twenty minutes after landing, Johansson was surrounded by German soldiers who took him prisoner.
“They would say to us, ‘For you the war is over,’” he said of his captors.
Now 19 years old, Johansson was taken to an interrogation camp where he was asked about the rest of his crew. He would only respond with his name, rank, and serial number and was put in solitary confinement for five days.
“The Germans spoke excellent English,” said Johansson. “They knew a lot about us, they must have had the base records. They even knew where I lived in Manhattan.”
As the Allies advanced on Germany, Johansson and other prisoners were taken to a rail yard and moved to a different camp.
“The Germans at the rail yard said to us, ‘Your friends the English are coming tonight,’” said Johansson. “Then they locked us in the train cars and went and hid in air shelters.”
Johansson was placed in half a train boxcar with 60 other men who traveled for five days with no food, water or facilities.
“We couldn’t all sit down at once, so the men all took numbers, one and two, and we would rotate who stood and who got to sit,” said Johansson.
After surviving the ride and the British bombing, Johansson arrived at Stalag III - A prison camp in Luckenwalde, just south of Berlin, where 17,000 prisoners were being held.
As a prisoner in the camp, Johansson was placed in a barrack with 143 other men and for five months he lived with almost no food.
“I lost 40 pounds in the camp,” said Johansson. “I weighed 110 pounds when I got out.”
One of the ways Johansson was able to cope in the camp was by writing a diary on the cartons of cigarette packs.
Another way he endured was by relying on his faith.
“What’s going to happen will happen,” Johansson told himself. “God will take care of me one way or another. I decided not to panic. I always felt comfortable that in the long run it would be okay.”
Finally, in May 1945, “one morning there was no roll call, no guards,” said Johansson. “We saw the guards leaving the gates. The Russians were advancing.”
Johansson recalled that the Russian liberators were eager to find their compatriots in the camp and were furious to discover how poorly the Germans had treated Russian prisoners.
“The Russians invited every Russian prisoner who could walk to go to Berlin to kill Germans,” said Johansson. “I can still visualize Russians clutching chunks of bread and sausage and a rifle in their hand, hanging onto the sides of tanks, headed towards Berlin.”
“They reminded me of big turtles covered in cockroaches,” said Johansson.
Johansson spent the next two months in France recovering before heading back to America, where he studied engineering.
With an engineering job, Johansson was able to travel the world and he was often hailed in foreign countries for his service during WWII.
“In the Czech Republic we were treated like rock stars,” said Johansson, who recently returned there to receive a medal commemorating the 70th anniversary of his imprisonment.
After the war, Johansson also dedicated part of his time to speaking about his experiences as a POW and has since spoken at all of the Montville Township schools. Read about his presentation at Cedar Hill Elementary in November 2014 HERE.
Johansson was supported at the library event by his friends from the local VFW Post 5481, who were seated at the front of the auditorium.
“It’s great having my buddies up here supporting me,” said Johansson.
Commander Frank Klinger, who met Johansson at the VFW, said he had heard bits and pieces of Johansson’s story before, but had never heard him speak publically.
“The event was fabulous,” said Klinger. “It was really very good.”
Members of Johansson’s church also came out to support him, along with other Montville Township residents.
Deborah Stoeckel, who attends the Montville United Methodist Church with Johansson, called the veteran a “fantastic singer” and said that he is very involved with the church and even has given several sermons.
While Stoeckel has heard Johansson speak before, she said, “his talks are always a little different each time, but I am always awed by what he says. It’s so nice to see him being honored. He is such a fantastic guy.”
Johansson said he hopes that his talk will teach people some World War II history, tolerance for other people, as well as the cost of freedom.
As he continues to share his story, Johansson said he is now living life by a new mantra at 90 years old.
“I’m not old really,” he said. “I’ve just been very young for a long time.”
The library’s Adult Summer Program will continue with their July “U” Lecture Series and their weekly movie screenings.
To learn more about Sgt. Johansson’s story, check out the History Channel’s program Leap of Faith: A WWII Story HERE.