WWII veteran wants to thank Tuskegee Airmen for service
Duluth News Tribune, Minn.
Among the people attending today’s unveiling of a life-sized statue of Tuskegee Airman Joe Gomer will be John “Jack” Johnson.
Johnson, 88, of Valley City, N.D., plans to shake Gomer’s hand and give him “a big thank-you.”
“They took care of the German fighter planes, and the German fighter planes didn’t come after us,” Johnson said of the fighter pilots of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen.
Johnson flew 18 combat missions as a ball turret gunner aboard a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber assigned to the 450th Bombardment Group, 15th Air Force, based in Italy.
The 450th flew 274 combat missions between Jan. 8, 1944, and April 26, 1945, chiefly against targets in Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the Balkans. The unit received two Distinguished Unit Citations for its support of the invasion of Southern France, the advance of Russian troops in the Balkans and the Allied effort in Italy.
Johnson never had reservations about black fighter pilots protecting his bomber.
“Never ever gave it a thought,” he said. “Everybody was welcome when it came to protecting us.”
Racism was rampant and the American military was strictly segregated when the Army created the African-American outfit that would become known as the Tuskegee Airmen after the Alabama airfield where many of them trained. Critics attacked the idea, charging that black men couldn’t be taught to fly, that they’d prove inept in battle and that they’d be cowardly.
The Tuskegee Airmen proved them wrong.
About 450 of the pilots who trained at Tuskegee flew 15,533 combat sorties over Europe and North Africa (Gomer flew 68). They were credited with destroying 112 German aircraft in the air and 150 on the ground; 950 railcars, trucks and other motor vehicles; 40 boats and barges and one destroyer. The fighter pilots lost 25 bombers under their protection. Bomber crews called the Tuskegee Airmen “Red-Tail Angels” because of the crimson paint on the tail section of the unit’s aircraft.
The group lost 66 pilots killed in action; 32 pilots were captured.
As a young staff sergeant, Johnson never fired his machine guns at a German fighter. But he saw them, flying in the distance, radioing the bombers’ speed, altitude and course to anti-aircraft batteries on the ground. The anti-aircraft guns threw up thick clouds of flak as the bombers neared their targets, when the bombers had to fly straight and level.
“It was awful heavy,” Johnson said of the smoke and shrapnel of exploding shells. “I saw a lot of other planes go down.”
“We never came too well acquainted with anyone other than our own crew,” he said. “You didn’t know when they wouldn’t come back.”
It was flak, not enemy fighters, that nearly ended Johnson’s life on one mission. A piece of shrapnel tore through the plane, narrowly missing Johnson but ripping off his oxygen mask and regulator.
Today’s meeting between two old warriors whose paths may have crossed in the skies over Europe 67 years ago comes about by happenstance. Johnson already was planning to come to Hermantown to visit family when his son-in-law, Steve Bennett, saw a newspaper article about today’s dedication Sunday.
“My father-in-law oftentimes commented on the black fighter pilots who escorted his bomber group,” Bennett said Tuesday. “He said, ‘When I heard them talking on the radios it made it my day.’ They felt pretty protected when those guys were escorting them.”
Bennett contacted veteran activist Durbin Keeney with the idea of having Johnson meet and shake Gomer’s hand.
“I think this is absolutely incredible,” Keeney said. “Here is a firsthand story about a man who was able to come home and raise a family. That’s the significance of what the Tuskegee Airmen did.”