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Ottawa County man receives Congressional Gold Medal

By Jake Allen/The Holland Sentinel • Apr 17, 2018 at 1:00 PM

Al Johnson, a 94-year-old World War II veteran from Hudsonville, said it’s hard for people to remember something that never existed from the perspective of the general public.

Johnson served in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. The OSS was the predecessor to the CIA and was a secret organization that those involved with could not talk about even after returning home from the war.

Seventy-three years after the war ended, Johnson was recognized in Washington, D.C., for his service with the OSS. He and 23 other members of the OSS were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on March 21.

“It was a non-glorious organization,” Johnson said of the OSS. “We couldn’t receive glory because we didn’t exist, which is hard to believe.”

For years, Johnson had to tell his friends and family he was a paratrooper in the war and couldn’t talk about his time serving in the OSS because of the secrecy of the organization. He said the recognition was long overdue.

Johnson brought his son, Jim Johnson, 64, and daughter Nancy Moseler, 67, with him to Washington to receive the award. After the ceremony, Johnson was congratulated by U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland.

“Members of the OSS did a lot to contribute during WWII and they wanted to tell their stories,” Moseler said. “They were never appreciated. Now they are able to tell some of those stories, and it’s important they get the most recognition possible.”

At its peak, the OSS had about 13,000 men and women in the organization, according to cia.gov. The OSS was America’s first strategic intelligence system and was implemented during World War II.

It is widely considered the foundation of modern-day intelligence operations, according to a news release from U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office regarding the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony. The medal is the highest civilian honor the United States can bestow. In accordance with Public Law 114–269, a single gold medal was struck to collectively honor the members of the OSS, including Johnson.

Johnson graduated high school in Grand Rapids in 1942 and was drafted into service in 1943. As an 18-year-old, he was assigned to the U.S. Army’s medical corps.

“I took surgical nurse training,” Johnson said. “I hated it. I didn’t want to be some bedpan jockey.”

After a notice looking for volunteers for “hazardous duty with a short life expectancy” was posted, Johnson immediately signed up to volunteer. This was when his involvement with the OSS began.

“There was no fighting down at the medical corps,” Johnson said. “I wanted to do the fighting. I was 18 and I thought I could conquer the world.”

Johnson was interviewed by psychiatrists and officers from the OSS to see if he qualified for the program.

“They needed men who could psychologically live behind enemy lines for an extended period of time,” Johnson said. “Not everybody can do that, and a lot of people fall apart right away.”

After being accepted into the program and months of training, Johnson parachuted into southern France on Aug. 12, 1944.

“Our mission was to capture a hydroelectric plant and hold it for the southern invasion of troops to come up,” he said.

After capturing the plant, Johnson and his fellow OSS members spent their time ambushing German troops.

“We did anything to disrupt the enemy,” he said. “It was more of a psychological war as much as a physical war. They didn’t know where we were going to hit next.”

Johnson was stationed in France for about six weeks until the Allied Forces’ invasion caught up. Then he was given the option to return to the regular Army or continue serving with the OSS. He chose the OSS.

His next mission was in China. In 1945, Johnson parachuted in with the mission of disrupting the flow of rice from China to Japan.

“China was a more difficult mission because we were so un-Chinese,” Johnson said. “You could tell because we didn’t look like the Chinese, so it was hard to blend in.”

After several months in China, U.S. forces dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities and the war would end soon after.

“The radio message came across and it said we couldn’t leave China yet because all of the Japanese had not surrendered yet,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s war ended about 30 days after the official end of World War II, he said. After working their way through China, Johnson and fellow OSS members flew out and arrived home at the end of 1945.

“All the hoopla was done already,” he said. “No one cared whether we came or went. We received no hoopla, no parades, no decorations, no nothing.”

The Congressional Gold Medal was needed recognition for this and a lot of other reasons, Johnson said.

“We were happy to get the Congressional Gold Medal because it was recognition that was overdue,” Johnson said. “The OSS, being a secret organization, was ignored in many of the write-ups and conversations regarding the war.”

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