Hjalmar Johansson was born in Hollywood, California. He enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II, and was a nose gunner on a B-24 bomber. In December 1944, Mr. Johansson's plane was shot down over Czechoslovakia and he was held as a German prisoner of war for five months. Mr. Johansson currently resides in Montville, New Jersey with his wife, Mildred.
Please tell us about your background.
I was born in Hollywood, California. Unfortunately, my father died when I was 5 months old. My widowed mother had no money, no insurance whatsoever and she, my brother, and myself and ended up in New York City on East 69th Street. The only thing she could do to earn a living during the depression was run a rooming house, so she rented out rooms, scrubbed with her hands, and took care of her two boys--she brought us up real well.
When the war started, I was still in high school. I graduated when I was 17, and since I couldn't get into the Army until I was 18, I worked and went to engineering college in the evening. At 18, I got into the Army Air Corps. I wanted to be a pilot pretty badly--I built and flew model planes and dreamed of being a pilot my whole childhood. And finally at the University of Pittsburgh during my cadet training I got to the point where I actually piloted a Piper Cub. At that point, the Army decided that they needed gunners instead of pilots. So the Air Corps eliminated our entire class, and I was given the choice of transferring to the infantry or being a gunner. I opted for the Air Corps, and sure enough I was assigned to a heavy bomber crew of B-24’s that, at the time, were one of the largest bombers in use. I was shipped over to Italy for a few weeks of training. Shortly after, I went on my first mission, which ended up being a one-way trip!
Can you describe what that mission was like?
I was assigned to the Fifteenth Air Force, 461st bomb group, Squadron 767 as a nose gunner. Our first mission was to bomb the Odertal oil refinery in what is now in Poland. Our planes left Torretta, Italy, and after being badly damaged by flak we were attacked by German fighter planes. Over half of our group was shot down. Twenty-nine guys--my buddies, were killed on that raid alone and at least that same number were captured or missing in action. It was a rough deal, it was a long flight, and we never actually reached the target. We were hit by flak, which knocked a big hole in the wing, taking out the number-four engine. Shortly thereafter, the number-three engine went out--that's the two engines on the right side--making the plane lose altitude.
Our plane was in trouble. It was difficult to steer, and we dropped down below the rest of our formation. The German fighter planes jumped on us because we were a cripple. They wanted to see us alone and out of the formation--it was hazardous for them to attack a formation at full strength, and they would go after the weakest plane. At least a dozen of them circled us alternately attacking the nose and the tail. We were just being shot full of holes.
As a kid, I enjoyed building model airplanes, particularly the flying models. One of my favorites was the ME-109, a German fighter plane. It was a very sleek, swift plane, high performance--a dandy looking plane. Unfortunately, in this experience, I didn't like them as much, because they started coming in on my nose turret on that mission. We were badly damaged, and those ME-109's were coming right at me. As a nose gunner, I was shielded by a thin Plexiglas bubble--that was all there was between me and the bullets. Those ME-109's--instead of being marvelous, sleek, lovely-looking aircraft that I remembered--turned into tarantulas. The machine guns in their wings flickered like little red lights and they resembled angry little eyes that were boring in on me. I just wanted to reach out, get my guns going, and smash them. I knew they were hitting the plane. So, my attitude toward the ME-109 changed considerably that day.
When did you know the plane was going down?
Finally, the fighter planes left us. Either they ran out of ammunition, fuel, or they'd just had enough of us. I think I got one--I knocked part of his wing off as he went by, but they go by so fast that you don't really have time to be sure. We were heading east toward the Russian front lines, knowing that there was no way we'd make it back to Italy--it was too far for our crippled bomber. The pilot rang the bailout bell and I went out. That was some experience. We never practiced jumping out of a plane, it was too dangerous, and so it was my first jump. All of a sudden coming down in my parachute there was total silence--after all the noise of the machine guns, the anti-aircraft, and the roaring engines--now, coming down there was just silence. Our entire 10-man crew bailed out successfully, which was rather miraculous. The pilot, copilot, the crew chief, and the top gunner bailed out maybe 15 minutes after we did. Romanian Partisans picked them up when they hit the ground and thus they avoided becoming prisoners of war. Unfortunately, I didn't have that good luck. I landed in a field and within two hours I was picked up and taken prisoner by the German Army. The Germans took us west to an interrogation center where things got a little bit rough.
What happened after you were taken into German custody?
They started out by demanding all sorts of information; who we were, where we came from, and the names of my crewmembers; because they wanted to make sure they had captured all of us. They also wanted to know what targets we were bombing, what armament we carried, how many bombs, and how many planes in our squadron. I gave them my name, rank, and serial number, and that was all they got out of me. They said, "Oh we have ways to make you talk," and sure enough they shut me away in a little black solitary cell, absolutely dark, just big enough for a bed. It then became psychological warfare, where they'd come in at a moment's notice, shine lights in my face and ask the same questions over and over. I kept giving the same answers, and they said, "Well that's all right, you'll just have to stay here for the rest of the war." The thought of that was disheartening to say the least. After about four days of that, they transferred me to the next camp where I was reunited with my crewmembers, and I got to see the blue sky and the sun. What a treat!
What happened next?
The Americans and the British armies were approaching from the west. This was early 1945, having been shot down in December 1944. The Allies were closing in on the Rhine River and we knew it--we could hear approaching artillery fire and planes going over, and we didn't see any opposition being mounted. We thought, "Oh boy, we’re gonna be free men soon." When you're a prisoner, the only thing you can think of is getting out of prison somehow or another.
Unfortunately, before the Allies could liberate us, the Germans put us in boxcars and sent us east on the railroad. Apparently the German high command thought they should keep some hostages, since they knew the war was going badly. We ended up in boxcars, like those in some of the holocaust films you see. We were supposedly being sent to another Air Force POW camp. There were 60 of us crammed in half a boxcar. Six guards took the other half of the car. We didn't have enough room for all to sit down--it was that crowded. So we all took numbers, everyone was assigned a "one" or a "two," and we took turns sitting down. There were no toilet facilities whatsoever, just cardboard boxes, which they would sometimes open the doors and dump out. There was no food. We begged for water at every stop. Sometimes they said, "Oh, the English have bombed the water supply-there is no water." This was their little joke. When we got to Berlin we were under attack by the English, who were bombing the rail lines. The Germans locked us in our train cars and left us exposed, saying, "I hope you enjoy your friends the British, they're coming to visit you and bomb the rail lines." The guards would then go down into air raid shelters. We just sat in the boxcars, which would roll from side to side, due to the concussions. There was no place to hide. You just hoped the bombs wouldn't hit you. After several days of that, they took us south to an all-purpose prison camp. We were dumped into Stalag IIIA in a town called Luckenwalde, Germany.
Can you describe the conditions at the prison camp?
This was a camp that held thousands of prisoners of all nationalities. We were held in the most primitive of conditions. I was kind of lucky; we were in a barrack, while the others were out in tents during that very cold winter. Although we had no heat in the barrack--and it was terribly cold--we were three to a bunk and we huddled together, keeping warm that way.
Conditions were pretty rough. We were infested with fleas and lice. Without hot water, I had only one shower in five months. I didn't need a knife or fork, just a tin cup and spoon, and that was all you needed. Whatever food came, it was ladled out into your cup, and you took whatever they gave you. In the prison camp there weren't any mice or other small animals running around--they would have been put in the soup pot immediately. What we ate or didn't eat was of primary importance. When your stomach is empty all you can think about is food.
German bread was supplied to us in small quantities. It was a very dark, hard, dense bread made, we were told, with sawdust, which helped to preserve it. It would actually keep for months without molding. We caressed and portioned that little piece of bread into the thinnest slice imaginable and then you would spend a long time thinking of what you were going to eat out of your Red Cross Parcel, how you would slice and savor it. It was in a way like a religious experience. If you had bread, you were going to stay alive. The prison diet supplied about 1,000 calories a day, which is starvation rations. My weight dropped from 150 pounds to about 110 pounds when I was finally liberated. Food became all encompassing. Usually in the service when men got together they ended up talking about their favorite girlfriends, and the pinup girls, and the pictures they painted on the side of the aircraft. In prison camp, we talked about food. We had tough, battle-hardened sergeants talking about how their mothers made meatballs--how she rolled the meat, and put the spices into it, and put the gravy on top, and everybody stood around just drooling. Sex and women were far behind.
What happened when you were liberated?
The Russians liberated me in May 1945. I kept records, a diary of my time as a POW, and still have that diary, and a lot of other memories. Paper products were non-existent so I salvaged empty cigarette wrappers and used it for my diary. I believe the reason I can remember events as if it were yesterday is because they were made on me at the very impressionable age of 19, and under circumstances that were less than casual. It was pretty traumatic. Of course memory can plays tricks on you. I've heard people recount stories and they improve the story as the telling goes on. I don't think that's true of my experiences. It was part of what I did; part of what happened, and I reacted at the time appropriately. Now, I can retell the stories, and though it's in the past--I can turn the pages of my diary and refresh and relive the actual experience.
What did you do after the war?
Interestingly, after I came back from the Service, I went to college on the GI Bill and earned two degrees in engineering. I wound up designing, building, and selling oil refineries, which is ironic, considering I was shot down on a mission to bomb an oil refinery. I actually ended up selling oil refineries to the Germans. Being carefully selective, I used to amuse some of them by telling them that we blew up the old ones so we could build them new, state-of-the-art refineries. I did a lot of traveling as Vice President of international sales with the company I worked for. I logged about 4 million air miles total, traveling to every country you can imagine, 66 in all. I went to China right after Nixon and Kissinger opened it up and visited Baghdad regularly, so I got to know a lot of Iraqis. I lived and worked in Paris for five years and London for a year.
In 1947 I married a young lady whom I met in church. We sang in the choir together and we are still singing harmoniously 54 years later. I have three children and one 23-year-old grandson, Erik who lives in Hollywood.
You recently returned to Europe. What was that experience like?
I actually went on a trip back to Czechoslovakia. A Czech airman’s association that wanted to honor Americans who had helped liberate their country sponsored it. Several of our hosts [had been] young children who were on the ground, and witnessed the battle in which I was shot down. Private aircraft flew four other Americans and me to a town called Prerov, where we were wined and dined and taken care of by the Czechs. We ended up in our oil refinery target--which is now in Poland--and met the Polish people running the refinery.
Two German pilots also participated in the festivities and gave versions of the events of December 17, 1944. One of them, General Gunther Raal, was the number three Luftwaffe Ace, credited with 175 aerial victories. General Raal is a very unusual and interesting person. He was one of the most celebrated fighter pilots of the Luftwaffe. He now helps train German Air Force personnel in the USA, all part of a cooperative NATO effort. He and I got along quite well together and we agreed to meet again as soon as possible. We concluded with the comment that it was more enjoyable drinking beer than shooting at each other!