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Thunderbolt! The Extraordinary Story of a World War II Ace is the incredible true-life story of Robert S. Johnson, one of America's leading fighter pilot aces in World War II. His memoir is an action-packed account of how a young man from Lawton, Oklahoma went on to amass 28 enemy kills, the first U. S. Army Air Force pilot in the European theater to surpass Eddie Rickenbacker's World War I tally of 26 enemy planes destroyed. Johnson's detailed, vivid descriptions of his close-scrapes with Goering's elite fighters makes Thunderbolt! essential reading for World War 2 buffs. This new annotated edition of Thunderbolt! from the Rocket Press includes: Footnotes by author Damian Stevenson. Handcrafted and curated historical images. Newly edited text designed for digital readers.
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Robert S. Johnson and Martin Caidin
Published by The Rocket Press, 2018.
Thunderbolt! The Extraordinary Story of a World War II Ace by Robert S. Johnson and Martin Caidin. First published in 1958.
2018 edition annotated, edited and with historical photographs added and curated by Damian Stevenson.
Original material copyright © 2018 the Rocket Press. All rights reserved.
First e-book edition 2018.
Further Reading: Our Jungle Road to Tokyo
TO ALL THOSE MEN WITHIN whom burns the spirit of the fighter pilot; the men who fought as aces; the others to whom fate was unkind and who fell in battle; to the countless others who sought eagerly to fly the fighters, but who fought a war equally vital and deadly in the bombers and transports, the tiny liaison planes and the swift reconnaissance ships; to all these men, and to the youths of today who have yet to share with us the wonder and the spirit of our world on high; to all of you, I respectfully dedicate this book.
- Robert S. Johnson.
THE TELLING OF Thunderbolt! depends upon many sources, and the most vital of these are not to be found in the official histories of the 56th Fighter Group.1 I am deeply indebted to several close friends for all the personal attention and effort which contributed so highly to this book. I am grateful especially to Captain Carl B. McCamish, USAF, for all those wonderful hours spent aloft in cloud chasing, for our detailed discussions over the years on that never-tiring subject of fighter flight and tactics; to Steve Gentle, whose skill as a pilot is unexcelled and who knows no peer as an instructor; to Herbert “Tommy” Walker, whose own story of flight and combat is truly incredible, and who spent many hours with me in the air, beating a sense of flying into the writer; and last, but by no means least, to that long sufferer, Major James Sunderman, USAF, whose hand grew so weary with the declassification of all the official records required to document properly the combat scenes in Thunderbolt!
Now called the 56
Operations group, it was the most storied P-47 unit in World War 2.
THE KEY TO OUR VICTORY during World War II in Europe lay in superiority gained in the air, and this superiority was not to be achieved without our first meeting, and irrevocably defeating, the fighter pilots and the planes of the Luftwaffe. This was done, in a series of blows, crushing and without disputed issue. It was not a simple task, for the German fighter pilot was a superb flier, aggressive and confident, well trained, courageous; in every respect a formidable and deadly opponent. The German pilot flew fighter planes which then were the equal of any in the world. The Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts were marvels of design and of performance, imparting to their pilots flashing speed, telling firepower, maneuverability, tremendous performance at low and high altitudes. These facts should be repeated again and again, for they reveal in its true light the tremendous victory in the air won by our own men.
Today the United States Air Force is without question the most powerful fighting force the world has ever known. It has achieved this singular position not without struggle, or even without defeat which at times approached complete disaster. But of its current status there is no argument.
Ever since its inception, through its early days of financial and visionary lethargy, the Air Force has struggled to achieve its uncompromised goal of quality in men and in weapons; above all, in the most effective use of those weapons. Through this decades-long rise to its present power, the margin of the Air Force’s superiority over its opponents has been the fighter pilot and, with greater definition, the ace.
This is the man to be singled out from all the others, the man imbued with a sense of air fighting, a desire to pursue and to kill, who is the indispensable guardian of our strength in the air, of our strength as a nation. Since the volunteers of the Lafayette Escadrille first entered battle in their flimsy bi-winged coffins, the ace—the fighter pilot who has destroyed in aerial combat five or more enemy aircraft—has been a breed unto himself. From the early days of World War I, through all of World War II, and continuing on through Korea, fewer than one percent, fell nearly forty percent of all enemy aircraft destroyed.
Aces are all manner of men. Some are quiet, reflective, moody, not given to quick or strong friendships with their fellow pilots. Others are gay and boisterous, impetuous, daredevils in the air, wild and free with life. They come from all over America; engineers, farmers, musicians, doctors, truck drivers, bakers, carpenters, teachers, professors, mechanics, students. They are a cross section of our country, all different— except for their one common bond.
All of them, from the first to the very last, are possessed with a hunger to pursue the enemy in the air, to force a fight under all circumstances, to hound the quarry, and to make the kill. When they fly as fighter pilots, this is their sole justification for being in the air. They are, perhaps, unaware of this distinction, and individually they might even question its validity. But when the records are compiled and studied, when each battle is dissected to learn the motives that compelled these men to repeat, again and again, their victories against the enemy, the conclusion becomes inevitable. The ace is a hunter, a pursuer.
Robert S. Johnson is such a man. Quiet, possessing a deep and unshakable confidence in himself and in his country, skilled almost to perfection in his piloting ability, he rose from the ranks of his fellow pilots to become one of our deadliest aces. In his combat tour with the 56th Fighter Group in Europe, Bob Johnson in his Thunderbolt destroyed no less than twenty-eight German airplanes.
He was not our leading ace, for several other pilots in various parts of the world went on to score a greater number of kills. Johnson escaped, to his good fortune, the terrible battle wounds that were suffered by other pilots with whom he flew. He believes that God was responsible for his final return to his wife and his family, and he knows, too, the moments when he enjoyed incredible good luck. He attributes his tremendous success as a fighter pilot to many things; perhaps one of the most vital was his astonishing eyesight. Johnson again and again emphasizes this point; for his ability to scan a sky, to sight enemy fighters in an area where his fellow pilots saw nothing, provided him the precious moments in which to maneuver into the most advantageous attack positions—long before the enemy could sight his own flight.
His fellow pilots never agreed that Johnson’s tremendous number of air kills came from his good luck. These men have described Bob Johnson as a fearless, aggressive pilot, always eager for a fight in the air, anxious to resume the hunt each time the Thunderbolts roared away from England. They are impressed with his strong beliefs, with his courage, with his brilliant skill as a pilot.
Bob Johnson fought in the high cold air over Germany, not for the entire war, but only for one year, before he was returned to the United States. His opponents were the deadliest our men have ever encountered, for of the twenty-eight German planes that Johnson shot down in aerial combat, all were fighters. And of this number, only four were “meat on the table”—twin-engine fighters. The remainder were the single-engine Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts. His kills of these opponents only make his victories all the more astonishing.
Yet, Bob Johnson is proudest not of his victories in the air, but of the team which he forged with his fellow pilots. His greatest kills were scored when he led a flight of four Thunderbolts, a flight which, under Johnson’s skilled leadership, rejected the “accepted” methods of attack. Any one of the four pilots in the flight, upon sighting German fighters, was free immediately to “bounce” the enemy, while the other three Thunderbolts protected the attack. Because of this extraordinary teamwork, all the men under Johnson’s aggressive leadership scored more kills, and the flight destroyed more enemy fighters throughout the war.
No greater tribute can be paid to this outstanding ace than the fact that never did Bob Johnson lose a wingman to an enemy fighter. Indeed, never did any of Johnson’s wingmen suffer in combat so much damage as a single bullet hole, and this, above all, provides the measure of this man.
Thunderbolt! is the story of Robert S. Johnson, but it is much more than the story of a fighter pilot who was our second-highest-scoring ace in the European Theater during World War Two. It is the story of a man who, with a few others of his special breed, played a vital part in our history.
New York, 1958.
THERE WERE THREE OF them. Each with double wings and a whirling propeller flashing in the bright Oklahoma sun. I first saw them as they rolled on their backs, arcing over to inverted flight to begin a plunge for the earth. The ground seemed terrifyingly close to the descending trio. For a moment the sun gleaming off their whirling propellers made three simultaneous flashes of light in the sky. The beautiful winged machines increased rapidly in size, slicing downward from the blue as a single entity.
I did not know it then, and I would not appreciate for years to come the rare spectacle of precision piloting which I observed. I could only stare, utterly fascinated, as the three little pursuits seemed to rush headlong to oblivion, about to dash themselves into the ground.
Then I heard their cry. A shrill and weird sound; the painful whine of the engines, whirling propellers faster and faster as they flung the little planes through the air.
The three pursuits were almost into the ground, when the planes were wrenched from their dives. Three hands, operating as one, gripping control sticks in three different cockpits, flawlessly timed, hauling back. The trio snapped up into the sky. I followed every motion, struck dumb, staring, as the pursuits zoomed up and over, twisted and turned intricately as if a single hand were maneuvering them, then floated mysteriously in an invisible balance of their wings and of gravity.
In later years, I have been able to look back and recognize this scene as the moment: the very first time I had ever seen an airplane. The fascination of these three snappy pursuits, orange wings bright in the sun, alive, incredibly agile, held for the eight-year-old boy I then was the barest promise that would one day be fulfilled in a way not even the dreams of youth could imagine.
That was on a morning in the summer of 1928, in the town of Lawton, Oklahoma. My dad shouted for the kids to pile into the car. That meant myself and my two older sisters, Dorothy and Margaret. And Pat, of course, my little white Spitz.
A ride with Dad was always a special event. The Johnson family owned a 1926 Essex,1 which likely was the most reliable auto in the town of Lawton. Since he had been twelve years old, Dad had been an automobile mechanic, and worked at a garage in Lawton. The wonderful thing about our Essex was that Dad had fitted the muffler with a cut-out. I could reach down to grasp a hidden wire and bypass the muffler. At once a horrible roaring noise was produced. Sometimes Dad took a dim view of my actions. I would wait until we were in the center of Lawton and everything was peaceful and quiet. Then I’d jerk up on the wire and the Essex would boom lustily.
On this particular morning we left the house and, four miles later, turned onto the old military road, Fort Sill Boulevard. Time, aided by the passing of many military convoys, and the assorted tanks, trucks and wagons, had cracked and split the concrete. The Essex bumped its way merrily down the Boulevard, and, as we drove, Dad mentioned something about an air show at the Army’s Post Field. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I’d never heard of an “air show,” and since I’d never seen an airplane, I didn’t even care.
Frankly, I wished I didn’t have to be in the car. I was supposed to go fishing that afternoon, and what could be more fun than fishing? It wasn’t too bad, though. I knew we would visit Mr. Rogers at the big Rogers Dairy, and that helped to make up for losing out on the fishing. Mr. Rogers had a large dairy herd, mules, and other animals in large numbers. Best of all, he had riding horses, and Dad said that likely I would be able to get a ride. That made everything okay.
We were almost to the dairy; the Essex was grinding its way up the long sloping hill which lay just before Mr. Rogers’s place. I stood up to get a better view. I could see the barns and the silo, and I tried to see if any of the riding horses were out. The dairy was on the left side of Fort Sill Boulevard, and Post Field to the right.
I’d seen the airfield many times before, but it was only a big empty space with high and thick buffalo grass covering the field. There were plenty of those in Oklahoma, and Post Field was nothing special. But something was going on; hundreds of people milled around the field. And so many cars! They were parked, it seemed, by the hundreds. Wagons and horses were also on the field, making the whole place look like a county-fair ground. Clouds of dust boiled up and...
There in the sky! Three tiny airplanes I stared as they plunged earthward. The rest of the Johnson family stared right with me. Dad jammed on the brakes and the Essex banged to a stop. The pursuits rushed closer and closer to the ground, until the scream of their engines drowned out even my sisters’ excited shrieks.
And then they swooped out of their dives, leaped again for the sky in their twisting maneuvers.
Dad started up the Essex and continued on to the dairy. My eyes never left the field.
There were so many planes on the ground! I saw giant bombers with great fabric wings and big wooden propellers. I didn’t know what they were, just tremendous airplanes, but Dad told me they were bombers, and explained what they were supposed to do. Later that day he took me to the field and showed me the big machine guns, and the bombs fastened to the fuselage and the wings.
Dad stopped the car just inside the gate, where Mr. Rogers was waiting for us. Any other time I would have dashed inside to where the horses were tied or fenced, but not today. I was jumping up and down on the seat, frantic to see what was happening at the field.
Dad grinned. He swung me up on his shoulders so that I could straddle his neck. The view was perfect. The three little pursuits were back again. Dad told me they were very fast and maneuverable, and that the Air Service used them for air fighting. Then I didn’t even listen any more, just watched.
They were so low most of the time! They didn’t always stay in their tight formation. Sometimes they would swoop upwards, and the three planes would seem to explode outward in different directions, the pilots looping up and around, to come together again in a breath-taking dive.
Dad told me they were Army pilots known as the Three Musketeers, and that they were some of the best fliers in the world. I certainly believed that! He explained some of the maneuvers to me, and I still remember the descriptions, spoken as the pursuits went through their paces, as they slow-rolled and barrel-rolled. They split-S’d, looped, chandelled. They whirled through Immelmanns, did vertical reverses, skidded wildly, flew inverted across the field. Every now and then they would dive for the ground, upside down. At the last moment the pilots would roll out neatly and burst across the field, their wheels almost skimming the buffalo grass.
The hours fled; we watched the last plane in the air land. The pilot taxied over to the long line of pursuits and bombers, and the big propeller came to a halt.
I watched, still on Dad’s shoulders, until the people began climbing into their cars to drive away. The dust began to rise in thick clouds, and soon most of the field was obscured. I protested as Dad turned around and walked to the farmhouse; I wanted to see more. That was all; Dad gave me a playful whack on the behind and sent me to fetch a can of milk. I don’t think I even looked at the farm animals. Who wanted to ride a horse now! All the way home I was quiet, thinking only of the airplanes. That night Mom complained because I hardly touched my food.
I was dreaming. Every eight-year-old boy knows what he’s going to be when he grows up. Me – I had wanted the life of the cowboy. I’d ride beautiful horses and live in the open. Or, maybe, I’d even be a fireman! Then, sometimes, there was nothing more wonderful than to be a locomotive engineer.
But now, who wanted to do any of these things! I was going to fly. I just knew that I would! I wanted to be, I was going to be, an Army pilot, the best Army pilot in the world. I would fly a snappy pursuit like one of those three little biplanes I’d seen. I’d fly just like the Three Musketeers.
A 1926 Essex was the compact affordable family car of the late 1920s, making Essex third in overall automobile sales in the US behind Chevrolet and Ford.
IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL sunny day. No time to pay strict attention to English lessons. Besides, I was daydreaming about airplanes, a disease to which I had recently succumbed. I found far more interest in the sight of two Army blimps floating lazily over Fort Sill than I did in the technicalities of splitting infinitives. The two blimps swung gently in the breeze at five hundred feet, held captive by their cables anchored close together near the balloon hangar on the Fort.
A vivid streak of flame burst suddenly into existence. Not a sound reached me, just that startling, silent flash of fire, then deep red flame mushrooming into the sky.
I stared, unbelieving. Several tiny figures tumbled through the air, twitching and jerking, as if in a frenzy. The flames engulfed both the blimps, the cables sagged, and in moments only a pall of dirty black smoke was left, drifting idly out of sight.
The next day the reality of what I had seen struck home. The hydrogen gas within one of the observation blimps had, without warning, exploded. Searing flame burst into the sky above, curled downward, licked into the personnel basket. Three men at least, perhaps four, caressed by that terrible flick of fire, had leaped in agony into space, and died.
Fort Sill was a Field Artillery School, one of the largest in the country. Often hundreds of troops would be out on the firing range, blasting with their artillery, over which hovered the big observation balloons and the blimps from which observers directed fire. At Post Field—the object of my attention since the unexpected appearance of the Three Musketeers—were based the observation planes and the pursuits which worked as advance units for the artillery.
Fort Sill lies in a valley, bordered by the foothills of the Wichita Mountains, which rise to the northwest. To the east stretch the seemingly endless rolling and flat plains, balanced by granite mountains jutting into the sky.
One of these peaks, Signal Mountain, rose to its full height within the Army’s artillery range. From Signal Mountain we enjoyed a marvelous view of Fort Sill and the country where I was spending, I would come to realize, perhaps the finest years of my life. Far below us Fort Sill lay sprawled in the valley, sprinkled heavily with trees. At the right time of day the sun transformed Medicine Creek into flashing reflections, where the stream wound its way through the fort.
We could see the old Indian stockade, and the rock jail nearby. The earth and air all about me were rich in history. The basement of that very same jail had once held prisoner no less fearsome a figure than the Apache warrior, Geronimo, and it was within those walls that he had finally perished. Often, I visited this last encampment of the Indian, and wondered about his time.
The valley was abundant with oaks, maples, cottonwoods. At the eastern end of Fort Sill squatted the stockade, a massive and unlovely structure with walls of white rock, three feet thick. Here, being weathered slowly by the years, were the plaques on which I could read of Lieutenants Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman ... commemorating the days when they had passed through in the mid-1840’s, in the midst of the Indian Wars.
With several friends I would climb Signal Mountain, or imitate a mountain goat in scaling the steep bluffs which lay between the Signal Mountain peak and the fort where troops fired blazing shells from their big guns. Most of the time the artillery fired the big guns at night, and sometimes they used tracers. Even when they didn’t, the shells were so hot we could see the incandescent steel arcing its path through the air.
Each exploding shell was another brilliant white flash. A soundless detonation in the dark. Sometimes a battery of guns would fire, the red phantoms would streak in a jumbled group up and over and down, and then the sound, ragged blasts and crumps, would reach us. More silent releases of light, and again a mass of exploding sound snatching at our ears as we watched from the bluffs.
If we looked upward with care, and concentrated, we could see the ragged blue exhausts of the observation planes, circling like droning ghosts in the night sky. This was the best part of the night firings. The Oklahoma night under a full moon was a landscape painted in faint blue and unearthly light. If there were high clouds, then the valley and the mountains beyond would become shrouded in blackness. Nothing was so startling during these times as an observation plane grumbling its way overhead, and then exploding the darkness with a release of flares.
Ever since watching the Three Musketeers perform in the aerial display by the Army’s Air Service, I had special reason for visiting the Rogers Dairy or Fort Sill so that I might watch the planes at Post Field. Before long I came to know by heart the details of every one of the different types of planes at the field.
I identified each of the observation planes and the bombers, and came to recognize the various trainers which visited the grass field. My favorites were still the fighters, especially the wicked-looking little Boeing P-12 biplanes and the sleek, low-wing Boeing P-26, which, we were told, was the deadliest thing in the air. Whenever one of these airplanes passed overhead, I would look up and, at a single glance, identify the type as it sped by.
There were, however, many other things in life besides watching blazing artillery at night or airplanes at Post Field! Between Fort Sill and the mountain stretched a vast reservation where the U.S. Army let their many horses run free, animals from the cavalry and artillery, as well as beautiful polo ponies. The field was about six miles from the Johnson home, in the residential section of Lawton. My friends and I would go in a group to the field; by stretching our legs and trotting we could make it in just over an hour. Before us on the vast plain roamed several hundred horses.
We wanted to ride. At first the animals didn’t share our enthusiasm, and shied from us. This meant we had to catch them, which was easier said than done. We tried everything, including the foolish attempt to catch the horses by running after them. Exhaustion soon proved the futility of this venture.
Experience taught us never to alarm the horses, but to move in quietly and slowly while they surveyed our approach. In time we developed a sure touch. We’d pat an animal gently on his neck and talk soothingly. Then one of us held the horse by his head while another fellow climbed onto his back. When alone, I’d put an arm over the horse’s neck and swing up.
And then—bareback—away we went! We rode Indian style, no ropes, no saddles, just the horse and a boy on top. We would race for miles down the vast pasture land, each of us exhorting his own animal to out-speed the other mounts. We’d ride the horses just as swiftly as they could run, shouting and crying out joyously, racing like the wind, all for the sheer joy of riding.
We each had our favorite mounts, but then the urge to try something new would lead us to other animals. I became good friends with a hitch horse named Baldy, a sorrel with an all-white blaze face. Our mutual good will lasted only so long as I stayed off Baldy’s back. He objected strenuously to being ridden, and when I tried, his friendliness disappeared like a shot out of a gun.
Baldy went wild. He pitched, bucked, reared, and flung himself about in wild gyrations. He did everything that a horse can possibly do to throw me off. Baldy and I had some fine rides together, for every time that I swung onto his back he seemed to go crazy. Finally, when he discovered that he couldn’t get me off, he simply ignored me. I was no more to him than a big, annoying fly he couldn’t shake. He’d calm down and trot off wherever he wanted to go, wholly ignoring Bobby Johnson on his back.
That is, until I dug my heels into his flank. That was it! Baldy went wild again, working frantically and desperately to shake me. Away we’d go, pitching and bucking our way across the fields. I’d shout at the horse, and Baldy would only renew his frenzied efforts to rid himself of me. He never did throw me, and I think that creature finally resigned himself to his fate. He seemed to give up, and I was able to ride him whenever I wanted.
When our day’s racing was over, I’d ride my horse back to the edge of the reservation and slide off slowly. Now it was time to rub or to give him a gentle pat on his neck, to thank him for the day’s fun. Each time I finished riding I was all sweated up from the horse, and my body smell wasn’t one iota different from that of the animal—as Mom and my sisters often told me.
At the fence I’d leave my friends and strike out for home. A good mile and a half lay between the Army reservation and the highway. After a while I think I came to know every prairie-dog hole and every rattler in the fields.
From the highway a side road stretched another four or five miles. I could have walked this way, I suppose, but to make the trip shorter I’d cut across fields, through backyards and over fences. After one of those days of riding, I just never had any trouble falling asleep. Dad said that no sooner did my head hit the pillow than I was a goner.
Two miles west of our house was a little stream, shallow, rock-filled and muddy. It wasn’t anything to look at or to get excited about, but it was a favorite meeting place where I’d get together with my friends.
The lure of the stream was the crayfish, more commonly known to us as crawdads. We’d wade barefooted into the muddy water and move our feet about slowly. Soon the crawdads would become curious and nibble with their pincers at our toes. We reached down and scooped them out. Sometimes we would “fish” for the crawdads. Bacon rind or pork on a string was a perfect bait. The crawdads would snap onto the food and we’d lift them out. We didn’t need any hooks for that!
With a good catch by our sides, we gathered wood and built a small fire. While the wood was started burning, two of the boys cleaned the crawdads and stuck the tails on a stick. Those impromptu meals of crawdad tails, on the bank of the stream, all by ourselves, were fit for a king.
In the country around Lawton we never lacked for things to do. If our taste wanted for something different, we’d all meet at our favorite fishing hole. Farther down the stream from where we fished for crawdads, the banks widened and the water deepened, swirling gently as it flowed over the rocks and rough bottom.
Here we sought what I can only describe, to this day, as some of the most succulent catfish that ever swam in any stream. No fancy fishing tackle for us. If we didn’t have the few cents for the store-bought fishhooks, we’d bend pins into the necessary shape. When each of us had a string of catfish, each plump and running from six to ten inches, we’d hie for home for a family feast.
Many a time our group supplied game meat for the family table. Not of necessity, but from the joy of hunting and the flavor of the wild animals. Rabbits were my favorite to bring home. When I was eleven years old I had a Montgomery Ward six-shot .22 rifle1 (which hangs on the wall of my den today).
The rabbits weren’t our only prey. Moving through the fields and brush, I bagged a plentiful supply of squirrels and doves. There were snakes and prairie dogs to hunt, and some fast and fancy shooting with the .22 would bring down even the skulking coyotes. To say nothing of an uncountable quantity of fence posts and tin cans which we peppered.
While these days of hunting were wonderful, we wanted to really camp out by ourselves, without coming home every night, or sleeping in a bed. We wanted to go out in the woods, just a group of us, on our own, answering only to ourselves. This boyhood dream, by the good graces of membership in the Boy Scouts and understanding parents, was made to come true. Our folks would drive four or five of us out to the Wichita Mountains, and dump us off. For the next ten days to two weeks we were all to ourselves—Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn had nothing on us!
We lived in swimming trunks and tennis shoes, and much of the time even the shoes rested empty by our campsite. Each night we slept in the open, nothing more than the blankets we’d brought providing cover. It never seemed to rain; as well as I can remember, at least, never on any of these camping expeditions.
Two of my closest friends in Lawton, Joe Reed and Wayne King, were classmates with whom I’d grown up. Both their fathers owned airplanes, and ran a little flight school in the town’s “municipal airport” which straddled the edge of Lawton. The “airport” was a grass strip within a mile square of grassland. It boasted one old tin hangar of corrugated metal, and ten to fifteen planes of sundry type and questionable origin.
Joe Reed, Sr., was an old Army pilot who had flown and fought in World War I, and who still maintained active status in the Army Reserve. He was the town postmaster for Lawton, a full-sized job for the population of some twenty thousand people. Reed owned the school – the Joe Reed School of Flying – and Klais King was his manager. Every now and then Joe, Wayne and myself would hike down to the school to watch the airplanes taking off, going through their maneuvers in the air, and practicing landings.
Those were moments filled with both wonder and pleasure as I watched all those planes in the air—and with no small heartache. Once in a while Joe and Wayne would be taken up for rides by their fathers. But not Bobby Johnson! I’d sit on the ground, aching with envy, and bemoan my fate as my friends soared through the air.
You could never have proved it to me then, but being “stuck on the ground” perhaps did me far more good than taking those brief hops would have done. Waiting for my friends, I visited the operations shack, and spent my time talking to pilots, reading pamphlets and instruction booklets, and actually soaking up an invaluable background in aviation and in flying.
But how I wanted to fly! I ached in every bone with the desire to be borne aloft on wings. I hung around the airport, with enormous calf eyes pleading for a flight. I offered to wash airplanes, scrub floors, paint, carry out garbage, dig ditches—anything just to get a ride. Somehow, the offer was never accepted, and I remained forlorn—on the ground.
I saw an opportunity to fly through the Boy Scouts—Troop 39, to which I belonged. We weren’t the number one troop, perhaps, in Merit Badges for cooking and campfires, but we sure were the top group in sports. I represented Troop 39 in boxing and wrestling. I also played center on the hockey team and varied in backfield positions on the football team.
Troop 39 didn’t pass up any opportunities for special events, either. On several occasions barnstormers came to town to put on flying shows. They landed on large open fields near Cameron College, bringing in all different kinds of two-seat and three-seat open-cockpit biplanes. Our entire troop would go out to the fields to help the barnstormer pilots. In addition to their dare-devil acts, the pilots took passengers up for rides. We helped people to and from the planes, and aided the barnstorming group in controlling the crowds.
All this for the promise that we would each get a ride in a plane before the day was over. The promise was worth it; especially to me! Not even the hot, dusty, and crowded fields dampened my enthusiasm, or passing the day without food, or carrying water buckets, or dashing about madly to deliver messages. Anything was worth it—just so long as I’d get my chance to fly.
At the close of each day several scouts would, indeed, get a ride. But somehow, whenever it came my turn to fly, the day would be over. The pilot would grin in a friendly way and say, “Sorry, kid. Got a schedule to keep; I’ve gotta leave. Maybe next time.” And away he would go.
I was twelve years old when the Great Day arrived. I should say the Great Night. It couldn’t have come as a bigger surprise.
A giant (it was a giant in those days) Ford Tri-Motor transport – corrugated skin, three roaring engines, and blazing with all manner of lights – landed at the municipal airport. That pilot sure knew his business.
The Tri-Motor was lit up like a county fairground. Lights had been fastened to the wings and the fuselage until it looked like a big carnival show floating through the night sides.
Dad took the entire family down to watch the Ford taking off and landing at the airport with passengers, for short flights over Lawton, to let the townspeople see what the place looked like at night. It was an eerie sight, and I think perhaps that pilot had once worked at a circus. As the plane flew over the edge of town the pilot released a string of Roman candles. Immediately the sky blossomed forth with a procession of fireballs, brilliant and multicolored, illuminating the entire valley. This pyrotechnic display, of course, caught the interest of people in the town, who flocked by the hundreds to the airport just to see what was going on.
And then, out of the blue, Dad asked the question.
“Son, would you like to go up?”
I climbed aboard. The interior of the Tri-Motor was dark. The smell of gasoline and oil came to me; I was aware of the feel of the metal. Wonderful sensations all; I drank in every moment.
I was tense and breathless as the pilot hit the switches. The engines ground over slowly and abruptly burst into a shattering roar. The airplane shook and vibrated as it rumbled over the ground, taxiing across the field and swinging into position for take-off. From the window I could see the wing outlined dimly against the night sky, and an engine with blue exhaust flames ghosting out from it.
The moment arrived. The roar deepened, increased in volume as the pilot fed power to the engines. I felt a sensation of sudden and rapid movement...a rumbling as the airplane accelerated in its dash over the ground.
I expected – a sudden upward rush, I suppose, a feeling of soaring. There was none of this. Without prelude, the vibration and the bouncing just stopped. The engines roared sweetly, a new note, a throbbing, in their voice.
I could hardly believe it: I was flying! Nose glued to the window, eyes wide open and hungry, I stared out and down at the lights so far below us. I could see for miles and miles. Far off in the distance lights gleamed through the night. I had a feeling of enormous depth, of a vast and endless plain stretching before me.
All too soon, the motion of the airplane changed. We were returning to earth. Wind whistled past the wings and the engines descended in volume to a friendly sigh. A rumble, ever so slight a jar as the wheels touched. Then the vibration and bouncing on the grass as the pilot taxied back to the operations shack.
We had been aloft for fifteen minutes—the best quarter hour of my life!
The .22 was a popular item from Montgomery Ward’s mail-order catalog. A more advanced and modified version of their 1904 rifle, the Western Fields Model 30/31, was outfitted to US troops in the war by Stevens Arms. If Johnson’s six-shot survived, it would be a highly prized collector’s item today.
Image following page, ad from Stevens Catalog No. 53 (1911).
I HAVE KNOWN PILOTS who professed to believe only in the material world. To them the search for reality in their own minds, a seeking and finding of God, was a drastic change in life brought about by the proximity of enemy guns, and the clutch of Death’s hand tightly about a windpipe. Not until then, perhaps, had they found cause or need sufficiently imperative to seek sustenance beyond themselves.
Like the majority of men with whom I fought the enemy, I did not find it necessary to make any such hasty search. My boyhood had been full, indeed; rich, both in material things and the religious beliefs of my family and our church. I learned soon enough that a belief in God is not something to be snatched at in moments of fear, as the straw clutched in desperation by the drowning man. It is something that lies deep within a man as an inner source of strength.
Faith to me is indispensable, yet I came to realize quickly enough that there is no substitute for facing up to the realities of life and sudden death. A man fights with his weapons of skill and courage and belief; skill and courage are not to be found so suddenly as belief; they must be nurtured over the years.
The man who enters combat encased in solid armor plate, but lacking the essential of self-confidence, is far more exposed and naked to death than the individual who subjects himself to battle shorn of any protection but his own skill, his own belief in himself and in his wingmen. Righteousness is necessary for one’s peace of mind, perhaps, but it is a poor substitute for agility with a Thunderbolt and a resolution to meet the enemy under any conditions and against any odds.
Perhaps if I had never kept burning fiercely the desire to fly, to become a fighter pilot, I might not have learned these truths. Certainly I would never have one day found myself sitting within seven tons of deadly fighter plane, with tremendous killing power at my fingertips, as I hurtled through the enemy sides of Germany. The hours I spent more than thirty thousand feet in the bitterly cold air over that alien land were most productive of self-study. Nothing makes a man more aware of his capabilities and of his intrinsic limitations than those moments when he must push aside all the familiar defenses of ego and vanity, and accept reality by staring, with the fear that is normal to a man in combat, into the face of Death.
My reflections on my own conduct and skill in battle enabled me to appreciate the things I had done as a youngster which affected most strongly my future in the Army Air Forces, and my abilities as a pilot and a gunner.
Three specific things shaped my life in these respects. The first was my frequent shooting with my .22 rifle. As a boy I never tired of practicing with the .22, and I expended literally hundreds of rounds shooting at daisies waving in the fields. I hammered away with the small bullets at racing rabbits and scampering woodchucks, small game that blended so well with the matching landscape that my eyes became expert at following the most difficult of moving targets.
Shooting at the crows and swift hawks in Oklahoma did more than anything else to develop a sure gunner’s eye. I learned for myself through constant practice and experience the need for leading a moving target, about bullet drop with distance, compensation for wind effect, and other incidentals of aiming properly. These were the factors which were to become so indispensable, high over Germany, when a well-aimed burst constituted all the difference between defeat and victory, between life and death.
The second lesson came from my boxing experience. Nothing taught me so well the meaning of fear, and what it required to control, or to overcome, that fear. Whenever I was in the ring, I was affected with a strong feeling of anticipation of what might come next that amounted almost to a sense of wonder. I was always tense, literally quivering with excitement when I was to mix it up. I never could tell who, or even what, I might encounter. The not knowing kept me keyed up, ready for and anticipating anything.
Perhaps my friends never realized it, but I used to crawl into the ring. At least, it was to me a reluctant entrance. I never liked to fight. I was afraid to fight! But fear had to be faced. Was there a better way of hiding my distaste, of overcoming this fear, than to stand up to it and fight? This need was imponderable then, but it made sense later and it still does now. After all, when the news got around that a boy didn’t want to fight, that he was afraid to fight, he had better be prepared to defend himself against all comers!
I never lost this sticky sensation of fear until the dreaded moment actually arrived, when I started across the ring to size up my opponent. Invariably it was someone bigger than I was, someone who looked tough, and was tough.
Then I was no longer afraid. I was scared silly. I was so tense that I’d quiver right down to my sneakers.
Finally, the bell. Moving out into the ring; the first hard punch. Then something happened. I didn’t know what it was; I cared even less. When leather smacked me hard in the face, it seemed to knock all the fear right out of me. I no longer cared how big and tough or mean the other guy was. He was hitting me. Hitting me. Things changed. I don’t know how, but I’d come to realize that I wasn’t just standing there, or backing up, or covering the punches. I’d swarm all over my opponent, arms flailing like pistons, fists flying, banging away with all my strength. Somehow, I’d weather all the punches thrown at me, even those that struck home, and constantly I’d be slamming my own right into the target.
I always had the feeling that I must fight my best, that I had to put everything I could into the battle. If my opponent was easy, then this grim determination usually ended the fight in a hurry, with the other boxer flat on his back. But if he was as tough as I always feared he would be, then he was going to have to earn every minute in the ring with me. Because I was so busy swinging that I forgot to be scared!
I was sixteen when I was paired off at the local athletic club against a boy who had done a lot of fighting. He was mean in the ring, and with the kind of reputation for cutting up other fighters that scared me half to death. He was in his early twenties, an old man to me at a bare sixteen. And I was an amateur. He wasn’t. His nose had been broken, he had grotesque cauliflower ears. His cheeks and the area around his eyes had been badly scarred from innumerable ring battles. The only thing that seemed fair about the fight was my weight; at 118 pounds I was within a few pounds of him.
I didn’t know who my opponent would be until I was actually in the ring. For a while I had the floodlights all to myself; no one else appeared. Then along came this character, who vaulted the top rope, like a spring, all determined and cocky, and absolutely ready to beat in my brains. When I saw this pug, I fair to jumped out the other side of the ring.
A close friend, Fred Gray (I worked for him at his cabinet shop), jumped to his feet and yelled that I wasn’t going to fight this pro. Fred raised all kinds of objections, and his voice kept rising. He gesticulated wildly with his hands, and ended up screaming at “Speedy” Sparks, the manager of the athletic club, about the slaughter that would ensue. The slaughter – everyone (including myself) was convinced – of Bobby Johnson.
The crowd in the theater felt equally outraged. Pretty soon the place was bedlam, the people stamping their feet and picking up the chant to prevent the fight.
Well, I couldn’t walk out then! The way the theater crowd was shouting and stamping, you’d think I was a helpless cripple about to be thrown into a pit of starving lions. Maybe the situation was bad, but I couldn’t let things stay this way—the whole theater was trying to save poor little Johnson. The other guys would razz me for months.
I asked the referee to give us our instructions. I stood quietly while this other bird jumped around like a lunatic, shadow boxing, weaving in and out, and putting on what he considered to be a grand and fearsome spectacle.
We both came out with the bell. He danced quickly from his corner; I moved out cautiously in a crouch. As he came in, I aimed for his stomach and with all my strength threw a right. I missed. My fist thudded flush against his heart, a cruel blow that sent him reeling across the ring, where he came off the ropes and collapsed to the canvas. And he stayed down for the count of ten!
Then he jumped to his feet and screamed hysterically that he hadn’t heard the count; he berated the referee in an amazing scene of outraged innocence. The referee was so confused he didn’t know what to do; he turned to me.
“Let him come on!” I shouted. Only one punch had been thrown; this wasn’t the way to stop a fight.
This time my opponent was more cautious. His feet sped across the canvas as he tried to spar with me. He was the real Fancy Dan type, long left hand flicking in and out. But he hadn’t hit me yet, and I figured that he’d never suspect me of going after his heart again.
I ducked to let a jab slip over my shoulder. He was wide open, and I whaled another right that smashed against his heart. His eyes opened wide and his jaw sagged. A sickly, dazed expression spread over his face as he crumpled to the canvas.
This time the referee counted to ten loudly. But when he threw his arms up, the other fighter didn’t move. I was scared again, in a different way. He couldn’t move.
Doctors rushed into the ring, and half dragged and half carried him into the dressing room. I learned later that this man never again climbed through the ring ropes to fight.
That match taught me something important. I learned right then and there that just because a man looks mean and ugly, it doesn’t mean that he’s tough. It just means that somebody might have used his face for a punching bag.
The third thing that in later years came to my assistance was my football experience. I played three years in high school and again in college. I was anything but a fearsome or an imposing figure on the gridiron. In college I weighed an unimpressive 145 pounds. The tackle on my left sagged the scales at 260 pounds, the man on my right was 225 pounds, and the center—the lightest of all—was seventy pounds heavier than I!
In high school I started out on the field as a back. It didn’t take long before I twisted my ankles; the coach shifted me to guard. Mostly I held this position, though sometimes I was used as blocking back, and occasionally moved to center.
Our quarterback at Cameron Junior College was Orban ‘Spec’ Sanders, a man who was a beautiful machine on the gridiron. I played with him often, and his skill on the field was a marvel to behold. The coach forecast that Spec would go a long way. Later, with the football Yankees, he upheld the coach’s prophecy by setting a string of records for the game.
When I was put in leading guard position, I led the team plays. I couldn’t run very fast, but I was shifty on my feet and could dodge about like a greased porker. With my weight and my ability to twist and evade other players, I didn’t get hit very often. But when I did – oh, brother!
Our coach was Jess Thompson, a rugged character who had played center in his own college days. He weighed about 230 pounds and stood five feet eleven inches—every bit of it muscle. He had a neck like a bull, and he not only looked and acted the part, but his bellowing made him sound like an enraged steer.
To condition us Jess didn’t waste time with the recommendations of the state athletic manuals. He’d drag the team out to plowed fields where the furrows were long and deep. Then he’d stand on the side and roar at us to run. It was a most revealing training system. It either broke your legs or made you into a hell of a ballplayer. With all our gear on, and leaping like frenzied stags across those furrows in that Oklahoma sun of 117 degrees, we felt as if we were sweating bullets.
Thompson never accepted excuses. He wanted the best team there was, and to play under him you just had to be good. One of our backs moved like a bolt of lightning. He was too fast to be caught by anyone on the team. The only way to stop him was to intercept him as he tore down the field.
His speed made him a terrific weapon in a closely fought game. Thompson never relented in training that boy to develop more and more speed. We’d sit on the side of the field as the coach sent our star runner dashing down the furrows. He’d roar at him, “Run, boy! There’s an old lady leading a cow wants to git by! Good Lord, what for you want to rest? C’mon, boy, RUN!” While Jess Thompson gave free rein to his thundering voice and his scathing denunciations of the team as a pack of half-witted, fumble-fingered, crippled morons, every one of us came to recognize the true friend that our coach could be—and was.
Jess gave me one bit of advice which stuck hard with me for years and, if nothing else, proved a boon to me psychologically. Since I was the squirt on the team, he’d pull me aside before a particularly rough game, look me in the eyes, and say, “Now go out there and get ’em. Don’t forget that they get into their pants one leg at a time, just like you do....”
I never forgot those words. They often came back to me in combat when the stakes weren’t touchdowns, but death.
I’d be boring in on a head-on pass with a Jerry. It was a sight to unnerve the strongest of men. I’d stare at the German fighter as it rushed at me, wings and nose ablaze with its firing guns and cannon.
I was just plain scared! Then, so many times, I told myself, “Johnson – that’s no superman out there. He gets into his pants one leg at a time, just like you do.”
And it never failed me. I’d bore right in, that Thunderbolt of mine and its eight flaming guns a lot more murderous-looking than the Kraut fighter. I used to wonder just how scared that Jerry was.
IMAGE FOLLOWING PAGE: Student fliers with Piper J-3s under the Civilian Pilot Training Program where Johnson studied.
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