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World War II POW Johnston shares story with students
Bob Johnston (standing at center), former World War II POW, tells his story about escaping as a POW to a group of students at Fieldale-Collinsville Middle School on Wednesday. (Bulletin photo by Ashley Jackson)
Thursday, September 13, 2012
By ASHLEY JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer
A World War II prisoner of war’s story helped Fieldale-Collinsville Middle School students learn what it means to be a patriot.
Bob Johnston, 86, of Rocky Mount, spoke to the eighth-graders in English teacher Kathryn Ingram’s class Wednesday about his ordeal in the war.
Johnston volunteered for the Navy when he was 18, but because he is color blind, he was placed in the Army.
After training, Johnston headed to England. The Battle of the Bulge (Dec.16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945) was “where I first went into action,” he said.
He survived that brutal battle, but on March 5, 1945, on a road to Rheinberg, Germany, “everything went wrong,” he said.
There were haystacks along the road, and as a farm boy, “I thought they didn’t look right,” he said.
The soldiers soon discovered that German soldiers were hiding in the haystacks. As the American tanks passed by, the German soldiers suddenly came up shooting with Panzerfausts, a one-person weapon that fires rockets, he said.
Johnston’s tank made it through before the shooting started. But when he looked back, he saw his fellow soldiers and friends burning, he said, adding that those memories still cross his mind 67 years later.
Once his tank arrived in the town of Rheinberg, it was hit, and he and 10 other soldiers were captured by German soldiers, he said.
The men were taken to a temporary hospital in Germany. Johnston entered the facility with burns on his face and hands and wounds all over his body.
One of the prisoners was a British doctor who treated Johnston’s burns. The doctor put a saline solution on his face and used sandpaper to rub the dead skin off. While the procedure was painful, it kept him from having scars, he said.
After leaving the hospital, the prisoners of war (POWs) were kept in a Catholic church. Each day, the POWs were allowed to take a walk outside in a fenced garden area behind the church. When walking one day, Johnston leaned up against the fence and noticed that the fence began to break loose from the bottom, he said.
Each day, he leaned against the fence until he broke it loose enough to escape. But first, he needed a plan and he needed help, he said.
His room was above a canal, and routinely a group of people from Holland would come by the church on a boat.
Johnston decided to unravel thread from his clothing to make a string. He then used the string to lower a note down to one of the boats asking for help to escape, he said.
In the note, Johnston asked them to lower the flag on the pole across the street if they could help, which they did. To complete his plan, Johnston had some of the other POWs fake a fight to distract the guards while he made his escape, he added.
His plan was successful. As the guards were busy breaking up the fight, Johnston climbed under the fence and ran to the railroad nearby where coal was being stored.
There he met up with “Underground” Holland civilians who didn’t agree with the Germans and were hoping to sabotage the war. The civilians gave him clothes and rubbed coal on him to make him blend in with the other coal workers, he said.
Johnston took a wheel barrel of coal to a nearby home, where he got on a bike to head for a lake in the area. There, a boat was waiting with a man in a German uniform and a rifle in hand.
Johnston thought his escape was for nothing and that the German soldier would recapture him, but it turned out the man was an “Underground” Dutch man, who then helped him get to Holland, where a family housed him until the war was over, he said.
The family took his uniform and his identification so that he could not be identified as an American soldier. Once the war was over, Johnston was ready to go home to America, but that wasn’t easy, he said.
Eventually he was turned over to the Canadians, who gave him a Canadian uniform, he said. Johnston kept pushing to get home, and finally, the Canadians put him and other troops on a plane to Paris.
Soon after, the soldiers were sent to a camp known as “Lucky Strike” on the English Channel, where the men finally boarded the ship Liberty for home, he said.
However, once home, “I went from good to worse,” Johnston said.
He was diagnosed with nervous neurosis, now known as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He was haunted by the traumatic events that he experienced and turned to alcohol to cope, which landed him on the street for seven years, he said.
“It was just as bad as it was when I was a POW,” he added.
What finally brought him home was the death of his grandfather. After reuniting with his now late wife, Birdie, and his three children, “I was a success from that day to now,” Johnston said.
Ingram organized Johnston’s visit to mark the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and instill a sense of patriotism and citizenship in her students.
Students can’t learn patriotism on their own; it must be taught, Ingram said.
And Johnston’s story accomplished that for some of the students.
For instance, Fieldale-Collinsville eighth-grader Nathan Carter said he was surprised by Johnston’s story of survival, he said.
From now on, “I’m going to think about what they (soldiers) have to go through every day,” Carter said.
Student Alexis Hodges didn’t realize what soldiers go through. “It was very inspiring to know what he (Johnston) went through for everyone at home,” Hodges said.
In honor of Johnston’s visit, students designed posters for the hallway, and a few of Ingram’s students presented poems they wrote thanking veterans for their service. Johnston received a framed copy of each poem and a food basket from the students.
Also, in honor of Johnston and the fact that he weighed only 65 pounds when he was liberated, a food drive was organized by students. More than 300 food items were collected, which will be donated to the Community Storehouse, according to Ingram.
As part of the ceremony, Johnston and the other local veterans present were escorted in by the Bassett High School JROTC, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem and a moment of silence.
The local veterans’ groups represented were VFW 2820 and 4637, DAV Post 52 and the Veteran’s Honor Guard.