A century of history passed before Kansas World War II veteran Arris Johnson's eyes
Arris Johnson, Ph.D. is a former professor at Fort Hays State University, and he will turn 100 years old this November. He went to grade school in Kanona, which is now an unincorporated community.
He and his friend Ivis Hanson, who turned 100 this September, went up to 8th grade together. Once they entered high school, Johnson and Hanson did not keep up with communication.
However, both men were drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, and in 1945, they both ended up in the region of the Elbe River around the same time. Johnson’s regiment was stationed on the western side of the river, and he was among the first to meet the Russians there. The Americans negotiated with the Russians on the eastern bank to release their American prisoners. Johnson’s group carried out an exchange for a group of German prisoners to get their men back.
“The German soldiers didn’t want to go,” said Johnson.
“The Russians were killing German prisoners,” said his wife, Virginia Johnson. "We never found out what happened to (them).”
During the war, Johnson worked with the Red Cross division of the Army as a secretary.
“He’s always been a good typist,” said Virginia Johnson.
He also did unofficial counseling work for the Red Cross. This is when he first became interested in the field that was to become his career.
Arris Johnson recalled an incident when someone in the office ordered a man back to America and was berated by his commanding officer.
“The officer said, ‘You sent somebody home and didn’t ask me. You’ve got to have permission,’” he said.
According to Arris Johnson, the officer did not know that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had personally ordered that the man be sent home. His wife was dying, and he needed to get back to America.
“Well, he brightened right up as soon as he heard Eisenhower’s name,” said Johnson, laughing.
Johnson was interested in photography from a young age, even hand-making his first enlarger. He took his Nikon camera to Europe with him, and he took many photographs of the war front. His pictures show vivid images of a war-torn Germany. He still owns images from his station on the Elbe, including a photo showing the large group of German prisoners they were to exchange.
“What I didn’t realize is that Germany is quite a ways north of us,” he said. “The winter was bitter cold. The soldiers holed up in foxholes to keep warm. This guy,” he said, pointing to one of his photos, “had quite the story. Another man was in the foxhole with him, he stepped outside, and his arm got shot off. He went back in the foxhole and said, ‘I’m going home. I lost my arm.’”
Even though the conditions in Europe were unpleasant, Virginia Johnson said how grateful she was that her husband was in Europe instead of in the Pacific. The Japanese “would kill themselves to get somebody else,” she said.
Life after World War II
The couple met after the war, marrying in 1947. They will celebrate their 75th anniversary in January.
Arris Johnson was drafted six weeks before his graduation from Fort Hays State University, so he returned after the war to finish his bachelor’s degree. He received his master’s degree from Kansas State University and eventually returned to FHSU to teach counseling for two decades.
“I had a lot of experience with discipline,” said Johnson.
Upon his retirement from Fort Hays in 1985, he was named the freemason grandmaster for the state of Kansas.
A few weeks ago, Johnson’s old friend Ivis Hanson reached out for the first time since 8th grade, and they have kept faithful communication since then. According to Virginia Johnson, Hanson had thought he was the only one of their group still around from back then.
“Arris had to write him and say, ‘Oh no, you’re not,’” she said, smiling. “We’ve been writing to him ever since.”
She said her husband was pleased to receive Hanson's letter. That correspondence is how they discovered they had been in the same region of Germany in 1945.
Johnson has many stories to tell. But Virginia Johnson has her own stories from the war as well. Her father and Gen. Eisenhower shared a birthday, and they exchanged cards for years. She and her husband were invited to Abilene for the opening of the “Ike museum,” as she called it. The couple both lament the general public’s lack of interest in history.
“There’s no way I could tell you everything,” said Arris Johnson, “but it’s worth it.”