Biography of Robert S. Johnson

Col, Robert S. Johnson, 61st Ftr Sqdn, 56th Ftr Grp, 8th A.F., U.S.A.A.F.

     We have lost another Great One. Robert S. Johnson, an Eighth Air Force fighter pilot credited with shooting down 27 Luftwaffe aircraft in an 11-month period, died in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Sunday, 27 December 1998. He was 78-years old and lived in Lake Wylie, South Carolina.

     Johnson was born in Lawton, Oklahoma in 1920. When he was 8-years-old, his father took him to an air show at Post Field in nearby Fort Sill. He later said, "Then and there I changed my goal from cowboy to Army aviator." He began flying when he was 13, got his private pilot's license the day before he turned 16, and after attending junior college in Lawton, enlisted in the US Army Air Forces on 11 November 1941. He was accepted into the aviation cadet program in December 1941, completed training and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in July 1942. On 19 July 1942, he was assigned to the 61st Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Group then undergoing training and testing of the new Republic P-47B Thunderbolt at Bridgeport, Connecticut. The 56th Fighter Group, consisting of the 61st, 62d and 63d Fighter Squadrons, was alerted for overseas movement in December 1942 and sailed on the Queen Elizabeth on 6 January 1943 for England. HQ of the 61st was established at Kings Cliffe, Northamptonshire on 13 January. The 56th made two other moves in 1943; the first to Horsham St Faith, Norfolk on 5 April and Halesworth, Suffolk on 9 July.

     The 56th Fighter Group, initially under the command of Colonel Hubert A Zemke, had numerous claims to fame, e.g.:

     1. It was credited with destroying 985.5 Luftwaffe aircraft more than any other Eighth Air Force fighter group. The consisted of 674.5 aircraft shot down and 311 aircraft destroyed on the ground.

     2. It had more fighter aces than any other USAAF fighter group in the world.

     3. The two top aces in the European Theater of Operations, Francis Gabreski and Johnson flew with the group.

     4. It was the first USAAF group to fly the P-47 and the only Eighth Air Force group to fly this aircraft throughout the war.

     Johnson flew 91 missions with the 56th Fighter Group, all in razorback P-47C's and D's. The group, later nicknamed Zemke's Wof Pack, flew it's first mission on 13 April 1943. Johnson scored his first "kill," a Focke Wulf FW 190, on 13 June northwest of Ypres, Belgium. On that day, the 56th took off from Horsham St Faith at 0900 hours for a sweep over Gravelines, Bailleul, Aeltre and Knocke. While flying at 27,000-feet (8,230 meters) east of Bruges , the group spotted about 20 FW 190's at about 20,000-feet (6,096 meters). Leading the first section of the 61st Fighter Squadron, Zemke took the seven P-47's in a dive to attack a four-plane FW 190 section. They approached undetected from astern and Zemke shot down one; opened fire on a second aircraft and saw hits on the wings before it dived away; and then found himself on the tail of a third FW 190 which he shot down. Johnson spotted the FW 190's at the same time as Zemke and dived out of formation, attacked the leader of the section and shot him down. But Johnson broke one of the cardinal rules of air combat, i.e., you do not leave the formation. In the politically correct 1990's we would say that Johnson was coached by fellow members of the group for his indiscretion; in the politically incorrect 1940's we would say Johnson got his ass chewed out by Zemke.

     On 26 June 1943, the 56th was one of three groups tasked with supporting B-17's attacking targets in France. Johnson's aircraft took 21 cannon shells from a FW 190 and he was burned, blinded and wounded in the right leg and nose. He attempted to bail out but could not get the canopy open so he headed back to England. Over the English Channel, another FW 190 flown by Oberst Egon Mayer of J.G. 2 attacked Johnson's crippled aircraft. Mayer had exhausted his cannon ammunition and began shooting up the P-47 with machine gun fire. When Mayer ran out of ammunition, he pulled alongside, wagged his wings and peeled off. Johnson made it as far as Manston, Kent and landed the P-47C-2-RE, USAAF s/n 41-6235 "All Hell," coded HV-P; the aircraft was a write off.

     Johnson got his second victory on 19 August 1943; in October 1943, he got three more making him an ace. In November 1943, he got two and three in December making him a double ace. The year 1944 was a banner year for him; he got four in January, two in February and six in March. He was promoted to Captain in April and got three aircraft that month and two more on his last mission on 8 May 1944 giving him a total of 27, the first USAAF pilot in Europe to break Eddie Rickenbacker's World War I record. He was also the second USAAF pilot to break Rickenbacker's record; Richard I. Bong shot down his 26th Japanese aircraft on 11 April 1944. After his 27th victory, Johnson was promoted to Major and transferred to the 62d Fighter Squadron as Operations Officer. He never flew another combat mission.

     Because of his record number of "kills," Johnson was ordered home for War Bond tours and departed England on 6 June 1944. He was reunited with his wife Barbara on his return and both he and his wife reported to the White House where they was greeted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Later that day, he and his wife appeared in the visitors' gallery of the US Senate and the senators rose and gave him a standing ovation. The day was topped off by having tea with Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House.

     The next day, Johnson went to the Republic plant at Farmingdale, Long Island, New York where he again was applauded by thousands of workers who were building P-47's.

     For his accomplishments in WWII, Major Johnson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (the Army's second highest award), the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medals and the Purple Heart.

     Johnson's record of 27 victories makes him:

     1. Tied for second highest number of victories in the European Theater of Operations, and

     2. Tied for fourth highest number of victories in the USAAF during WWII, and

     3. Tied for fourth highest number of victories in the Air Service/AAC/AAF/USAF Aces of all wars.

     After the war, Johnson remained in the Air Force Reserve retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. He also worked for Republic Aviation as an executive for 18-years and then worked in the insurance industry. Johnson's wife died in 1995 and he left no immediate survivors.

     Johnson wrote an autobiography, "Thunderbolt!," in 1958, ( I am told it is by The Honoribus Press, Spartanburg, SC, $19.95). Remembering his fighter pilot days, Johnson once said, "I'm a fatalist, a strong believer that when your time is up, you're gone, out of here. Why worry about that?" But he also said, "I was always scared-that was what made me move quick."

     Requiescat in pace Colonel Johnson.

----Submitted to me by veterans of the 8th Air Force

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