Letters From America
William O. Johnson, member of the 16th Armored Division, as remembered by Ken Johnson
Let me start by saying that my Father, William O. Johnson, told me many times over the years that the people of Czechoslovakia were the friendliest and most appreciative people that he had ever come in contact with, and that he would hold them dear in his memories forever.
My Father was born in a small town in rural Kentucky, in 1925. He completed his education in 1942 and began working for the Wright-Patterson aircraft company in Ohio, as a Technical Analyst, reporting on the condition of engines from aircraft that had been shot down early in the war. He didn’t work there long and, at the age of 17, he returned home and taught technical classes at the nearby University (now Western Kentucky University).
In 1943, he was drafted into the United States Army and reported to Fort Benjamin Harrison, in the state of Indiana, for induction into the armed services. After testing and evaluation, he was sent to Camp Chaffee, in the state of Arkansas, and became a member of a newly forming armored division, the 16th Armored Division. They were to become a part of General Patton’s Third Army and were rigorously trained in the Ozark area of Arkansas, because the terrain there approximated the terrain of Western Europe. The 16th trained in all areas of combat, engineering, demolition, attacking and defending designated areas, and any other skill that its soldiers would need to face the German army and defeat them – utterly and completely.
My Father was assigned as a reconnaissance squad leader in the Headquarters Company of the 26th Tank Battalion, 16th Armored Division. In this capacity, he lead a squad of scouts that would move ahead of the Division, go behind enemy lines, and find, map, and report back to the main body of the Division on enemy emplacements, movements, size of the enemy forces, and any other information necessary to make an effective attack on the enemy. Most of the reconnaissance work was done under the cover of darkness, so my Father’s squad was taught all forms of swift and silent killing, so that German sentries and guards could be eliminated without alerting other German soldiers that might have been nearby. I still have a small dagger that my Father carried throughout the war for just that purpose.
Since they were scouting ahead of the main body of the Division, they were also trained in detecting and destroying all forms of German mines and “booby-traps”, to clear the way for the rest of the Division. My Father told me once that while clearing a German minefield in France, the soldier next to him tripped over an unseen detonation wire. Fortunately the wire had been in place so long that it had rusted through and, instead of setting off the mine, the wire broke. When they were told how lucky they were, my Father said that it wasn’t luck. He believed that they were being watched over by God, so that they might be able to complete their mission and help free the innocent people being brutalized by the Germans.
After training in Arkansas, the Division was loaded on troop trains and sent by railway to New York, to be loaded on ships as part of a convoy to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The Division landed in France for final training and the beginning of combat operations. After landing at Le Havre, France, the 26th Tank Battalion was moved to the town of Etretat, on the French coast, to clear minefields left by the German army, in order to delay any American advance. While there, the unit was taught to detect, mark, remove, and defuse all types of German mines.
After this training, the 16th Armored Division crossed France and my Father’s unit, the 26th Tank Battalion, then crossed the Rhine River into Germany, by utilizing pontoon bridges. After crossing Germany, the 16th Armored Division linked up with the rest of the U.S. Third Army, under the command of General Patton, near the western border of Czechoslovakia. As the Division advanced, the Recon platoon of the 26th Tank Battalion moved ahead and probed for German forces. This was done almost exclusively at night so they would not be detected by any German elements. My Father said that his squad would go behind the German lines every night, map any German positions, and bring the information back to Headquarters, where it would be passed along to the unit commanders.
On the night of May 5, 1945, my Father led a unit composed of 2 light tanks, 4 Jeeps, and 2 halftracks, on a reconnaissance mission to the outskirts of Pilsen. The halftracks had army medics in them and my Father sent them back to the headquarters area, because they were under strict orders not to open fire on German units unless the Germans fired first. Considering the situation, my Father decided that the medics wouldn’t be necessary, because if they did get in a fire-fight, the small recon detachment would be quickly overrun and there wouldn’t be time to get medical aid.
As they neared Pilsen, they noticed that the entire city was blacked out and no lights were on. Throwing caution to the wind, my Father and three other soldiers in a Jeep, plus four soldiers in another Jeep following them, decided to enter and probe the edge of the city, taking advantage of the darkness to cover their advance. As my Father turned a street corner, street lights up and down the street suddenly lit up. The soldiers immediately backed up the Jeeps and jumped out to take a defensive position. My Father said that a policeman approached them and started to hug all of the American soldiers. My Father told him that the lights had to be turned off immediately so their position would not be given away to the enemy. My Father didn’t speak the Czech language, but motioned by pointing his rifle at the streetlights that they had to be extinguished. The lights were turned off, and then my Father was able to ask the policeman about German forces in the area. The policeman knew some English and was able to tell the recon unit that there were still Germans in the city, but the largest German force had already left.
After receiving this information, my Father’s unit headed back to the American lines and the 16th Armored Division, 26th Tank Battalion headquarters to relay the information. By this time, it was very early in the morning on the 6th of May, 1945 and the sun had not yet risen. On orders from Division headquarters, Colonel Charles Noble, the commander of Combat Command A, of the 16th Armored Division, ordered the attack on Pilsen to begin the liberation. After reaching Pilsen, the 16th Armored engaged German forces in the city and, after sporadic combat, accepted the surrender of approximately 8,500 German soldiers. My Father said that the people of Pilsen began the largest celebration he had ever seen, and were cheering and waving to the American forces as they rolled through the city. When they reached the center of the city, my Father said they suddenly came under German sniper fire and the citizens were told to take cover, while the soldiers eliminated the snipers. One of my Father’s friends, Private 1st Class James Hoffman, from the state of Pennsylvania, killed two snipers that were in a church steeple. After the snipers had been eliminated, the celebration began again.
My dad stayed in Czechoslovakia until some time in September of 1945, when his unit was moved to the town of Deggendorf, Germany. He made many trips back into Czechoslovakia, carrying army dispatches and visiting citizens he had become friends with, whenever he could. In October 1945, he was transferred to Camp Pall Mall in France, to await his return to the United States. He stayed in France until early 1946, and returned home to the United States aboard a Liberty Ship. He docked in New York Harbor and was then transferred to Camp Kilmer, in the state of New Jersey, to await discharge orders from the U.S. Army. After being discharged, he returned to the home of his Mother and Father, in rural Kentucky. He moved to the town in which we now reside (Louisville, Kentucky) and married my Mother, in 1948. He worked at International Harvester Tractor Works as a machinist, from 1947 until 1978, when he retired. My Mother and Father had four children – three sons: Larry Johnson, Barry Johnson, and myself (Ken Johnson), and one daughter: Beverly Johnson (deceased in 2005, at the age of 49 years old). We are all very proud of our Father and his service during World War II. He told me stories about the war all of my life, until his recent illness took away his memory. I would just like you to know that he said that the people of Czechoslovakia would always hold a special place in his heart.
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