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The world changed between two Christmases

POULSBO — Sitting next to the sparkle of the Montclair Park Christmas tree, resident Melvin “Bud” Johnson recalled the experiences he’d had between two very different holiday seasons in his life.

Christmastime 1944, Johnson began his combat duty in Europe during World War II as one of the 23 members in a platoon of the 41st Calvary Reconnaissance Squadron. A mere 23 years old, his first duty was right in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge.

Now 83, Johnson said he doesn’t much remember Christmas Day that year — everyone was too wet and cold to mark the occasion.

“It was about 20 degrees and about two feet of snow and we’d done our training in the swamps of Louisiana and the deserts of California,” he remembered. “We were just so busy. The first six weeks on the front lines we hardly even had a hot meal. There was no place even to get warmed up.”

At first, the action was so hectic that the Army didn’t even have time to give the platoon proper cold weather gear. Johnson said for six weeks they never took off any of their clothing except their boots. Although he stuffed his outer boot with straw for extra insulation, his boots froze solid.

Like Johnson, many of the troops during the Battle of the Bulge suffered major injuries to their feet during that bitterly cold winter.

“A lot of his health problems today are because his feet were frozen, it’s still affecting him today,” Johnson’s granddaughter Amy Mullen said of the lasting affects of the experience.

After the initial weeks, Johnson’s platoon was taken to an area where they could warm up and finally have their first showers. They were also given better winter clothing.

“I remember one guy started taking off his clothes and he said, ‘Here’s that pair of pants. I’d been wondering where they were,’” Johnson remembered with a smile.

Five months later, just three days before Germany signed the Armistice Agreement, Johnson was again part of a milestone in the history of World War II. Under the direction of Staff Sgt. Albert Kosiek (for whom Johnson drove an armored car most of the war) the platoon stumbled onto two concentration camps, Mauthausen and Gusen, near St. Georgian, Austria on May 5, 1945.

Since the end of the war was nearing and the Germans told Kosiek that they wanted to surrender the camps to a direct representative of the commanding general.

Kosiek pretended to be that person and marched his men into the heart of the camps. He realized that the action could mean saving the thousands of innocent lives on the other side of the barbed wire. Johnson said there was only one road in and out of the camps and he worried that the whole thing could be a trap.

“It was scary, we didn’t know what we were going to get into,” he remembered. “One of the headquarter guys said he didn’t think we should do it, but another guy said, ‘Sgt. Kosiek knows what he’s doing, just let him go.’”

The surrender turned out to be in earnest and the guards were taken 15 miles away to a holding area. Johnson said the prisoners in the camps were on the verge of rioting because they were so happy to see the American troops, whose appearance signaled freedom to them.

“Some of them didn’t even have clothes on and some of them just had blankets wrapped around them. They were just skin and bones.” Johnson said, noting that participating in the liberation made him feel good because he realized he was helping people in great peril.

Mauthausen and Gusen were the last concentration camps to be liberated before the end of the war. Today, Mauthausen has been kept as a memorial, which is visited by visitors from around the world.

Despite severe damage to his feet, Johnson convinced the Army doctors not to send him to the hospital after the war so he could remain with his platoon. On Christmas Day, 1945 he was shipped back to the United States, where he was honorably discharged on Dec. 29.

He returned home on New Year’s Eve 1945, but it was many years before he shared the full story of his remarkable experiences with any of his family. Johnson’s daughter Carol Anderson said her mother learned that Johnson had been in the Battle of the Bulge only recently — many years after their marriage and divorce.

Johnson, who moved to Poulsbo in 1997 and has lived in Montclair Park since its opening this year, is now a member of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, a group that meets monthly in Gig Harbor. Through these meetings, Anderson and Mullen said they’ve seen Johnson open up about his experiences, which they appreciate because they’ve gotten to know this amazing story.

“I was really surprised, I didn’t have any idea I just knew the very basics,” Mullen said.

Montclair Park Administrator Sue Tidball said that this year’s Veterans Day was one of the most memorable she’s ever experienced because of the stories she heard from her residents. Tidball said when she sees people like Johnson in the center’s hallways, she always thinks they are like walking museums and their experiences need to be explored.

“I feel we need to love these people and honor these people and give them the attention they need and preserve their stories,” she remarked.

Johnson said someday he’d like to go back and see Mauthausen and he’s been working on getting his strength back up to do so.

He said he believes there are only about four men from his platoon of 23 still around. He was recently one of the nearly 800 people from around the world to be interviewed by the Austrian government for the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation project that will be unveiled at the 60th anniversary of the liberation in 2005. Johnson said he’ll never forget the things he saw between Christmas 1944 and Christmas 1945 and he hopes by sharing his experiences the story will never be forgotten.

“I’m ready to open up now,” he said.

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