A childhood overshadowed
Johnson recalls ‘Infamy’ impact as a 7-year-old
But all Al Johnson knew at the time was that it was his 7th birthday.
That happy childhood milestone was quickly overshadowed, however, by America’s swift entry into World War II.
Johnson, a long-time Farragut resident who now lives off Watt Road, lived in Delaware, Ohio, when the country went to war. What followed was a keen sense of moral duty and rush to assist the efforts from every angle.
One unusual discovery allowed Johnson to help too, even at his young age, and he shared his story earlier this month following historian Frank Galbraith’s “Day of Infamy” presentation in Farragut Town Hall.
“[It was] discovered that pods [located inside] milkweed could be used to make parachutes. So, I helped gather milkweed to help in the war effort,” he said.
Johnson, who attended the event with his wife, Karen, later expanded on his experiences, relating that he and his fellow schoolmates worked for about three years on the project.
“Delaware, Ohio, was flooded with milkweed,” he said. “And when I was 7, 8 and 9, [the adults] would get us together, and give us pillow cases, and we would go out and gather up milkweed pods.”
The grown-ups already had scouted out the best locations for the plants, which grew wild.
“I know most people today probably don’t even
know what a milkweed is,” he said, and described the pods as “being about the size of a baseball, but a little elongated.”
The effort was a serious one, as parachutes were typically made from silk “and you couldn’t get any during the war,” Johnson said.
The children were determined to help, but also managed to bring a bit of levity to the situation, as the efforts became hotly contested between the four schools located in Johnson’s hometown.
“It became a [competition] between us, to see who could get the most milkweed pods,” he said, recalling his class won that distinction “more than once.”
Nearly 30 U.S. states encouraged school children to join in the effort to collect the plants, gathering an estimated 11 tons during the war years. In addition to helping weave parachutes, milkweed also was reportedly used to create and fill lifejackets.
“It’s a good story,” he said. “It’s a little strange, but we all felt good doing it.”
“And, when we would see a [pilot’s parachute], we would all be excited, and say that maybe some of our milkweed pods had helped to make it.”