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First Name: Robert

Last Name: Johnson

Birthplace: Lawton, OK, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Air Force (1947 - present)

Middle Name: Samuel

Date of Birth: 21 February 1920

Date of Death: 27 December 1998

Rank: Lieutenant Colonel

Years Served:
Robert Samuel Johnson

•  World War II (1941 - 1945)


Robert Samuel Johnson
Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Air Force Reserve

Robert S. Johnson was born on 21 February 1920 in Lawton, OK, the son of an automobile mechanic. In his war memoir, Thunderbolt!, he states that he first developed an interest in military aviation in the summer of 1928, when his father took him to see a U.S. Army Air Corps barnstorming team, "The Three Musketeers," appearing at Ft. Sill's Post Field. Four years later, Johnson took his first flight, a 15-minute night excursion over Lawton in a Ford Tri-motor.

Johnson attended Lawton public schools, was a Boy Scout, and excelled in athletics. For acquiring the skills and aggressiveness he later employed as a fighter pilot, Johnson credited an interest in shooting and hunting small game with a .22 rifle, boxing competitively to learn about controlling fear, and playing high school and junior college football as a blocking guard.

At the age of 11, Johnson began working as a laborer in a Lawton cabinet-making shop, working 8 or more hours daily after school to earn four dollars a week. At 12, he began applying his earnings to flying lessons, soloing after 5 hours and 45 minutes of instruction. He achieved his student license and logged 35 hours in four years of instruction, before suspending his flying lessons because of a newfound interest in girls. While attending Cameron Junior College, Johnson resumed flying in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPT), and accumulated 100 hours total flight time by his second year. Johnson gave up his full-time job to allow for his varied interests, but continued to hold a series of part-time jobs, including as a firefighter with the Lawton Fire Department.

Aviation Cadet

In the summer of 1941, Johnson enlisted as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army, and entered the service at Oklahoma City on 11 November 1941, as a member of Class 42F. Pre-Flight training was conducted at Kelly Field, TX, beginning 12 November and was still in progress when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the U.S. into World War II.

On 18 December 1941, Johnson reported to the Missouri Institute of Aeronautics, a civilian contractor school in Sikeston, MO, for Primary Flying Training. His first five hours of the pre-solo training phase were flown in a PT-19A, in which he was instructed in spin recoveries, stalls, and basic turning maneuvers. He then began nearly sixty hours of Primary training in the more agile PT-18 Kaydet, practicing aerobatic maneuvers. All of the training, which included more than 175 landings, was conducted in open-cockpit trainers in the dead of winter.

On 28 January 1942, at the midpoint of Primary, he was forced to switch instructors by the school commander. His new instructor became a flying mentor, for which Johnson wrote: "I shall always be indebted to men like (Phil P.) Zampini...(for their) willingness to turn the fledgling into an eagle." Johnson's classmates in Primary included several pilots who would become fighter pilots with him in the 56th Fighter Group, as well as Frank K. Everest, Jr.

In February 1942, the USAAF regulation requiring aviation cadets to be unmarried was rescinded. Johnson married Barbara Morgan (whom he had met in high school) in Benton, MO, on 21 February immediately upon completing Primary Flying Training.

On 27 February, Johnson began Basic Flying Training at Randolph Field, TX. As with the other phases of flying training, the 9-week course of instruction included ground school, military training, and intensive flying practice, this time in the North American BT-9. He received 70 hours of instrument, formation, and night flying in March and April 1942. At the conclusion of basic, at the recommendation of his instructors, Johnson requested multi-engine school for his advanced training course.

Johnson began Advanced Training at nearby Kelly Field on 3 May. Although in training for transition to bombers, because multi-engine trainers were not yet available his 93.5 hours of Advanced Flying Training were performed in variants of the T-6 Texan: the BC-1 basic combat trainer and the AT-6 advanced trainer. Johnson completed his flight training on 28 June and was commissioned on 9 July 1942, as a Second Lieutenant. Although he requested transition training in the A-20 Havoc, he instead received orders to report to the 56th Fighter Group.

56th Fighter Group

Johnson reported to the group's 61st Fighter Squadron on 19 July 1942, in Bridgeport, CT. The Unit had just received the first production P-47B Thunderbolts, and, in effect, was flight testing the new fighter as it trained. While the 56th FG was responsible for many of the modifications that made later variants a successful fighter-bomber, the training resulted in more than forty crashes and 18 fatalities, many of which Johnson blamed on the inadequacy of the small airport at Bridgeport. However, he also asserted that many more lives would have been lost, had not the P-47 proved to have an exceptionally rugged airframe. The P-47 became the first USAAF aircraft to provide an understanding of compressibility and its effects.

The 56th FG was alerted for overseas movement on 26 November 1942, and ceased flying operations in preparation. On 28 December it moved to Camp Kilmer, NJ, and on 6 January 1943, sailed from the New York port of embarkation aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth for Scotland. The group arrived on 13 January without aircraft at its first base in the United Kingdom; RAF Kings Cliffe. There it received new P-47C Thunderbolts and trained on them until April, when it began combat operations from a new base at RAF Horsham St Faith.

Johnson, still classified as a bomber pilot, was not officially qualified to fly the P-47 in combat. To rectify that, he was sent to Llanbedr, Wales, on 10 March for a two-week course in gunnery training in which he would fire the Thunderbolt's weapons for the first time. However, bad weather prevented any training flights, and he returned to Kings Cliffe still not qualified. Johnson feared he was losing the confidence of both his group commander, Colonel Hubert Zemke, and his flight leader, Captain Gerald W. Johnson, in his ability to perform as a fighter pilot.

Combat Experiences

Early Missions

Johnson flew his first combat mission on 18 April 1943, which was the second mission of the 56th FG. The mission, a fighter sweep over the coast of Holland, proved entirely uneventful. On his return from his first combat sortie, Johnson and four other pilots were sent to RAF Goxhill to complete gunnery training. But because he could not hit the target sleeve until his final day of training, he failed to achieve the minimum required percentage of hits and did not officially qualify as a combat pilot.

The 56th experienced its first combat on 29 April, losing two planes and pilots, but Johnson was not scheduled for the mission and did not resume missions until 3 May. On 14 May, he encountered Luftwaffe aircraft for the first time on a mission to escort B-17 Flying Fortresses to bomb Antwerp, damaging two Focke Wulf Fw 190s that had broken up his squadron's formation. He became separated from the group and, finding himself alone, broke off the engagement and returned to base to find that he had been erroneously reported as missing in action. On 19 May, as part of a diversionary mission, his flight was ambushed by German fighters, but again the inexperienced Johnson was able to elude them.

On 13 June, while flying in a flight led by his Squadron Commander, Major Francis Gabreski, Johnson shot down his first German aircraft (of 10 Staffel, JG 26) . The 56th had scored its first confirmed kill just the day before, but had missed an opportunity to achieve a larger victory. As a result, Johnson and his element leader agreed that the pilot spotting the enemy should immediately attack and be supported by the other, regardless of who was leading. Johnson achieved his kill, over an Fw 190, doing just that, but discovered that his element leader had not covered him as agreed. Johnson was reprimanded by Zemke, Gabreski, and Jerry Johnson for breaking formation when the other pilot denied his concurrence. Even so, the kill was confirmed, one of the very first among the novice 8th Fighter Command pilots. Johnson received a bottle of Scotch whisky from Major General Carl Spaatz, Commander of 8th Air Force, to mark the occasion.

Near-fatal Engagement

One of the 56th's worst setbacks occurred on 26 June 1943, when 48 P-47Cs left a forward operating base at RAF Manston late in the afternoon to provide escort for B-17 Flying Fortress bombers returning from a mission against Villacoublay Airfield in the Paris suburbs. As the P-47s approached the rendezvous point near Forges-les-Eaux, they were jumped from above and behind by 16 Focke-Wulf Fw 190s of II Gruppe, JG 26. The first pass scattered the Thunderbolts, and Johnson's aircraft, flying at the rear of the 61st Squadron's formation, was seriously damaged by a 20 mm shell that exploded in his cockpit and ruptured his hydraulic system. Burned and partially blinded by hydraulic fluid, Johnson tried to bail out, but could not open his shattered canopy.

After pulling out of an uncontrolled spin and with the fire amazingly going out on its own, Johnson headed for the English Channel, but was intercepted by a single Fw 190. Unable to fight back, he maneuvered while under a series of attacks, and although sustaining further heavy damage from both 7.92mm and 20mm rounds, managed to survive until the German ran out of ammunition, who, after saluting him by rocking his wings, turned back. His opponent has never been identified, but Johnson could have been one of three victories claimed that day by the commander of III/JG 2, Oberst Egon Mayer. After landing, Johnson tried to count the bullet holes in his airplane, but when he passed 200 (including 21, 20 mm cannon shell impacts) without even moving around the aircraft, he gave up.

While Johnson made it back to crash-land at Manston, damaging his fighter beyond economical repair, four other pilots of the 56th FG were killed in action. A fifth, able to extend only one of his plane's landing gear struts, had to bail out over the English Channel and was rescued north of Yarmouth. Five other Thunderbolts suffered battle damage. Johnson suffered shrapnel wounds and minor burns to his face, hands, and legs, and was awarded the Purple Heart. He resumed flying missions on 1 July.

Becoming an Ace

As the 56th Group gained experience, its success in aerial combat improved dramatically, beginning with 17 Luftwaffe fighters shot down on 17 August while escorting bombers attacking Regensburg and Schweinfurt. Johnson, promoted to First Lieutenant in July, got his second kill on 19 August over Holland when he exploded a Bf 109, but scheduling often left him on the ground on days when the 56th scored high.

That situation changed in early October when a week of deep penetration escort missions resulted in a multiplicity of victories for the 56th FG. On 8 October Johnson, assigned as Jerry Johnson's wingman on an escort mission to Bremen, shot down an Fw 190 that was attacking another P-47. Two days later, covering bombers as they withdrew from Münster, his squadron engaged an estimated 40 fighters intercepting the bombers. In a prolonged and vicious dogfight, Johnson shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 110 and one of its Fw 190 escorts, but suffered severe battle damage himself. Both he and 56th Deputy Commander Major David C. Schilling became aces on that date, becoming the fourth and fifth pilots of the Eighth Air Force to achieve the feat.

Johnson had become an ace while flying primarily as a wingman and overcame a reputation among his commanders for being a "lone wolf" who went off on his own from his squadron. On 26 November 1943, Johnson was advanced to flight lead, although on his first mission in that capacity he was forced by a fuel leak to turn back to base shortly after takeoff. Between 22 December and 5 January 1944, Johnson was the only member of his squadron to score victories, shooting down five German fighters.

In February 1944, the 56th FG began employing 150-gallon drop tanks on missions, enabling them to escort heavy bombers to the target area on deep penetration missions. The 56th was assigned a patrol sector west of Hanover in the vicinity of Dümmer Lake. There, on four missions in February and March, Johnson shot down eight more German planes to become the leading U.S. ace at the time. Johnson's 200-hour combat tour was nearly over and he applied for and was granted a 25-hour extension of his tour. Promoted to Captain on 15 March, he scored three more victories before being transferred to the 62nd Fighter Squadron to act as its Operations Officer (S-3).

He was promoted to Major on 1 May 1944 and, on the last mission of his extended tour, recorded his final kills on 8 May when he broke Rickenbacker's record. He returned to the U.S. on 6 June 1944. Johnson flew a total of 89 combat missions between April 1943 and May 1944.

Johnson had four aircraft assigned to him during combat operations. His crew chief in the 61st FS was S/Sgt. Ernest D. "Pappy" Gould, and in the 62nd FS, Sgt. J.C. Penrod.

Post-Military Career

After the war, Johnson became the Chief Test Pilot for Republic Aviation, maker of the P-47, where he worked as an Engineering Executive for 18 years, and served as National President of the Air Force Association from 1949-51. He remained a member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, visiting Air Force bases in South Korea in December 1951, and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. In 1964 Johnson became an insurance executive in Lake Wylie, SC.

Medals, Awards and Badges

Distinguished Service Cross
Silver Star Medal
Distinguished Flying Cross
Purple Heart
Air Medal with 2 Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters
American Defense Service Medal
American Campaign Medal
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 2 Bronze Stars
World War II Victory Medal
National Defense Service Medal
Command Pilot Badge

Distinguished Service Cross Citation (Synopsis)

The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Robert S. Johnson (0-661217), Captain (Air Corps), U.S. Army Air Forces, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Pilot of a P-47 Fighter Airplane in the 61st Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Group, EIGHTH Air Force, in aerial combat against enemy forces on 15 March 1944, in the European Theater of Operations. On this date Captain Johnson shot down three enemy aircraft in a single engagement. Captain Johnson's unquestionable valor in aerial combat is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, the 8th Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.

Headquarters: U.S. Strategic Forces in Europe, General Orders No. 28 (1944)


The terminal building at Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport, in his birthplace, Lawton, OK, is named in his memory.

A painting of Johnson's final mission was commissioned by the Oklahoma State Senate Historical Preservation Fund, Inc. in 2000 and hangs in the Oklahoma State Senate conference room on the fourth floor of the Oklahoma State Capitol.

Johnson collaborated with aviation author Martin Caidin to write his autobiographical story of the 56th Fighter Group, Thunderbolt!, in 1958.

Death and Burial

Lieutenant Colonel Robert S. Johnson died on 27 December 1998 in Tulsa, OK. He is buried at the River Hills Community Church in Lake Wylie, SC.

Honoree ID: 2684   Created by: MHOH




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