Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Providence native recalls World War II service in book

Seeks to reconnect with local roots

J-E Editor

John R. Johnson Jr. is a name that might not be familiar to many people left in Webster County, but he remembers his life in the small town of Providence fondly. Fondly enough that his next goal is to complete a book about his life here, growing up in the western Kentucky coalfields.

A letter asking for help contacting people that might remember him  and want to help share info for his book is how I first became acquainted with Mr. Johnson, but it was clear from the start that his story was one that needs to be shared with everyone.

In December of 2013, Johnson published a memoir called “Un-Armed, Un-Armored and Un-Escorted: A World War II C-47 Airborne Troop Carrier Pilot Remembers”.

In honor of Memorial Day and all of the veterans it represents, I would like to share a little bit about a veteran who grew up right here in Webster County.

“J.R” Johnson Jr.—or ‘Buster’ as he was known early on—was born on March 22, 1922 at 409 Maple Street in Providence. His parents were John Riley Johnson Sr. and Zita Marguerite. J.R. was one of seven children born to the couple.

As a young man he worked as a delivery boy on the streets of Providence for both the Providence Enterprise (predecessor of The Journal-Enterprise) and the Madisonville Messenger. Later on he would work helping to fold copies of the Enterprise and help pressman Hoket Cole feeding paper into the linotype machine.

During Johnson’s junior year in high school, his family moved to Henderson and then to Frankfort, where he graduated from Frankfort High School in 1940.

By the time the US joined World War II, Johnson was already in the US Army Air Corps (USAAC). In fact, on December 7, 1941, as the Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor, he was back in the states making his first solo flight in a Piper J-3 Cub.

“I never dreamed that I was flying a small aircraft the type of which would subsequently be used to train U S Army Air Corps (USAAC) glider pilots,” Johnson wrote in the introduction to his memoir. “Nor was I aware of the developing relationship between the “Cub” and the Waco CG 4A glider used in the Airborne Invasions of Sicily, Normandy and Holland. Neither did I realize that within less than 36 months, as a USAAC pilot, I would be learning to fly a glider.”

Glider use by the USAAC came to prominence briefly during WWII. These engineless aircraft were towed into the air and most of the way to their target by  a C-47, the Air Corps twin engine transport—a military version of the domestic Douglas DC-3—and then would be released to fly soundlessly to a landing zone (LZ) carrying troops and equipment.
Johnson would train on both the glider and the C-47 in the coming year.

On October 22, 1943 Johnson and his flight crew arrived in Castelvetrano, Sicily to train.
“In review of my flight log, and the experiences over the next 18 days, I find that I accumulated over 32 hours of flight time, about equally divided between pilot and copilot duties,” he said.

It was the time in the pilot seat of the C-47 that would serve Johnson the most.

“The only combat glider support mission in which I participated was the second day, 18 September 1944, of Operation Market Garden, in support of the Allied advance through Holland and the Maas River crossing to enter Germany,” Johnson said. “This mission was for follow-up support to the Airborne Forces that had been dropped on the previous day to capture bridges and critical transportation centers to support the advancing Allied troops.”
While towing his glider into position near the LZ, his C-47 took a hit to the fuel tank.

Although his glider pilot managed to release, Johnson’s plane  burst into flames and started to lose altitude.

“Regaining some control, I was able to climb back to about 300 feet altitude and order the crew to jump, which they did safely,” he recalls. “I had to crash land and escape.”

But he did not manage to escape. Johnson was captured by German soldiers, one of which informed him that, “For you, the war is over.”

In his book Johnson wrote that he had crash landed only a few hundred yards from the command post of Hermann Göring, commander of Jagdgeschwader 1, one of Germany’s best known fighter squadrons. He soon became a prisoner of war (POW) at Stalag Luft 1, near Barth, Germany, where he would stay until the end of the war. Among his bunk mates, and the most senior officer in his compound was USAAC Colonel Henry Spicer, an ace from the 357th Fighter Group.

Spicer had been commander of his unit less than a month before being captured.
Johnson writes more about his time at Stalag Luft 1 and about Colonel Spicer in his book.
Following the war Johnson married his high school sweetheart, Lou Avah Pevlor. He was then released from the USAAC as a First Lieutenant, subsequently promoted to the rank of Captain in the USAAC Reserve while pursuing a college degree at Asbury College. After a year he transferred to the University of Kentucky, and was still enrolled at UK when he volunteered and was accepted to the newly founded United States Airforce (USAF).

His immediate assignment was to the Air University, with duty at UK until receipt of his degree, and with flight status with the KY Air National Guard in Louisville as pilot. Upon graduating with a BS degree in Industrial Chemistry, he was assigned to Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio and worked as a Design and Development Engineer at the Aero Medical Laboratory.

In 1950 Johnson was selected to attend Ohio State University to major in Nuclear Chemistry. Following his MS graduation from OSU he held other and various assignments, along with appropriate promotions, and received additional education. This included education and training at Air Command and Staff School; Industrial War College; US Army War College in Pennsylvania and several other lesser courses such as Space Orientation and Military Law.

While at The Army war College he was enrolled in night classes as a graduate student of George Washington University and earned an MA Degree in International Relations. His last promotion was to full Colonel in 1963.

Following his promotion to Colonel,  Johnson retired from the Air Force while holding the position of Deputy Director for Scientific and Technical Intelligence with the Defense Intelligence Agency at The Pentagon, in Washington, DC.

He spent another twenty years working in Washington before retiring to his present home in Granite Bay, CA.

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