Living History with America's Vets
● By Brandi Barnett
On My HonorNovember 2015
By Gwen Lawler-Tough
Photos: Erin Claassen
Al Johnson was 19 years old when his B-24 Liberator bombing crew flew into the heart of Nazi Germany.
Virginia Potts was also 19 when she defied her parents to join the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Twenty-year-old George Fredson went from carefree college student/rock ‘n’ roller to a Navy job with serious responsibilities. In serving wounded soldiers fresh from the battlefields of Vietnam, he not only found himself, but also found a calling to serve his country.
Johnson, Potts and Fredson are three of 130 veterans who live at the three-year-old Veterans Home of California on Knighton Road in Redding. Although most served in wars 65 to 70 years ago, they talk about their experiences like it was yesterday.
“Big Al” Johnson is 6-foot-3 and still a formidable presence. He landed one of the most dangerous jobs in World War II: engineer in a 10-man B-24 bomber. He flew on D-Day and in many missions into Nazi-held France and Germany. Their luck ran out on their 17th mission on June 21, 1944. His plane, the Happy Hangover, was hit by flak and came down in residential Berlin. Johnson spent the next 11 months in a grueling attempt to survive the infamous Stalag prison camps. Normally weighing 180 pounds, he went down to 82 pounds. “We ate black bread, which was 20 percent sawdust.” He recalls their “potato soup” consisted of rotten potato peelings in water. The men lived for their Red Cross ration boxes, which included highly valued chocolates and cigarettes.
After the Russians freed their camp, the former prisoners found an entire room stacked with Red Cross ration boxes that had never been delivered.
Johnson was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in his right shoulder and neck. Today, he still says he owes his life to the plane’s co-pilot. Because he was wounded in his right shoulder, Johnson couldn’t get his parachute on. Although the co-pilot was also wounded, “he buckled me into my parachute.” Johnson was the last man out of the plane; four of their crew died in the crash. The co-pilot died from his wound while in the prison camp.
Virginia Potts has been feisty all of her life. Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she told her parents she was getting into the war. They were not at all pleased. When she got on the train in San Francisco, she went alone.
Potts attended basic training at Ft. Des Moines, Iowa. She proudly put on the brown khaki uniform of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the first military branch for women. When she went home in her uniform, her mom was waiting to greet her at the train station.
That uniform saw a lot of wear and tear. Potts served at the huge Army-Navy Hospital in Hot Springs, Ark. The hospital took in burn patients from the worldwide theatre of war, including German prisoners of war. “Some of the men were burned from head to toe… the experience gave me a lot of strength…we lost a lot of guys.”
Today at 92, Potts is still feisty and has a heart that rejoices in giving. She can’t say enough good things about her fellow veterans in the home. “I love the boys here. I have a deep respect for what they did and how they did it.” Virginia has even found love: she and Korean War veteran Patrick Townsend have discovered that “we understand each other perfectly.”
Red Bluff native George Fredson understands that “a huge part of who I am is due to the experience and responsibility I received at an early age from the Navy.” After completing extensive training in general medicine and first aid at the Naval Hospital Corpsman School in San Diego, he was assigned to the U.S. Naval Hospital at Aguana, Guam. It was 1967 and American casualties were reaching their peak in the Vietnam War. Twice a week, after working his day job as an executive assistant to the second in command at the hospital, Fredson volunteered to work nights meeting planes carrying wounded troops, still covered with mud from their battlefields. As part of an air evacuation team, Fredson followed through on numerous logistics concerning each man, even meeting with surgeons to plan operating room schedules. Fredson was only 23. He went on to complete 12 years of service with the Naval Reserve, joining the Seabees for his last six years.
Johnson, Potts and Fredson have lived history and we are privileged to share just a small part of their stories.