Major Robert S. Johnson
Ace of 56th Fighter Group
By Stephen Sherman, Feb. 2000. Updated June 29, 2011.
Robert 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 Fighter Group, one of the top scoring groups in the ETO, under its great leader, Col. Hub Zemke. The top two aces of the Eighth Air Force, Johnson and Gabby Gabreski, both flew P-47s with "Zemke's Wolfpack."
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 1840s 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 fighter pilot:
- 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."
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. ... Next!"
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 Harbor, he shipped out to Sikeston, Missouri for Primary Flight Training (I've read a lot about WWII era military pilots, and I still struggle with the terminology of their training programs: Their second assignment was called "Primary Flight Training," and their third assignment was called "Basic Flight Training," and I don't recall what the first assignment was called. But "Basic" came after "Primary." - SS) Johnson recalled that not too much changed for him and the other cadets right after Pearl Harbor. 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 maneuvers: 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, which he related in considerable detail in Thunderbolt!. 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 made 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 arrived.
The RAF fliers helped orient them to combat in the ETO, and on one memorable day, Johnson out-maneuvered 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 mid-April, 1943.
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 aluminum 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 flier.'
June 26, 1943 mission
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 cockpit.
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.
Swiveling 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 armor-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 safely.
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 Aces.").
Military History magazine interview
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:
Military History: Tell us about some of the types of missions that the 56th Fighter Group performed.
Johnson: 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.
MH: 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.
Johnson: Yes, that's correct. They were at Abbeville and along the coast, right across from us.
MH: I understand that Oberstleutnant Hans Philipp, leader of JG.1, was one of your victories?
Johnson: 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 leveled 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.
MH: What went through your mind at that time?
Johnson: 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.
MH: Tell us about some of your most memorable combat missions.
Johnson: 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.
MH: I know that ground attack was not considered a choice assignment.
Johnson: 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.
MH: 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?
Johnson: 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 shoot down.
When his combat tours were finished, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, 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 the Pacific.
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.
- Military History magazine Aug. '96 interview with Robert S. Johnson
- Robert S. Johnson and Martin Caidin, Thunderbolt!, Honoribus Press, (originally 1958)