A different view of sacrifice
Noah Johnson’s perspective on the sacrifice symbolized in Memorial Day comes not from combat, but from witnessing first-hand why the loss of so many Americans during World War II meant so much to humanity.
Now 86 and retired to his High Point home, Johnson was drafted during the Second World War later in the conflict. When he arrived in Germany nearly 70 years ago, he was assigned to a patrol that scouted sites for attacks by Allied troops. But as the war was ending, the young soldier was pulled into a horror that — hard as it was for him to believe — surpassed the ravages from the outcome of fire fights.
Johnson’s military unit began assisting troops who were liberating concentration camps discovered in Germany and other Nazi-occupied territories as Allied forces moved toward Berlin. Later, after the war concluded, Johnson remained in Germany during the Nuremberg trials when Nazi leaders were brought before an international court of justice for crimes against humankind. Drafted at the age of 18, Johnson served three months at the trials. He personally guarded a former Nazi official who served in occupied Poland, escorting him to and from his small holding cell for each day’s deliberations.
“I had to hear it all. I didn’t know what the war was about until then,” Johnson told The High Point Enterprise.
Witness to history and horror
Johnson played a role in what officially was called the Trial of the War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal. The hearings became known as the Nuremberg trials because they took place in the German city.
Officials with the Nazi government were tried from November 1945 to October 1946. Many were found guilty and executed, other were given terms in prison. A handful of officials were acquitted.
Johnson would stand in the courtroom listening to testimony about the wretched acts the Nazis committed on men, women and children. The most vivid testimony Johnson remembers was hearing about how men were brutally castrated by their Nazi overseers.
The German official he guarded was convicted of war crimes, but Johnson said that he wasn’t sentenced to death.
Befriending a camp survivor
Johnson served in a group known as the battle patrol, which took on tasks such as directing artillery fire for advancing troops. But he arrived in Europe as Allied forces were making a final push toward capturing the German capital.
Johnson’s role in the war changed when he was transferred to a unit assisting the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, commonly known during the war as UNRRA. The agency was established to handle the millions of people displaced during the conflict. But as the concentration camps were discovered and liberated, UNRRA became the lead agency helping bring relief to Jews and others decimated by time in the camps.
“They put me in a special training unit with UNRRA,” Johnson recalls.
As Allied soldiers liberated the camps, Johnson was part of a group that investigated who was responsible for atrocities. His unit also pinpointed German civilians who collaborated with the Gestapo, the Nazi police.
At other times, Johnson was part of a group that would help camp survivors, taking them either to temporary shelters or back to their homes. One group of Jews that Johnson escorted eventually returned to their prewar home in Lithuania on the Baltic Sea.
In one instance, Johnson became friends with a 16-year-old girl who had survived one of the camps.
One evening, Johnson intended to take the girl for a meal to the officers’ club at the regimental headquarters in a converted hotel. Johnson and less than a half a dozen fellow soldiers stayed nearby in an old house.
As Johnson arrived at the club with the girl, an American officer pulled him aside. He told Johnson that the girl had been diagnosed with tuberculosis that she contracted in the camp. She had to be taken to a hospital so the girl wouldn’t infect anyone with the debilitating disease, which at the time wasn’t checked by antibiotics.
“She was a pretty little girl, and she thought a lot of me,” Johnson said. “I went and got a squad car and carried her over to the hospital. I never saw her again. It’s one of those things — you hate it.”
The value of sacrifice
There’s a story, whether true or apocryphal, attributed to Gen. George Patton about the first time he went through a concentration camp liberated by troops of his U.S. Third Army. Patton saw with disgust the horrors of the Holocaust — the emaciated dead bodies stacked like cord wood, the survivors with bodies shriveled to the bone, the bulging mounds of earth covering mass graves.
Patton supposedly gathered his officers and enlisted men after touring the concentration camp and gave them a simple message: As we stand here, if you wondered whether the loss of your friends in combat, the terrible toll of battle, was worth the cost, wonder no longer.
More than 70 years after he served as a guard at Nuremberg, Johnson doesn’t wonder if the deaths of his fellow Americans in places such as Normandy or the Battle of the Bulge were worth the sacrifice. He knows first-hand from meeting the survivors of the camps, from hearing the disturbing testimony at the war crimes trials, that preserving freedom in the face of barbarity was worth the price.
“Guys sacrificed a lot,” Johnson said. “I knew a lot of guys who died at the Battle of the Bulge that had just got married and had kids. You feel about that.”
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The period immediately after the end of World War II witnessed Nazi leaders tried for crimes against humanity, in the wake of the discovery of a network of concentration camps. The period is vividly reflected in the Oscar-winning film “Judgment at Nuremberg.” The all-star cast includes Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland, Burt Lancaster, William Shatner, Montgomery Clift and Werner Klemperer. The movie chronicles not only the trials of Nazis who oversaw the mass murder of millions of Jews, but how Americans after the war tried to comprehend how the Holocaust could happen. The film, released in 1961, was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and earned two Oscars.