Testimonies from the Midwest

 

USAAF 2nd Lt. Virgil Odean Johnson, 15th Air Force, 450th Bomb Grp., 722nd Sqdn.

    USAAF 2nd Lt. Virgil Odean Johnson     Division Patch   Division Patch    Photo of Pastor Virgil Odean Johnson

Virgil Odean Johnson was born March 12, 1923, near Irene, South Dakota. Of Norwegian ancestry and raised in the Lutheran faith, Virgil was a college student before entering the service on February 22, 1943. 

Service Record: Virgil received his basic training at Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri,  his college training detachment at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri; his preflight navigation at Ellington Air Force Base, Houston, Texas; his aerial gunnery at Harlingen Air Force Base, Harlingen, Texas; his advanced navigation at Hondo Air Force Base, Hondo, Texas; operational training at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Lt. Johnson was stationed at an Air Force Base at Manduria, Italy, where he served as a navigator on a B-24 Liberator bomber. Johnson participated in bombing missions to Czechoslovakia, Romania, Austria, southern France, and northern Italy.

Camp Encounter: On June 26, 1944, Lt. Johnson was captured in Austria by the home guard (Landwacht) after parachuting out of a burning plane. He was held at Stalag Luft III and later Stalag VIIA. The following is his own story, told in his own words:

I spent most of my time as a prisoner of war in two camps. I was at Stalag Luft III at Sagan (East Germany, now in Poland) from July 5, 1944, until January 27, 1945.

When the Russians approached, we were marched about 70 miles and then loaded on box cars and taken to Stalag VIIA at Moosburg in Bavaria, Germany. We arrived there about February 7, 1945, and were liberated by the 14th Armored Division on April 29, 1945.

 At Stalag Luft III we were prisoners of the German Air Force, but at Stalag VIIA we were in the custody of the German Army. Sufficient food was always a problem, more so at Stalag VIIA. I was not tortured, but we were subjected to some annoyance activities, such as extra long roll calls, and searches of our living quarters. Time was long; we were cold and hungry much of the time. I was still considered a member of the 450th Bomb Group during imprisonment.

Chronology as Prisoner

June 27 -- July 3, 1944 -- We were moved from Vienna to Frankfurt on the Mainz, Germany. During these days I was in solitary confinement for awhile and interrogated.

July 3-5, 1944 --We were moved by train to Sagan, East Germany--now a part of Poland. Here I was placed in a prisoner of war camp, called Stalag Luft 3. I was in Center Compound. Other compounds in the camp were designated North, West, South, and East. The North Compound was the site of the Great Escape in March, 1944. About 75 escaped. Only 2 were successful. 50 were executed by the Germans.

July 5, 1944 -- January 28, 1945 --I was confined at Stalag Luft 3.

January 28, 1945 -- The evening before we had been told to prepare to move out. The Russian army was getting close and the Germans were planning to move us to another camp. We were told to take only what we could carry. I took a couple of blankets, some sugar lumps, raisins, and a chocolate bar. I also took along the letters I had received while a prisoner. We left camp at 3:00 AM. There was about a foot of snow and the temperature was about 6 degrees above zero--very cold. We marched all day and in late afternoon we came to the village of Halbu. Here arrangements were made to sleep in a church. Some slept on the pews and some on the floor. The church was unheated. At that time it was a Lutheran Church--now being in Poland it is a Catholic Church.

January 29, 1945 --We continued the march. Toward evening we came to a small settlement. The weather had moderated. Here many of slept in a haymow in a barn. We kept warm by burrowing into the hay.

January 30, 1945 -- We stay here for another day. We slept in the hay again.

January 31, 1945 --We marched out again. This time we came to a pottery factory. We were quartered above the kilns. Here it was very hot. We were here 3 nights.

February 3, 1945 -- We were on the road again. This night was spent in another barn.

February 4, 1945 -- We went to a military installation at Spremburg. Here we were loaded on boxcars and on February 7 we arrived at Stalag 7A, a prisoner of war camp located at Moosburg, Bavaria, Germany--not far from Munich. At Stalag Luft 3 we had been prisoners of the German Air Force. At Stalag 7A the German Army was in charge.

April 29, 1945 -- At 10 AM the Protestant worship service was about to begin in an open area of the camp. The Catholics had just concluded their mass in the same place. A P-51 US fighter plane was flying around the camp. We heard machine gun fire and thought the Germans were shooting at it. However, the shooting continued and we realized a battle was being fought in the area of the camp. We went inside our barracks for safety. The battle raged for about 4 hours. Then it got quiet. We looked out and saw the US flag flying over the city hall at Moosburg. We ran out of the building and 10,000 men wept like babies. The day of liberation -- longed for, hoped for, prayed for--had finally come.

Freedom

May 7, 1945 --Leaving Stalag 7A we were taken by truck to an airfield at Ingolstadt, Germany. The war in Europe ended at midnight.

May 8, 1945 -- We were flown to Camp Lucky Strike at LeHavre, France. Here we were cleaned up, issued clothing, given physicals, and the military made arrangements for our return to the states.

May 18, 1945 -- We sailed for the USA on the SS Lejeune. We left in a convoy because not all German submarines had been accounted for. While en route the captain received notice that all submarines were accounted for. At that time we left the convoy and the ship proceeded alone.

June 3, 1945 -- We disembarked at Staten Island, New York. We were taken by ferry to Jersey City, New Jersey. Here we boarded a train that took us to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.

June 9, 1945 -- I arrived home by train at Irene, SD. My mother met me in Minneapolis and we came home together.

 

After the War: Lt. Johnson was discharged on November 2, 1945. He had this to say about his experiences:

I went back and finished my undergraduate studies at Augustana College in Sioux Falls and graduated with a BA degree in 1947. I received a CT at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN in 1950 and was ordained as a Lutheran pastor. Judy Ellefson and I were married on June 3, 1946. We have 3 children, 8 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren. We served parishes in White Earth, ND, and in Parker, Watertown, and Sioux Falls, SD. I retired in 1988 and we have continued to live in Sioux Falls.

 

Advice from a WW II Veteran to Today's Youth

War is an awful thing and certainly as a nation we should avoid  involvement if possible. However, there are times when it is the only way to protect our nation and our values. I don't regret serving my country in time of war. It was not something I would have wanted, but I believe it was necessary. I hope our nation does not need to go to war again, but if we do, I hope there will be those who will serve.

Stalag VIIA          Stalag VIIA      

Stalag VIIA; photo courtesy of http://www.moosburg.org/info/stalag/indeng.html