By Robert Louis DalColletto
When Lt. Col. William L. Johnson celebrated his birthday on Oct. 24, 2006, he reached a milestone much greater than his 86 years. As he handed over his freshly bound book, “At War: Me and My Charley-47,” during his family gathering, he knew he was sharing a bit of his legacy: a glimpse into the 13-month combat tour of a C-47 pilot in Europe during World War II. He hadn’t envisioned sharing this story, but with his wife Kathleen’s encouragement and gentle prodding, he grew confident that it was a worthwhile endeavor. He hoped the book would leave special memories for his children and grandchildren and perhaps all posterity.
Pouring over his notes, recounting stories and searching through the numerous photos he had collected after the war, Johnson at last was taking an introspective dive into those interminable 13 months in a C-47 cockpit, and reflecting on how that experience defined and changed him forever.
During the Great Depression, the Johnson family was no exception to struggle and hardship. Bill Johnson was 10 years old when his family decided to move to the small town of Corwith, Iowa, population 500. Johnson’s older sister Neva was married and lived nearby on a farm. She provided a cow as down payment for the family to purchase a three-story home next to a schoolhouse. To make extra money, their mother made their home into a boarding house for school teachers. Johnson’s older brother Robert joined the U.S. Navy and sent home $18 of his $21 monthly pay to help the family.
Johnson had another brother, Dick. They would each get one pair of shoes a year.
“We would wear them out by summer and then go barefoot the rest of the year,” Johnson recalled.
At 16, Johnson got interested in photography; which became his great escape. He worked and saved to buy his first 35 mm camera, an Argus C-3, for $12.50. He learned how to set up his own dark room, and his hobby won him several photo contests. In 1937, he graduated from Corwith High School.
In 1940, Johnson married his high school sweetheart, Jeanne Barracks. He also managed to turn his photography hobby into a full-time job as a staff photographer for the Daily Oklahoman and the Oklahoma City Times, making $32.50 a week.
In Oklahoma City, Johnson met and photographed Lt. General Delos C. Emmons, commander of the First Army Air Corps. Emmons took a liking to Johnson and introduced him to the idea of becoming an aviation cadet. Johnson read the Infantry Journal from cover to cover and built a scale model P-39 airplane. But when he applied for admittance in the Army Air Corps in early 1942, he was rejected because he was under weight. Immediately, he started a weight-gain training program. In early September 1942, the Aviation Cadet Program accepted Johnson as a private in the Army Air Force Reserves.
From aviation cadet to officer
In April 1943, Johnson received his orders to report for active duty and got on a train headed for Sheppard Field, Texas, where he would spend two months in basic training. He then went on to Kansas State College for three months of college training detachment. There he got 10 hours of flying time with an instructor, to practice stalls, spins, takeoffs and landings.
“I was disappointed I didn’t get to solo,” he said with a smile. “It was fantastic. Things look so much different from the air.”
At the Aviation Cadet Center at Kelly Field, San Antonio, Johnson underwent rigorous physical and mental tests, including an interview by a psychiatrist.
“They asked us, ‘Are you Catholic?’ Johnson recalled. “If you said ‘Yes’, they asked, ‘If you were asked to, would you bomb Rome?’ If you answered, ‘No,’ you were out.”
Johnson attended primary flight school in Uvalde, Texas, flying the Fairchild PT-19.
Several check pilots were there to either pass or wash out the cadets.
“I found out later there was a mandatory 40 percent wash-out target for primary and basic flying,” he said.
Eventually, Johnson soloed for a few hours, carefully avoiding the numerous buzzards in the area.
“I learned to find the wind direction by looking for cows, who always feed with their tails to the wind,” he said. “You always want to land into the wind for a shorter landing.”
After three months of primary training, Johnson was transferred to Waco, Texas, for basic flight school, where he endured tough military discipline and hazing by upper classmen. Despite the rigors of training, he completed his first night solo in a Vultee BT-13. It was no small task. Two pilots in his class who had taken off on night flights crashed at the end of the runway and were killed. But Johnson performed well and was soon promoted to group adjutant as a cadet major.
Johnson transferred to Blackland Army Air Base, Texas, for advanced twin-engine flight training on a Cessna UC-78 trainer. Finally, the big day arrived. On May 23, 1944, he received his gold bars as a second lieutenant and silver wings as a pilot.
“You’ve been treated like dogs throughout this whole year because we were trying to see if you’d quit,” Col. Bob Arnold told Johnson and his fellow Army Air Corps pilots during the graduation ceremony. “Some did quit, but you’re the survivors—exactly who we want flying our planes. To give orders, you’ve got to learn to take orders. Don’t ever treat an enlisted man like you’ve been treated, or you don’t deserve to be an officer. In your air crews, your first obligation is to take care of your enlisted men. Good luck and good hunting.”
Johnson’s orders were to report to Central Flight Instructors School, at Randolph Field, San Antonio. His first task was to learn maximum performance of the plane he was going to instruct: the UC-78.
“The whole purpose of this training was to convince you that a cadet couldn’t kill you in your own plane,” he quipped.
The school was difficult; the washout rate was an astonishing 80 percent. Washouts were then assigned to fly navigation or bombardier trainers or tow target planes for fighter training.
“I learned more about flying at Randolph in six weeks than all my time as a cadet,” he said. Honing his piloting skills would always prove to be a blessing.
His first assignment was instructing at an advanced flying base at Frederick, Okla. Shortly thereafter, he was transferred to Garden City, Kan., to instruct cadets just out of primary training on twin-engine planes.
Because of Johnson’s experience as a news photographer, he was offered the job of base photo officer, and he jumped at the chance. But the position was short-lived, as Johnson received orders for overseas duty.
In early November 1944, Johnson and 10,000 other troops boarded the French liner, Ile de France, bound for England. It took them nine days instead of the usual five, because the ship had to zigzag constantly to avoid German submarines. They managed to avoid a German U-boat wolf pack that had been waiting for them. The U-boat commander radioed a message to Scotland, saying, “We’ll get you next time!”
Bad weather flying
Johnson soon got his assignment: troop carrier. His orders were to report to Saltby, England, to the 62nd Troop Carrier Squadron, 314th Troop Carrier Group. Being assigned to a TCS meant he would be flying the Douglas C-47, the military version of the DC-3 airliner. All pilots had to pass a cockpit check by touching every instrument, switch and gauge in the cockpit while blindfolded.
“The Charley-47 was a great plane to fly,” he grinned. “It could carry 18 to 20 paratroopers or a jeep and other cargo. Its cruising speed was 140 to 145 mph, and it stalled at about 80 mph. Critical single-engine speed was 110. The crew consisted of two pilots, a crew chief, a radio operator and sometimes a navigator. It burned 100 gallons of 100 octant gas an hour. My landing routine was to drop full flaps, cut the power to idle and start a rolling turn onto final approach that would put me right on the end of the runway.”
But Johnson doesn’t have fond memories of England’s weather.
“It was the worst winter in Europe in 40 years,” he said. “Rarely was there any forward visibility and very little to the sides. I was never so cold in my life. I’ve often thought the flying weather was more dangerous than combat. We had to fly below the clouds and never knew where anyone else was flying.”
At that time, the British had developed a “Gee-Box” system of navigation. Only the navigators were trained on the Gee-Box, but Johnson learned how to work it.
“I think I was the only pilot in the squadron to learn how to work the Gee-Box, and it sure paid off,” he said.
One bad weather day, the commander on the lead ship was without a Gee-Box, and he
said they’d have to turn back to Saltby and that all the pilots were on their own. Johnson told the commander he had a Gee Box and knew how to run it. The commander told Johnson to take the lead. Johnson proceeded to communicate headings to his copilot, and all seven planes made it home safely.
On Christmas Day, 1944, Johnson piloted one of 17 C-47s, picking up 317 paratroopers as reinforcements for the Battle of the Bulge. As usual, the weather was awful. When returning to Saltby, they got some bad news. The air base was closed due to fog, and the only bases still open were in Scotland. Johnson and the rest of his squadron didn’t have enough fuel.
“Our squadron leader advised us to circle the field until the fuel ran out, then try to land straight and level and hope for the best,” he said. “We had no parachutes, since we seldom flew high enough to use them. After circling for 10 minutes, a giant hole opened up over our air base, like the iris on a giant lens, and we peeled off and landed. Just as we landed, the fog closed up the hole again. They say that there are no atheists in foxholes. Well, that day, there weren’t any in the 62nd TCS either!”
The largest airborne drop made in a single day occurred on March 24, 1945. “Operation Varsity,” the allied airborne assault over the Rhine River at Wessel, Germany, established airborne warfare records that remain unchallenged today.
As thick smoke screens were laid out for the air assault, the Germans were ready and waiting. Johnson remembers being told, “The flak will be so thick, you’ll be able to walk down from the sky,” and “Don’t surrender under any circumstances.”
Before departing, he placed a thick piece of armor plate under his feet.
“At 600 feet, small arms were the greatest hazard,” Johnson said. “The 313 TCG ahead of us, flying C-46s, were getting shot up pretty bad. I heard one of their copilots screaming, ‘My pilot’s head’s been shot off. What’ll I do?’ And a calm voice responded, ‘Fly it, you son of a bitch, fly it.'”
Almost 3,000 troop carrier planes and gliders were set to deliver 14,000 troops and 240 B-24s dropped supplies; 900 Second Tactical Air Force and Ninth Air Force fighters hit the target area, while 1,250 fighters from the Eighth Air Force isolated the battlefield from the east.
“Fortunately, some of our fighters took out a squadron of German jets on the ground just north of the drop zone; otherwise we would’ve been mincemeat,” he said.
Johnson’s C-47 was towing a glider, which they successfully released over the target area. A combat landing for a glider pilot is more like a controlled crash. They suffered more than 300 glider pilot casualties—105 of which were killed in action. Only 172 of the 1,305 gliders that landed were later deemed salvageable.
“Glider snatching” was an extremely dangerous undertaking. Every troop carrier squadron had one airplane equipped with a powered glider pick-up mechanism to retrieve flyable gliders after airborne missions.
“A powered drum with 1,000 feet of steel cable was located just behind the navigator’s station, and a steel hook trailed outside the open cargo door,” Johnson explained. “On the ground, the glider, with the pilot inside, was attached to a 300-foot nylon tow rope, stretched across two vertical, 12-foot poles spaced 20 feet apart. You had to hit the line at exactly 120 mph. Too slow or too fast, and you’d crash.”
Even the wounded were rescued in gliders after the battle.
“Imagine being wounded and waiting to be jerked off the ground at 120 mph,” he said. “I was offered to get off the Varsity mission if I would do some glider snatching, but I said, ‘No thanks, I’ll take my chances with the Germans.'”
Although Operation Varsity was considered a success (General Eisenhower considered it the most successful airborne operation in the war), and the northern route into the industrial heart of Germany was now wide open, the cost was extremely high. More than 80 planes were shot down, 1,111 allied soldiers were killed and more than 1,800 wounded. American losses totaled 2,800, including Johnson’s cadet buddy, 2nd Lt. Merlin P. Gaudet.
Following Operation Varsity, Johnson was promoted to first lieutenant. Thanks to “V Mails” from his wife, cartoons from his sons and cookies packed in popcorn from his mother, he had moments when he felt a little closer to home.
Johnson’s closest brush with death occurred on the ground in Nuremburg, Germany, in early April 1945, when the city was in ruins.
“Major Larkin and I hitched a ride aboard a weapons carrier into the city center and ended up outside the destroyed SS headquarters,” he said. “A sniper’s bullet went right past my head and through an open window.”
Interested in “scrounging around,” Larkin decided to enter the basement area, while Johnson wandered into the undamaged end of the building. Johnson soon found himself in the SS photo lab, where in a closed drawer, he discovered several 35 mm films cans filled with developed negatives. Twenty of these never before seen photos appear in Johnson’s book.
“While I examined one of the rolls, with ‘red marked’ photos of Hitler, Goering and other Nazi leaders, I could hear someone crawling over the rubble toward me,” he recalled. “I drew my .45, and peered out the doorjamb, and the noise stopped. After I went back to the examining the negatives, I heard the noise again. I was certain an SS soldier was coming right for me. So, I poked my gun through the door, and the noise stopped again. Scared to death, I stuffed my pockets with six cans of negatives and got out of there as fast as I could.”
After the war, Johnson sent the negatives to the Library of Congress for preservation. The photos included several of Hitler and the entire Nazi hierarchy during a massive rally of more than 100,000 people in Nuremburg stadium, before the war.
On May 8, 1945, the war in Europe ended. Three days later, Johnson and the 62 TCS flew the first American occupation troops into Nazi-occupied Norway. The Germans had negotiated special surrender terms for their forces in Norway, which permitted German troops to keep their arms for 90 days for protection against vengeful Norwegians until Americans could get in enough troops to protect the Germans. As the 62 TCS landed, the Nazis treated the Americans to a special reception.
“When we flew to Copenhagen, we were treated as liberators; the party went on all night,” Johnson said with a smile.
He also piloted scores of Russian men, women and children who were former slaves to the Nazis to Halle, Germany, (which later became East Germany). After dropping off the Russians, he picked up several French POWs.
“Picking up those French POWs was the greatest thrill I got from flying in WWII,” he said. “When we brought French POWs back to Le Bourget in Paris, we always buzzed the Champs Elysees at treetop level, hopped over the Arc de Triomphe and took a turn around the Eiffel Tower. The French POWs were screaming and crying with delight.”
Once, Johnson made a special run for a French POW captain, flying over the captain’s house just as his wife and children came out to see the plane roaring overhead. The captain, in tears, hugged Johnson.
“For me, that was the best day of the war,” Johnson recalled.
In late December 1945, Johnson boarded the German liner Europa in Southampton, England. After two days of loading, they cast off for New York in the worst storm on the North Atlantic in 20 years. All Johnson could think about was getting home for Christmas. After six stormy days, Europa pulled into New York Harbor.
After disembarking, Johnson boarded a train for Camp Kilmer, where he called his wife. After a seemingly endless processing period, he was sent to Camp Grant for separation from the Army. Finally, on December 23, Johnson exited a train at Minneapolis and took the midnight train for St. Louis, which would stop in Corwith.
At 1:30 a.m., on Dec. 24, 1945, a train pulled out of a small station in Corwith, leaving behind a lone passenger standing in a snow flurry.
“It was the most beautiful snowstorm I’d ever seen,” Johnson said. “The station was closed, so I picked up my B-4 bag and started walking down Main Street.”
Standing on the front porch of his home, covered with snow, Johnson embraced his teary-eyed wife on the front porch. He had made it home for Christmas.
After the war
Johnson soon returned to his passion: photography. He became chief photographer for the Oklahoma City Times.
In 1947, at Tinker Field in Oklahoma City, he became a captain in the Air Force Reserves. He graduated from Oklahoma City University with a degree in management in 1955. The next year, he was promoted to major.
Johnson went on to work for Boeing Finance and moved to Renton, Wash., in 1960. His was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1964. He retired from the Air Force Reserves in 1966, after serving for 23 years. He retired from Boeing in 1980, at the age of 60.
In 1998, Jeanne Johnson passed away. Four years later, on May 24, 2002, Bill Johnson married Kathleen Harris, a longtime friend. He had met Harris and her husband 20 years earlier, in a French class. Three years after their spouses passed away (within a month of each other), they began dating. The Johnsons currently live in Medina, Wash., with their combined six children and 11 grandchildren nearby.
When Johnson’s grandchildren are old enough, they’ll not only discover the history of WWII, they’ll have one very personal story, their grandfather’s, which showed courage, a sense of humor and goodwill for his fellow man.
“At War: Me and My Charley-47,” is available at [http://www.e-booktime.com], [http://www.amazon.com] and [http://www.barnesandnoble.com] and is on display at the Museum of Flight gift shop and at the University Bookstore in Bellevue, Wash.