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Mascenic

Generations connected

Students see world through stories of WWII veteran

  • World War II Veteran Bob Johnson, 91, of Peterborough was a guest speaker during a Holocaust class at Mascenic Regional High School last Tuesday, speaking about his tour of Buchenwald Concentration Camp shortly after it was liberated from German control. <br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    World War II Veteran Bob Johnson, 91, of Peterborough was a guest speaker during a Holocaust class at Mascenic Regional High School last Tuesday, speaking about his tour of Buchenwald Concentration Camp shortly after it was liberated from German control.
    (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • Sgt. Bob Johnson, 91, of Peterborough traveled through Europe following the movements of General George Patton’s army, treating the wounded of both sides as a medic.

    Sgt. Bob Johnson, 91, of Peterborough traveled through Europe following the movements of General George Patton’s army, treating the wounded of both sides as a medic. Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • World War II Veteran Bob Johnson, 91, of Peterborough joined the service after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and is pictured here as a Private during basic training. <br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

    World War II Veteran Bob Johnson, 91, of Peterborough joined the service after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and is pictured here as a Private during basic training.
    (Staff photo by Ashley Saari) Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

  • World War II Veteran Bob Johnson, 91, of Peterborough was a guest speaker during a Holocaust class at Mascenic Regional High School last Tuesday, speaking about his tour of Buchenwald Concentration Camp shortly after it was liberated from German control. <br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)
  • Sgt. Bob Johnson, 91, of Peterborough traveled through Europe following the movements of General George Patton’s army, treating the wounded of both sides as a medic.
  • World War II Veteran Bob Johnson, 91, of Peterborough joined the service after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and is pictured here as a Private during basic training. <br/>(Staff photo by Ashley Saari)

NEW IPSWICH — Bob Johnson of Peterborough served in World War II as a medic, and he saw it all. His company was sent in after the battles with the heaviest casualties to collect the wounded, ally and enemy alike, and give them what treatment they could before they were sent to field hospitals. He saw one man with third-degree burns over 100 percent of his body come in still conscious. There was nothing for the medics to do but give him morphine. But the most hellish hours of his military career was the tour of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, only days after its liberation from Nazi control.

On Tuesday, Johnson shared his story with a class of students that had made a special study of the Holocaust in an honors class at Mascenic Regional High School. Ellen Salmonson, who teaches the course, first had the idea to have Johnson speak to the class when her mother, an acquaintance of Johnson’s, told her that his story might strike a chord with the kids.

When Johnson, 91, first heard the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he tried to join the Navy, but was rejected for imperfect vision. So he waited to be drafted, and was taken into the medical corps. His company followed Gen. George Patton in his campaign across Europe, treating the wounded after the battles were done. His company happened to be nearby when Buchenwald in central Germany between Frankfurt and Berlin was liberated by infantry soldiers. The German guards had evacuated, and left the prisoners.

“They were lying in bunks, dying as we passed through,” Johnson recalled in an interview Tuesday. “They were laying on shelves in this building, side by side, too weak to get up. They held out their hands. They were starving, and we weren’t allowed to give them anything. But we could touch their hands and give them comfort in that way, and they knew they were going to get some relief. There were bodies and skeletons stacked up like cordwood, some dead still lying in their bunks. I was only there a matter of hours before we had to move on, and it was the most distressing part of my military career.”

Salmonson said the response from her students was outstanding, and after the response they had to Johnson, she’d like to arrange more guest speakers to give first-hand accounts of the time periods they’re learning about. “I checked with my students and they were so excited to have someone come in,” Salmonson said. “I was surprised at how much they loved it. They were so excited to have an eyewitness that they could ask questions of.”

Talking to someone who was a first-hand witness to what they had only experienced in photographs and documentaries was an eye-opening and life changing experience, said Nick Burke, a junior in the class.

Burke, 16, of New Ipswich, said meeting Johnson really took what he had been learning and transformed it from an academic experience to an emotional one.

“When we’re in class and see the slides and the movies, it’s just pictures,” Burke said in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s not the same as getting the first hand experience. Meeting someone who had gone through that really gave us a sense of what the Holocaust was about. It made it a more personal experience meeting with someone that had gone through it. We could see it in his face.”

Burke’s classmate, Megan Hamblen, 15, of Greenville, agreed. “It wasn’t like reading from a book or looking at a powerpoint or something online. He was physically in front of us. It brought a new reality, seeing how he could remember it, how certain things still struck him.”

But Johnson’s tour of Buchenwald wasn’t the only thing he talked to students about that day. He told them about being a medic during the war, and how thankful he always was to have joined that company, so he didn’t have to shoot anyone. He told them how he had expected to be called on D-Day, the initial invasion of Normandy, France, and what it was like waking up that morning to a sky full of planes, and realizing he wouldn’t be part of the first invasion. Then, he told of what he saw when he and his company went in 20 days later to assist the wounded.

And there was an occasional lighter side, as well, like the time that one of the injured he was treating was a Nazi SS Trooper, the elite of Hitler’s army. As a medic, Johnson said he and his fellow medics would give the same treatment to every soldier. But perhaps not always quite the same consideration. One of the medics who spoke fluent German told the injured trooper that the plasma they were providing him had been supplied by a Jewish donor. Even the stories of meeting his wife during basic training, and exchanging a letter with her every day he was gone, to return and marry her within a month, were all soaked in by the listening students.

“It was just life changing to meet somebody who could still go through their day to day life after going through something like that,” Burke said. “It really strengthens my faith in humanity. When he was telling his story, he said when he came back, it was really hard to have faith in people knowing they could do that horror, but in my mind, it strengthened my faith in humanity. Because there was people like him out there helping.”

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