MONTVILLE, NJ - Montville resident Hjalmar Johansson jokes with a classroom full of fifth graders at the Cedar Hill Veterans’ Day Celebration (read about it HERE) on Nov. 14.
“Today I’m wearing my Air Force uniform, which has wings on it. Know why? Because you can’t fly without wings!” he teases. But then he begins his tale.
Johansson, now 89, was only 18 when joined the Air Force in 1943. He became a nose-gunner in a B24 bomber airplane.
“There was no heat in the airplanes, and we had to wear heated suits. We had a mission to fly over a German oil refinery. The Germans shot at our plane, hit the wing, and gas came pouring out because the gas tank was in the wing. I said, ‘Uh oh, I’m not getting home in this airplane,’” chuckles Johansson.
“The first of four engines caught fire and we lost it. The plane started going down lower. Then the engine next to it failed and caught fire. We were fully loaded with bombs – about three tons’ worth – and I knew we couldn’t last long with two engines. German fighter planes showed up and were shooting holes in the planes in our squadron but they missed me. Some others in the group were wounded or killed. The pilot told me, ‘The plane is going down.’
“We were worried about going into a spin, and if the plane did that, we wouldn’t be able to get out. We had parachutes but mine was outside my turret – my enclosure with my guns. The navigator was supposed to help me out and snap me into my parachute but he jumped out without helping me. I was able to jump out the nose-wheel door at the bottom of the plane,” continues Johansson.
“Were you afraid to jump?” asks a student.
“Yes,” replies Johansson, “But I was more afraid not to jump,” he replies with a chuckle.
“The plane was so noisy before – with the engines and the guns – but after I jumped out of the plane it was so quiet. After I landed, I had to figure out how to escape. I found out later that others in my squadron were rescued by Hungarian resistance fighters. I thought maybe I could hide in the woods but it wasn’t very promising. I had tried to steer my parachute but it collapsed. We never practiced parachuting because, ironically, it was too dangerous.
“Not only did I have to hide from soldiers, I had to hide from farmers, too. Even farmers would kill any soldiers they encountered. About twenty minutes later I was found by German soldiers. I was locked up in the local jail with my tail gunner. We were placed in solitary confinement. They wanted to know the names of the crew to make sure they had captured all the survivors, but all I would tell them is my name, rank, and serial number. They told me ‘We’re going to keep you here for the rest of the war.’ The Germans gave me a set of their dog tags for identification. They were meticulous about keeping track of their prisoners of war.
“They sent me to another camp, and just when I thought we would be liberated – because we had heard the Americans were getting closer – they put us in train box cars. We were packed in so tightly we couldn’t even sit down. They took us to Berlin and the Germans told us the British were bombing the railroad so they locked us into the box cars. The conditions were terrible and I developed frostbite in my hands and feet.
“We made it through the bombing and they took us to Luckenwalde prisoner camp. There were about 17,000 prisoners there, of every nationality. They weren’t feeding us very well. The conditions were very unsanitary. You could never change your clothing and there was no way to wash. The beds – and the prisoners – were full of lice. I only had one shower in five months. We had no meat or potatoes, just some bread with about 20 percent saw dust mixed into it. I really wanted to get out of there. The only thing that kept me going was the secret radio station.
“Finally we heard that the Russian troops were close to Berlin, and that the Americans and British were coming in from the west. Suddenly all the German guards left and we were left behind. The Russians came in and they knew we were prisoners there, and they re-established protection and gave us guns to protect ourselves.
“After five months in the POW camp, I was brought to France for two months – they fattened us up because they didn’t want us going home in such bad shape. I remember coming into New York harbor and seeing the Statue of Liberty. Now it was something special to me. I knew what freedom was. You never know how lucky you are until you lose your freedom.
“Later, I received medals from the French and Czechoslovakian governments. I worked in France and struck up a relationship with a man who was a Polish Jew. It turned out he had been on the ground at the oil refinery my squadron had been bombing. I was part of the group that liberated him. He told me, ‘You saved my life that day!’”
Johannson recently returned from the Czech Republic, where he received another medal commemorating the seventieth anniversary of his imprisonment.
Producers at the History Channel Network heard Johansson’s story and filmed it for a documentary that Johansson says will be airing in January. He spent four hours filming with a group of 200 students at a high school in Chester.
He is still friends with the Polish man whom he saved in Germany. “He lives in Florida, but I haven’t been able to see him in a while,” states Johansson.