WWII veteran: 'Those two incidents gave me nightmares'

By KELLY BURCH | The Daily News of Newburyport, Mass. | Published: September 17, 2013

NEWBURYPORT, Mass. — 1943: It was a big year for Malcolm Johnston.

In just 12 months, he married his childhood sweetheart, Carolyn, became a United States citizen and joined the United States Air Force.

“It’s surprising how much can happen in a short time,” said Johnston, a Haverhill resident who now is 90 years old.

As his young bride followed him from base to base, Johnston, a technical sergeant, became the radio operator and gunner as part of a nine-man crew flying in a B-17 bomber.

“I wanted to fly, to be a pilot,” Johnston recalled. “But they had filled the pilot position and the next one that they were filling was for the radio.”

Soon, Johnston’s unit was deployed to Lavenham, England. From there, the crew flew bombing raids over mostly strategic targets, like bridges, airfields and oil storage depot.

“It was a very impersonal war for an airman, because you could only see the planes and the guns coming at you,” he said. “Maybe you would see the top of the helmet of someone in the plane.”

The war became more personal when Johnston was involved in the bombing of Dusseldorf, Germany.

“I had nightmares about that,” he said. “You knew you were killing people. We had killed people before — maybe one or two people die when you hit a storage depot. But it was not the same as bombing a city.”

Years later, in his retirement, Johnston and Carolyn visited Dusseldorf as tourists.

“I kept looking over my shoulder. I figured that someone was going to figure out that this SOB was the one dropping bombs,” he said.

The B-17 flew at around 28,000 feet, similar altitude to where commercial aircraft fly today. However, the cabin in the B-17 was not pressurized, meaning that there was little oxygen and temperatures dipped as low as minus 60 degrees.

“We were surrounded by aluminum, and that was it,” Johnston said. “It was the same inside as it was outside.”

They wore oxygen masks in order to be able to breathe at such a high altitude. A full-body suit was wired to provide heat by plugging it into an outlet. The men also wore armored vests, a helmet and four pairs of gloves — silk that never came off; a fine leather pair that still allowed them to operate controls; wool; and heavy leather.

“We constantly had to press the oxygen mask to break up the ice crystals formed by our breath,” Johnston said. “(However) when we were over target, I was sweating enough that I didn’t need the suit.”

Once, Johnston’s plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire off the coast of France. The plane lost a propeller and the crew prepared to bail over the English Channel. At the last minute the co-pilot spotted land, and the plane was able to safely land in England.

Another time, Johnston’s crew flew out on a raid with two other crews from the barracks. Only one crew made it back that day.

“Those two incidents gave me nightmares,” he said. “They made the war very personal.”

Despite the danger, all nine members of Johnston’s crew made it home from World War II. When he was discharged in 1945, Johnston came home to meet Carolyn and his infant son Malcolm Andrew, who was five months old. They went on to have two more sons, raised mostly in Andover.

Johnston never saw the other members of his crew again after returning home. However, the group has kept in touch throughout the decades by writing letters. Three members are living. Johnston communicates with them, plus the widows of those who died.

“You become very close,” said Johnston. “You’re so dependent on one another.”

He lives in Haverhill now, still driving, cooking and tidying up his home himself. Carolyn died in 2012; however, four generations of the Johnston family keep him company. As he battles multiple myeloma — cancer of the plasma cells, which is treatable but not curable — the veteran adopts the same attitude that got him through the tough times during the war.

“You should only worry about the things you can do something about,” he said. “If you can’t change it, you might as well forget it.”

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