S. Johnson survived an awful beating one day in June, 1943, when a
Luftwaffe pilot shot up his helpless (but very rugged) P-47 Thunderbolt.
If that German pilot ever knew whom he
hadn't killed, he surely lived to regret it. Bob Johnson would go on to
score 27 aerial victories in his time with the 56th Ftr. Grp., one of the
top scoring groups in the ETO, under its great leader, Col. Hub Zemke. The
top two aces of the 8th AF, Johnson and Gabby Gabreski, both flew P-47s
with "Zemke's Wolfpack."
Growing Up in Oklahoma
Robert S. Johnson first saw airplanes in
the summer of 1928, 3 pursuit bi-planes flown by the Army Air Corps "Three
Musketeers" (the barn-storming era equivalent of the Navy's Blue Angels),
performing impressively wild aerobatics over Lawton, Oklahoma. His Dad had
taken eight-year Bob Johnson to an air show, a big event at Post Field,
attended by hundreds of people. Young Bob sat on his Dad's shoulders,
watching the bi-planes cavort in sky and staring at the huge bombers with
their gigantic wooden propellers.
Post Field was part of Fort Sill, an
historic Army outpost; here Geronimo himself had been imprisoned and
ultimately perished. In the Indian Wars of the 1840's young officers like
Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant, and W.T. Sherman had passed through Fort Sill.
After the air show, Bob Johnson fell in love with flying and spent all the
time he could at Post Field, learning to identify Boeing P-12 bi-planes
and the low-winged P-26s, and aching for a chance to fly. But there were
many other things in life for an active youngster in Lawton in those
years: trying to catch the free-running Cavalry mounts, fishing for
crayfish and catfish, cooking the fish over open fires on camp-outs, and
hunting rabbits and squirrels with a .22. He was a Boy Scout, a member of
Troop 39, a competitive boxer, and a football player.
In his autobiography, Thunderbolt!,
he described the usefulness of this background to his accomplishments as a
Shooting birds familiarized him with
aiming a gun, compensating for bullet drop, and most importantly, the
necessity for leading a moving target
Boxing, in particular one match where
he came up against a formidable opponent, taught him how to overcome, or
least to control and channel, his fear.
His football coach first impressed on
him the simple fact that the "other guy" was probably just as scared as
he was. Many times, when starting aerial combat, he thought back to that
coach's advice, and realized that his adversaries "put their pants on
one leg at a time."
From the age of eleven years, he began
working after school, weekends, and summers in a woodworking shop, doing
tough, heavy labour, like guiding heavy beams through a big saw. He earned
$4.00 per week, which permitted him to take flying lessons in a small
Taylorcraft. After high school, he started at Cameron Junior College, and
promptly enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training program, which allowed
him to fly without paying for lessons. What could have been better than
In mid-1941, at age 21, he signed up for
the Army Air Corps cadet program, and survived the excruciating
indignities of the medical exam, unlike one poor fellow who was perspiring
heavily. The Draconian doctor took one look at this sweaty candidate, and
pronounced "You're too nervous to be a good pilot. You're excused. ...
Johnson began his military experience at
Kelly Field in San Antonio, as a member of Class 42F. His life here, at
the bottom on the military pecking order, began an ongoing hazing process,
replete with "HIT A BRACE, MISTER!" and "YOU HIT A BIG ONE, MISTER!" and
endless 'walking tours' where the cadets literally cleared the snow with
their constant marching. After Pearl Harbour, he shipped out to Sikeston,
Missouri for Primary Flight Training. Johnson recalled that not too
much changed for him and the other cadets right after Pearl Harbour. They
knew they had a lot of flying to learn, and that's what they focused on.
In Primary they flew the Fairchild
PT-19A, a 175HP low-winged monoplane, and the flying open-cockpit Stearman
PT-18, a 225 HP biplane. The hazing continued, with lots of "HIT A BRACE,
MISTER!" and one memorable episode where the physically fit Johnson had to
lead his classmates around in a "duckwalk," a challenging exercise where
the victim had to grasp his ankles and then walk around, roughly
resembling a duck. But Johnson thought the hazing was worthwhile; shortly
the cadets would face real combat and have to operate as a team. Better to
weed out those with weaknesses early.
At Sikeston, he learned the basic
aerobatic manoeuvres: the snap roll, the slow roll (which he never liked),
the barrel roll, etc. He also married Barbara Morgan, his high school
sweetheart towards the end of his time at Sikeston. They started their
honeymoon in a bus full of Army cadets, en route to San Antonio. Here he
reported to Randolph Field to begin Basic Flight Training in February
1942. Now real flying began; he learned instrument flying with the
assistance of the Link trainer and several pilot instructors. He
unfortunately became engaged in a battle of wills with one of his
instructors, a Lt. Burgess. But before it came to a head (and, by
definition, Johnson would have lost), Burgess was transferred, and
replaced by Lt. Maloney, who was a great flier and a great teacher.
As the end of Basic Flight Training
approached, the cadets had to indicate their choices for the next phase of
training: either multi-engine (bombers) or single-engine (fighters). While
his heart was in flying fighters, conversations with other cadets
convinced him that his long-term interests (post-war jobs with commercial
airlines) lie with multi-engine training. Thus he indicated his choices.
But he was thrilled when the Air Corps ignored his specified request, and
instead ordered him to report on July 19, 1942, for fighter training with
the 61st Fighter Squadron of the 56th Fighter Group.
As ordered he reported to Captain Loren
McCollom, the Squadron CO, and was made to feel right at home. The 61st
was then based at Bridgeport, CT, but they would go up to Bradley Field
temporarily to pick up the brand-new Republic P-47 Thunderbolts. Johnson
spent the rest of 1942 at Bridgeport, with the 56th, learning all about
and flying the massive, 2,000HP fighter. The great Hub Zemke took command
of the 56th FG in September of 1942, and on Thanksgiving Day, the group
was ordered to be ready to ship out for Great Britain.
After interminable delays, he mad his
sad good-byes to his wife Barbara, and boarded the Queen Elizabeth liner
on January 6, 1943. The one-time luxury liner had been converted to a
troop transport, and was packed with American soldiers. In a harrowing,
unescorted passage, the speedy liner sailed for England, counting on her
speed and unusual course to avoid the U-boats. One tragic night, the cry
went up, "MAN OVERBOARD!" and someone tossed out a life preserver. But the
big ship sped on.
The 56th Fighter Group arrived in
mid-January, and set up shop at Kings Cliffe airfield. The pilots arrived
before their planes, and occupied themselves in military and non-military
activities (such as a drunken bicycle race and shooting up the barracks
with a .45). But one day, they heard a loud, distinctive rumble in they
sky, and they all raced to the windows, as one pilot shouted out "It's a
47!" Their aircraft had arived.
The RAF fliers helped orient them to
combat in the ETO, and on one memorable day, Johnson out-manoeuvred a
Spitfire pilot, using the Thunderbolt's superior barrel-roll and diving
capabilities to get behind the more agile Spitfire. Shortly, the Group
moved over to Kings Cliffe airfield, and flew it first combat missions in
Missions: April-May, 1943
On April 17th, the 56th was scheduled
for a "rodeo" (fighter sweep) over Walcheren, a large Dutch island; German
opposition was questionable. Just like in the movies, they synchronized
watches at 10:01. Despite his excitement at his first combat mission,
Johnson was determined to stay in formation, as ordered. His crew chief,
Pappy Gould, had tuned the engine perfectly, and even sanded and waxed the
Thunderbolt's aluminium skin, to lessen air resistance and add a few MPH
that might make the difference. Everything went perfectly: run-up,
take-off, climb to 31,000 foot altitude, the formation flying over the
target. Except for one minor detail - the Germans neglected to show up.
Johnson's long-awaited first combat mission was a non-event. After all the
preparation and hype, he "felt like an idiot".
Later that month, he and several other
pilots who had not completed the fighter pilot's gunnery requirement, went
to Goxhill (a miserable place, full of coal dust) for gunnery instruction.
They practiced shooting at a towed target sleeve, but he never "got the
hang of it," achieving a high score (against the sleeve) of 4.5%, below
the requirement of 5%. Thus, the second highest scoring ace of the ETO
never actually qualified as a fighter pilot! (And the top ace, Gabreski,
had almost washed out of flight training in 1941.)
The days and missions passed, but
Johnson didn't see any Germans for a while.
April 29 - The 56th went up in force
and got badly shot up, but Johnson was not flying that day.
May 3 - He participated in a fighter
sweep, but the Germans stayed down.
May 5 - A scheduled bomber escort
mission scrubbed due to bad weather.
May 7 - He drew the 'spare'
assignment, to replace anyone who might have to turn back with engine
trouble, but he wasn't needed.
May 13 - Another bomber escort
mission, with Johnson grounded.
But on May 14th, he received his
baptism of fire, a "ramrod" (bomber escort) over Antwerp, which the
Germans usually defended. Three 16-plane squadrons of the 56th went up
that day, to help shepherd a force of about thirty B-17s. As they flew
over the Dutch coast, heavy flak opened up, ripping into the bombers
flying at lower altitude. Hub Zemke, leading the flight, plunged after
some bandits, with Johnson and the other two members of the flight "glued
to his tail." Eight more German planes came after Zemke's flight, and the
four Thunderbolts turned to meet them head on. The antagonists flashed by
each other, firing, and Johnson's guns stuck in the 'ON' position despite
his repeated flicking of the arming switch. As he hammered on the trigger
and switches, trying to shut off his guns, two Focke-Wulfs passed through
his bullet stream and were damaged. When Johnson finally got his guns off,
he was alone. He had been constantly warned against this exact
predicament, a novice pilot alone and at low altitude to boot.
Looking for friendly aircraft, he
spotted eight blunt-nosed fighters and sped towards them, in hopes of
joining up. His recognition skills needed work, because they were FW-190s.
he firewalled the throttle and headed the other way. Keeping maximum speed
all the way across the Channel, he gratefully landed, only to have Hub
Zemke chew him out for undisciplined flying. It hadn't been Johnson's
intention, but this mission began his reputation in the Group as a 'wild
June 26, 1943 mission details:
Early in the morning forty-eight
Thunderbolts took off from the advanced base at Manston. Having previously
been criticized for going off on his own, this morning Johnson resolved to
stay in formation. The three squadrons of the 56th Fighter Group were all
up: the 61st (Johnson's), 62nd, and 63rd. Before the mission, Johnson felt
the cold fear that he always felt, and which he was able to channel into
higher alertness. They flew up, over the Channel, into France, and soon
spotted sixteen Fw-190s. Before Johnson could communicate or coordinate
with his flight, he was hit. 20mm cannon shells ripped through his plane,
smashing the canopy, punching holes in the plane, and inspiring in Johnson
an overwhelming urge to bail out. More explosions smashed the plane, and
Johnson's frantic "Mayday!" calls drew no response. Fire began to envelope
The Thunderbolt spun crazily out of his
control and the twisted and jammed canopy frame resisted his repeated,
superhuman, full-body efforts to open it. As he struggled vainly with the
canopy, the engine fire miraculously went out, but he could hardly see, as
oil spewed back from the battered engine. He tried to squeeze out through
the broken glass of the canopy, but the opening was just too small for
both him and his chute. Trapped inside the P-47, he next decided to try to
crash-land and evade. He turned the plane south, toward Spain - the
recommended evasion route. After struggling with hypoxia and
hallucinations(?), his thoughts came back into focus and he realized that
the aircraft was still flying fairly well. He headed back for England,
counting on his high altitude to help him make a long, partially-powered
glide back home.
The instrument panel was shattered. The
wind constantly blew more oil and hydraulic fluid into his cut up face and
eyes. He had neglected to wear his goggles that morning, and any attempt
to rub his eyes burned worse than ever. He and his plane were horribly
shot up, but incredibly he was still alive. He made for the Channel,
desperate to escape the heavily defended enemy territory.
Swivelling constantly, he froze in
horror as he spotted a plane approaching him, an Fw-190, beautifully
painted in blue with a yellow cowling. Johnson was totally helpless, and
just had to wait for the German to get him in his sights and open up. The
German closed in, taking his time with the crippled American fighter.
Johnson hunched down behind his armour-plated seat, to await the
inevitable. The German opened up, spraying the plane with 30-caliber
machine gun fire, not missing, just pouring lead into the battered
Thunderbolt. Johnson kicked his rudder left and right, slowing his plane
to a crawl, and fired back as the German sped out in front of him.
The Focke-Wulf easily avoided the
gunfire from the half-blinded Johnson, and circled back, this time pulling
level with him. The pilot examined the shattered Thunderbolt all over,
looking it up and down, and shook his head in mystification. He banked,
pulled up behind Johnson again, and opened up with another burst. Somehow
the rugged Republic-built aircraft stayed in the air. The German pulled
alongside again, as they approached the southern coast of the Channel.
Still flying, Johnson realized how fortunate it was that the German found
him after his heavy 20mm cannons were empty.
As they went out over the Channel, the
German get behind and opened up again, but the P-47 kept flying. Then he
pulled up alongside, rocked his wings in salute, and flew off, before they
reached the English coast. Johnson had survived the incredible,
point-blank machine gun fire, but still had to land the plane. He
contacted Mayday Control by radio, who instructed him to climb if he can.
The battered plane climbed, and after more communication, headed for his
base at Manston. Landing was touch and go, as he had no idea if the
landing gear would work. The wheels dropped down and locked and he landed
Johnsonn's opponent that day was the
Luftwaffe Ace Egon Mayer: his rank was Oberstleutnant (Lt.Col). My
friend, Diego Zampini, supplied the following details on Mayer:
He started to score victories in June
1940 (during the French campaign) with the famous JG 2 "Richthofen," and
participated in the Battle of Britain, scoring several kills but being
also downed four times. In July 1941 his tally increased to 20, and
during only 21 days in the summer of 1942 he shot down 16 British
fighters, being promoted to Gruppenkommandeur of III/JG 2. He was
a Major when he met Robert Johnson’s P-47 on June 26 1943 and damaged it
very seriously (Mayer at that flew time a Fw 190A-5). On this day the
61st and 56th FG were flying escort for 250 B-17s against Villacoublay
airfield, being intercepted by Mayer’s unit, which shot down three B-17s
of the 384th BG in head-on attacks. About that time when Mayer and Georg-Peter
Eder created the deadly head-on attacks against the B-17s. On September
16 1943, the recently promoted Oberstleutnant Egon Mayer (now
Kommodore of JG 2) shot down three Flying Fortresses in less than 20
minutes. He achieved his 100th kill in February 1944, but he was shot
down and killed by a Thunderbolt on March 2 1944 over France while he
was trying to attack an Allied bomber. Mayer was only 27 years old.
(Source: Microsoft Flight Combat Simulator: in the section "Luftwaffe
Not long before he passed away in
December, 1998, Robert S. Johnson was interviewed by Colin D. Heaton, of
Military History magazine. Excerpts of that interview follow:
Tell us about some of the types of missions that the 56th Fighter Group
We started flying bomber escort. The first missions were just flights
over the coastline into France to get a feel for the terrain and the
enemy-controlled area. We occasionally met the enemy over the North Sea,
and sometimes they came over to visit us. They would strafe the fields
and that type of thing. As time went on, we pushed them back from the
coastline, but that comes later in the story. That was where I received
my combat and aerial gunnery training, against the best the Germans had.
That's true, you were flying against Jagdgeschwader 2 (JG.2) and JG.26 a
lot--and they were definitely a sharp group of pilots.
Yes, that's correct. They were at Abbeville and along the coast, right
across from us.
understand that Oberstleutnant Hans Philipp, leader of JG.1, was
one of your victories?
That was on October 8, 1943. My wingman and I had become separated, as
sometimes happens in combat. We were trying to find some friendly
airplanes to fly home with. I had just shot down a Messerschmitt Bf-110,
which was my fourth kill. As I pulled up from that dive I saw four
FW-190s attacking the bombers. I rolled over until I was upside down so
I could watch them, as they were some 5,000 feet below me. I was
inverted and continued my dive, shooting while pushing the nose forward
to give the necessary lead for my bullets to intercept one of the
planes. I was shooting at the leader, and his number three or four man
pulled his nose up, shooting at me as I was coming down. I continued the
attack, and just as I hit the leader, knocking him down, I felt a thump
in my airplane. How badly I was hit I didn't know, as I was very busy. I
levelled out after that, and I found out 50 years later that my fifth
victory was Hans Philipp, a 206-victory ace from the Russian Front. I
pulled up right in the path of a group of Bf-110s and FW-190s coming in
behind the four I had engaged. I immediately threw the stick left and
dropped the nose. Nothing happened when I hit left rudder, and then I
knew that my rudder cable was shot away. I had no rudder control at all,
only trim tabs.
went through your mind at that time?
Well, the main thing was to get clear of that cluster of enemy fighters.
I dived away with the throttle wide open, and I saw some friendly P-47s
and joined up with them. My first thought was to bail out, but I pulled
up alongside them and found I could still fly, even with 35 feet of
rudder cable piled up in the cockpit. Those planes were from the 62nd
Squadron, part of our group. They said, "Sure, come aboard." Ralph
Johnson turned out to be leading the flight. I still had the throttle
wide open, and he said, "Jesus Christ, Johnson, cut it back!" I was
running away from them. Well, I chopped the throttle back and we
returned to England, landing at Boxted, which was the first base we came
to. Ironically, we were later stationed there as a group. There was one
little opening in the clouds below, and I saw there were some runways.
At the time, we had a bomber and a Piper Cubtype airplane ahead of us,
and we let them land first. They said, "Bob, since you're banged up, you
go in first." I told them: "No, I have plenty of fuel, and if I mess it
up none of you could get in. I'll just stay up here and come in last."
They all landed and got out of the way. I came in a little hot, but I
still had aileron control--no problem there. I came in, touched the
wheels first, then the tail wheel dropped. I had to hold the left rudder
cable in my hand so that I could get to my brakes. The minute I touched
down I was pulling on the cable, using the brakes, and was able to stop.
I pulled off the runway in case anyone had to come in behind me. I
climbed out and walked the entire perimeter of that base; I could not
see due to the foggy weather. I later found the other guys at the
control tower, waiting on me. The next morning we looked at the
airplane, which was only 50 yards from the tower, but I had walked in
the opposite direction for about 2.5 miles to get to that point. We had
some guys come over and put a new rudder cable in.
us about some of your most memorable combat missions.
Well, four P-47 groups pushed the Germans back from the French and Dutch
coasts to about a north-south line from Kiel to Hanover. They knew what
our range was because they had captured a couple of P-47s and they knew
it was a big gas eater. They set their defensive line at the limit of
our operational range, where we had to turn back. On March 6, however,
we had one of the biggest aerial battles right over Dümmer Lake. They
attacked the bombers, and about 69 of the heavies were shot down. I had
eight guys to protect the bombers against about 150 German fighters, so
we were not very effective at that time. We were split into groups A and
B, spreading ourselves thin since the Germans had not come up to fight.
They showed up then on March 6, 8 and 15, and I was on all three
missions. I was in Group B on March 8 and Group A on the other days,
which was right up in front. I was the lead plane on those occasions. We
lost 34 bombers on March 8, and on the 15th I was the lead plane moving
north trying to find the Germans. Well, I found them. There were three
groups of Germans with about 50 planes per group, and the eight of us
went right into them head on. Two groups were level, coming
horizontally, and the third was up high as top cover. We went in, since
we had no choice, and fired line abreast. That stalled them a little
bit. I was pushing every button I could find on my radio, including SOS.
I gave the location where I found the Germans and what they were. In
just a matter of minutes we had scores of planes--P-47s, North American
P-51s and Lockheed P-38s. It was a big turmoil, but we lost only one
bomber that day, due to flak. Usually when we could find no Germans in
the air on the way home, we would drop down near the treetops and strafe
anything of military value--airfields, marshaling yards, trains, boats,
anything like that. Later, the Ninth Air Force took that up as they
pushed ahead of our ground forces.
know that ground attack was not considered a choice assignment.
I think that is another good reason why I'm still alive. An awful lot of
guys who flew aerial combat with me ended up either as POWs or badly
shot up doing that kind of business. Also, after my first victory I had
a reputation as a sort of a wild man, and other pilots would say, "Don't
fly with Johnson, he'll get you killed." Later they decided to make me a
flight leader and then a squadron leader. I felt that even though I was
a leader, the other guys were as good as I was, and we decided that if
they were in a good firing position, they should have the lead. In our
one flight of eight boys we had the four leading aces in Europe. Then we
got aggressive, and everyone became competitive. We were competing not
only against the guys in our squadron but also against other squadrons.
Later, it was our group against other groups, that kind of thing. We had
"Gabby" Gabreski, myself, Jerry Johnson, Bud Mahurin and Joe Powers, who
was one of our leaders at that time. He was killed in Korea when his
engine was hit as he was trying to make it back across Inchon Bay on
January 18, 1951. He went down with his plane.
Pilots generally swear by their aircraft. Günther Rall and Erich
Hartmann praised the Messerschmitt Bf-109, Erich Rudorffer and Johannes
Steinhoff the Me-262, and Buddy Haydon the P-51 Mustang. I have to say
after seeing all of the old photos of the various Thunderbolts and
others that were shot up, I can't imagine any other plane absorbing that
much damage and still flying. What is your opinion of your aircraft?
This is very similar to the German debate. As far as the 109, all of the
German pilots loved that plane, but the FW-190 was harder to shoot down.
Just like the controversy over the P-51 and P-47. The P-47 was faster;
it just did not have the climb and range the Mustang did. But it had
speed, roll, dive and the necessary ruggedness that allowed it to do
such a great job in the Ninth Air Force. As far as aerial kills go, we
met and beat the best the Luftwaffe had when we first got there. It was
the P-47 groups that pushed them back, as I said before. The P-51s had
the advantage of longer range, and they were able to hit even the
training schools, hitting boys just learning to fly. As the war dragged
on, many of the old German veterans had been killed--so much of the
experience was gone. As far as the 109 versus 190 argument, the 109 had
the liquid-cooled engine whereas the 190 had an air-cooled radial
engine, much like ours. One hit in the cooling system of a Messerschmitt
and he was going down. Also, none of the German fighters were as rugged
as a P-47. When I was badly shot up on June 26, 1943, I had twenty-one
20mm cannon shells in that airplane, and more than 200 7.92mm
machine-gun bullets. One nicked my nose and another entered my right
leg, where the bullet split in half. I still have those two little
pieces, by the way; they went in just under the skin. I had been hurt
worse playing football and boxing. However, I had never been that
scared, I'll tell you that. I was always scared--that was what made me
move quick. "Hub" Zemke liked the P-51 because it had great range, but
he put one in a dive and when he pulled out he ripped the wings off that
airplane--that was how he became a POW. Adolf Galland, who was a very
good friend of mine and who I had known since 1949, flew the Me-262 and
loved it, but he still swore by the 109, although it was still easier to
When his combat tours were finished, he
returned Stateside, to a hero's welcome, and to PR roles like War Bond
tours. Johnson enjoyed these publicity jobs, unlike his quiet, reserved
friend, Dick Bong, America's "Ace of Aces," who had just come back from
After the war, Johnson went to work for
Republic Aircraft, and spent some time in Korea, in a split role as a
civilian observer and as a USAF Lieutenant Colonel. He wrote his
autobiography in 1958, and later moved to South Carolina, where he ran a
successful insurance business. He remained active on the lecture circuit
and in military aviation circles under his death in December, 1998.