Editor’s Note: The Gonzales Inquirer is endeavoring to do a series of articles on veterans from Gonzales County who have served their country. If you would like to recommend someone to the Inquirer to have their story told, please email email@example.com or call 830-672-2816 and ask for publisher Terry Fitzwater.
It was 1962, a time of bitter division between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was the height of the Cold War, and the Soviet Bloc under the direction of Nikita Khrushchev was menacing and threatening the city of Berlin. The world stood on the brink of nuclear war, and American and NATO troops were rushed into the city of Berlin to put up a show of force against the Soviet armies.
Maness Johnston of Gonzales was there.
Johnston was in the 3rd Medium Tank Battalion of the 34th Armored Brigade at the time of the Berlin Crisis. He was a 25-year old tank commander who was stationed in Munich, West Germany. He thought he was going to war.
“We got the command to load up; we were going to Berlin,” Johnston said. “We were certain it was war. They loaded our tanks on flatbed cars and the train hauled our tanks and equipment across East Germany and directly into West Berlin.
“We deployed our tanks, and we were positioned to fire at the Russians and East Germans if they kept firing water cannons at us,” Johnston said. “We had M-60 tanks with 90 mm cannons. They were loaded and ready to fire.”
Actual combat did not break out in the difficult time in 1962, but it did lead to the building of the Berlin Wall, the infamous wall that marked the difference between the freedom loving peoples of the West and the tyrannical domination of the Soviet Bloc.
“I couldn’t believe any country would build a wall to keep its people in or other free people out,” Johnston said. “It was sad. It was evil. I watched that wall go up and it was horrible.”
For Johnston, he had come a long way from his roots in south central Texas. He was born on July 15, 1937 to Myrl (Stevens) and Joe Henderson Johnston in McMahon, Texas. The oldest child, Maness had two sisters named Merlene and Bonnie Gaye. He went to school through 6th grade in McMahon, then his family moved to a farm about 11 miles east of Lockhart.
Johnston attended junior high and high school in Lockhart, and was a star running back on the football team. They were difficult economic times, and Johnston spent a lot of his free time picking cotton to make money.
“I was out in the fields with all of the local black folks and we spent all day picking cotton,” Johnston recalls. “We worked the same hours and drank out of the same dipper. We were all hard-working folks, and I think I could’ve made it rich if I could’ve done that fulltime,” he joked.
During his summers, Johnston worked as a life guard at the swimming pools in Austin. When asked if he was popular with the girls at this time, the 81-year old Army veteran just leaned back in his chair, smiled and said wistfully, “Oh yeah!”
Growing up, Maness’ hero was his uncle Tubby, his mother’s brother. His uncle was a medic in the war and made it all through North Africa, Sicily and northern Europe.
“He was my hero, and I really looked up to my Uncle Tubby,” Johnston recalled. “What he went through was incredible. He was an amazing and wonderful man.”
While in high school, his daddy bought him a 1947 Mercury Coupe and Maness just smiles at the memories.
“It was a great car, and I had some great times with that Mercury,” he said.
After high school, Johnston was drafted by the United States Army. He went to Ft. Hood for basic training, then went to radio school at Ft. Knox in Kentucky to learn how to be a radio man on a tank.
“I had never seen a tank before I got to Ft. Knox,” Johnston recalled. “I wasn’t sure I was going to like it.”
But there was more in store for the young soldier. Once he left Ft. Knox, he was deployed to Munich, West Germany where he found out the military can assign you to whatever duty station they need.
Johnston was put in charge of tank 21 in the second platoon of the 34th Armored. That meant he was the lead tank in the lead platoon whenever his outfit went into action.
“Well, if I made a mistake we couldn’t back up,” Johnston laughed. But it also meant he was on point when the shooting started.
Prior to the Berlin Crisis, Johnston and his Army buddies traveled around Germany. They went to the Oktoberfest in Munich, and Johnston joked that he was amazed when he saw the German men wearing “short little britches” and singing drinking songs.
One of his most telling memories, however, is the time he went to see the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, one of the most notorious Nazi camps where literally tens of thousands of people were murdered.
“I was really moved by that, and it really made me angry at the German people for what they had done,” Johnston said.
At the outbreak of the Berlin Crisis, Johnston said his tank was deployed along a creek bed in West Berlin. He got out of his tank and looked into the creek bed where he saw something shining in the mud. He went down and found an old Nazi plate used by the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force. He pieced it together and brought it home with him as a reminder of the evil of Nazi Germany.
After the war, Maness came back to Texas and became an electrician. He got married and had two sons named Mike and David. He lived in little New York outside of Gonzales for years, but his trailer house was destroyed by Hurricane Harvey. Now he has to live in an apartment.
“I wish I could move back into a house on my property in little New York,” Johnston says. “I really miss my land.
“But one thing I will always be proud of is this little fact: I was there to see the Berlin Wall go up, but my son Michael was there when the wall came down. He even got a piece of the wall as a souvenir. That’s something.”