Fairfax man flew in B-24 bomb group that led WWII invasion of Europe in 1944
Harold Johnson, of Fairfax, flew on 30 WWII combat bomber missions over the war torn skies of Europe in 1944.
To this day, 69 years later, the vivid images of an unforgettable sight remain with the 90-year-old Johnson. It is the historic aerial view of an armada of ships spread out beneath him, crossing the English Channel with 180,000 Allied troops, while he flew over the D-Day invasion force as a waist gunner on a B-24 Liberator.
Johnson was attached with the 446th Bomb Group, 706th Squadron, which led Gen. Jimmy Doolittle’s entire 8th Air Force to the beachheads of France on June 6, 1944.
Johnson was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest ranking medal from the Air Force for extraordinary achievement in combat flight during the European Theater of Operations. He also has the Air Medal with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters signifying the number of successful air missions he completed with his crew during WWII from May to December, 1944.
In addition, he received a special diploma from the French government recognizing his contributions in flight to help liberate the country from German occupation.
This is his story. Getting Ready Johnson volunteered for the Air Force and received his basic training at Gowen Field, Boise, Idaho, where he thought he would become a radio operator but instead was sent to gunnery school because there was a need for more gunners at the time.
Johnson’s crew flew a B-24 from the factory at Kansas City to Presque, Maine, and left the states for overseas duty on May 1, 1944. From Maine they went to Goose Bay, Labrador, and then flew at night but couldn’t land at Prestwich, Scotland, due to heavy fog and were diverted to Nuts Corner, Ireland.
The crew finally arrived at the Bungay, England, air base on May 5. The home field was located on Flixton Castle Estates, a few miles south of Bungay.
“We were the first crew to fly this plane, but it was not the one we flew once we arrived in England,” said Johnson. Upon their arrival, one of the first things they had to do was practice takeoffs and landings so they could familiarize themselves with the field and surrounding landscape.
Once the missions started, squadron crews often were involved in deep penetrations over enemy territory and logged long hours in the air. So when crews weren’t flying, they attended briefings or debriefings and slept.
It was at those briefings that crews would be given photo reconnaissance information to show bomb damage to targets from previous missions, weather information, anti-aircraft battery locations and new assignments.
All aircraft were identified by serial numbers, and many had nicknames and creative nose art for the planes as well. There was “Dry Run,” “Dragon Lady,” “Maximum Effort,” “Wistful Vista,” and “Do-Jin-Don” among other names given to the planes in Johnson’s 706th Squadron by the 10-man crews.
Johnson’s B-24 was nicknamed “Chaos and Confusion.” It seems the boys went to an English pub one night, and when the crew walked in, the barmaid announced, “Here comes chaos and confusion,” and the name stuck with the crew and the plane.
On May 14, the 446th ran an invasion exercise mission and then flew other combat flights in the following weeks leading up to D-Day.
D-Day, June 6 The 446th Bomb Group performed 30 missions in June 1944 highlighted by its lead of the 8th Air Force over the French coast of Normandy for the invasion of Europe on June 6.
The night of June 5 was tense for flight crews and ground support, with very few airmen getting much sleep. Before dawn, the big “Libs” took off in squadrons of nine, flying in seven sections for the start of the liberation of Europe.
Takeoff was in darkness and the 446th attacked just before 6 a.m. Off the coast of France, landing troops were about 400 yards to a mile off shore.
Johnson said the bombing altitude was 14,000 feet, and they were instructed not to drop any bombs after 6:28 a.m. Ground forces and equipment were scheduled to hit the beach at 6:30 a.m. The flight crews were briefed that no late releases would be made and that great care would be needed to see that no bombs fell short.
The bombers had good tail winds all the way to Normandy but flew through overcast skies. There was no anti-aircraft fire, and the group encountered no enemy fighter planes.
“Probably the most dangerous part of the mission was getting into the air and reaching 20,000 feet and forming up into formation so they could join those planes that had taken off ahead of others,” wrote Harold E. Jansen in the book: The History of the 446th Bomb Group.
The circling pattern of planes flown to reach the proper altitude meant crossing paths with B-24s taking off from neighboring fields in the dark.
“This was no problem in the daylight, but the mission for D-Day required a night takeoff in order to reach the destination and have bombs away before deadline,” wrote Jansen. “Several times during the climb planes would narrowly miss each other passing under or just above. The near misses would toss the crew members about by the prop wash of some unseen plane.”
Surprisingly, no planes were lost by the weather or flying about getting into formation. The 446th assembly plane on D-Day was a stripped out, orange painted B-24 nicknamed “Fearless Freddie.”
The B-24s dropped 1,000 and 500-pound cluster or incendiary bombs on D-Day. “Each time after the heavy bombs were away you could feel the plane lift higher in the air from less weight,” said Johnson. On D-Day Johnson and the crew of Chaos and Confusion flew two missions for a total of 12 hours, 25 minutes of flight time.
“The first trip we could see the flash of Navy ships shelling the beaches through the breaks in the cloud layers and on the second mission the channel was solid ships,” recalled Johnson. Because it took longer to get into formation on the first mission, Johnson said it took seven hours and 10 minutes to complete.
Johnson’s second D-Day mission was with a squadron of 10 planes that bombed Caen, France and it lasted five hours and 15 minutes according to flight data records that he has kept all of these years.
In all, 33 B-24s, including Johnson’s, received mission credit for the D-Day invasion ,and all planes returned safely. The 446th hit tactical targets for most of the rest of June knocking out airfields, bridges and other German installations.
During June, the 446th group personnel won 19 Distinguished Flying Crosses on special recommendations for outstanding performance and achievement. Later, the 446th flew on runs over Belgium, Holland and Germany.
Other Missions The 446th was known for flying tight formations which helped the B-24s from getting picked off by the ME-109 German fighter planes. However, flak from anti-aircraft batteries was the main worry for many of the B-24 crews.
In the year 1944, the 446th Bomb Group flew nearly 200 missions, lost 91 combat crew members killed in action, 275 missing in action and 204 POWs. Johnson recalls seeing other planes in formation getting shot down. “You knew they weren’t coming back, especially when you saw all the new replacement crews filling empty bunk beds in the barracks back at base,” he said.
The B-24s had a maximum air speed of 300 mph and a ceiling of 28,000 feet. They carried a varied military load and often flew daylight raids while the British Lancasters usually flew at night.
Armed with 50 caliber guns, Johnson was one of the two waist gunners on the B-24 that manned firing positions through windows on each side of the fuselage. Also there was a ball turret gunner, top gunner and tail gunner. Crew members were outfitted with oxygen masks that they needed once they reached 10,000 feet, and they wore heavy flying clothing over their regular uniforms.
Each man was issued a flak vest, helmet, fleece-lined boots, a Mae West lifevest, parachutes, escape kits, which they would need if forced down, and heated flight suits for warmth against frostbite at high-altitude, subzero temperatures. “But with the adrenalin flowing, we didn’t worry about staying warm too often as each man concentrated on his job,” said Johnson.
Nevertheless, Johnson said his silk gloves came in handy and kept his fingers warm when manning the 50 caliber guns. And, it was his job to throw out “chaff,” metallic bits of aluminum, made to confuse the accuracy of enemy radar as the B-24s flew through a thunderous hailstorm of exploding shells fired from German batteries far below.
“When we went on a mission, P-47s would take us across the channel and P-38s and P-51 fighters flew high cover for us at about 20,000 feet,” said Johnson. He said that 95 percent of the time B-24s would get to the initial target. “If that wasn’t possible then we had targets of first resort or targets of opportunity, anything that would be a good target got hit,” he noted.
“When you went in, there was no turning around. You went to the target no matter how much flak or fighters there were. Very few times we had to abort a mission,” Johnson recalled.
Close Encounters After 15 missions, flight crews would get flak leave for a week in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was a well deserved rest from the battle weary pace in the dangerous skies of war not to mention the occasional buzz bombs and V-2 rocket attacks they experienced from the Germans to English air bases.
Several times Johnson’s B-24 received shell fragment damage, and on Aug. 24, they almost didn’t return from a bombing mission over Brunswick, Germany. “We got hit, and we lost two of our four engines which we had to feather plus our top gunner and ball turret gunner were wounded, and we were leaking gas.
“Coming back we couldn’t keep up with the formation and radioed for fighter escort protection in an attempt to make it across the channel,” he remembered. “We dived down all the way to the English coast from 22,000 feet, and the pilot ordered us to throw out all that we could…ammunition, guns, flak vests, everything went so we could stay up long enough to make an emergency landing at Woodbridge, England,” he stated. This mission also was notable as the first one on which the 446th carried propaganda leaflet drops.
“We pulled our ball gunner, Erling Tjemsland, out of his turret after he got hit bad, but all we had was sulfa and bandages to try and stop the bleeding until we landed,” said Johnson. “And, another one of our turret gunners had his air hose shot off, and he was turning blue in the face until we got him on an air cylinder. Johnson still has the jagged hunk of flak shrapnel that came through the flight deck on that harrowing mission and lodged in the floor behind the heel of his boot.
He also lost a buddy during the war who was forced to bail out of a crippled B-24 but was killed when his parachute hooked on the tail before the plane exploded in mid air.
Lead crews did two less missions of 30 while others had to complete 32 before they could return home. Johnson’s last flight over Holland was different from other missions when they had to fly a hazardous supply run and dump ammo and fuel to ground troops.
“At our briefing meeting before we left that day, the officer said ‘Good luck, boys. I don’t know how many of you are coming back,’” Johnson recalled.
It was the last thing he wanted to hear. “I remember we flew over at about 200 to 400 feet to make the drops, and there was a lot of shooting. I could see a group of nuns kneeling in a courtyard and praying as we went past,” he stated.
Coming Home Johnson finished his tour in December 1944. It took him two weeks to get back to the states on a captured WWI German ship that was converted into a troop transport bringing home soldiers, including some of the survivors from the Battle of the Bulge.
He finished his duty at Alamogordo, N.M. where he was assigned as a gunnery instructor training new B-29 crews. It was there that he saw another historic event of the war when the large mushroom cloud rose from the atomic bomb desert test site in 1945.
Johnson believes he probably would have been part of a force that would have been sent to fly missions over Japan, but the two atomic bombs that dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war.
Johnson credits his survival “to keeping a level head on our missions…we had a good crew, somebody would always be joking around, and I think that helped us get through it. Those that didn’t make it sometimes were the ones with a poor attitude about their situation.” Up until a few years ago, Johnson said he used to stay in touch with some of his former crew members but no longer hears from them. “It’s possible I might be the last man from our flight crew that’s still living,” Johnson noted.
Johnson has never had the chance to return to Europe since the end of the war, but he’s satisfied knowing that their efforts so many years ago are still remembered.
“Some of our bomb group airmen have returned to visit, and they were treated like royalty,” said Johnson. “People in France haven’t forgotten. They still put up memorials and flowers on graves, and it’s gratifying to hear that,” he said.