General Leon William Johnson, 93; Aviator Won Medal of Honor

By Wolfgang Saxon,, 15 November 1997

 

General Leon William Johnson of the Air Force, who won the Medal of Honor

for leading a daring low-level raid in the all-out air assault that

throttled enemy fuel supplies from Romania's vast oil fields in 1943,

died Nov. 10, 1997 at the Belvoir Woods health care center in Fairfax, Va. He

was 93 and lived in McLean.

 

The target of the engagement, one of the most momentous of World War II,

was the refineries and a forest of oil rigs around Ploesti, center of

the Romanian petroleum industry. Churchill called it "the taproot of

German mechanized power."

 

On Aug. 3, 1943, Colonel Johnson led the final bomber group that went in

below 100 feet to deliver the death blow. Of the six planes in that

formation, his was the only one to limp back to base in Libya, blackened

and riddled with bullet holes.

 

Ploesti was a logical target for the Allies, and its defenses had been

bolstered accordingly. The raid was one of the costliest aerial

encounters. On that day, some 50 Axis planes, mostly German fighters,

were shot down, along with 20 B-24 Liberators from the 9th Air Force;

more U.S. bombers ended up crashing or making emergency landings in

enemy or neutral territory.

 

At the time, Romania, under the dictator Ion Antonescu, was allied with

Germany against the Soviet Union. There were 13 refineries around

Ploesti, 35 miles north-northwest of Bucharest, including Europe's

largest, the Romano complex formerly run by Standard Oil of New Jersey.

 

The raids got under way in earnest in April of 1943. Johnson was on loan

from the 8th Air Force in England to join the 2,000 men training in

North Africa for the 2,400-mile round trip to Romania. They made their

practice runs against a "ghost" Ploesti built in the Libyan desert.

 

"It was more like an artist's conception of an air battle than anything

I ever thought could be," Johnson said.

 

His unit was among those that missed the target on the first run.

Johnson became separated from the main force, temporarily lost over

cloud-covered mountain tops. When he reached his particular target, a

big refinery, parts of it were already ablaze.

 

He headed his group into a mass of flames and explosions to drop bombs

for the finish. Only he and his own crew survived.

 

Johnson, who was born in Columbia, Mo., spent more than four decades in

uniform. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and was

commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in 1926. He later received a master's

degree in meteorology from the California Institute of Technology.

 

He transferred to the Army Air Corps after three years in the infantry

and was among the first flying officers of the 8th Air Force and an

assistant chief of staff for that command during its early days in

Savannah, Ga. He went with the 8th to England in June 1942 and assumed

command of its 44th Bomb Group the next year.

 

His group was attached to the 9th Air Force in Africa specifically to

assist in the assault on Ploesti. After returning to England, following

the raid and receiving his medal, he was promoted to brigadier general

and organized the 14th Combat Wing, heading it until V-E Day.

 

Postwar assignments included Washington and Colorado Springs, where he

served as commanding general of the 15th Air Force, a unit of the

Strategic Air Command. Once more in Britain he organized the 3rd Air

Force, which was a mainstay of the Berlin air lift.

 

Later postings took him to the Continental Air Command, the Military

Staff Committee of the United Nations, NATO and the Supreme Allied

Command in Europe. He retired in 1961 but was recalled to active duty to

direct a military evaluation panel of the National Security Council.

 

He was promoted to four-star rank in August 1957.

 

After leaving the service in 1965 Johnson worked as a consultant. A

golfer and gardening enthusiast, he was a past president of the National

Capitol Dahlia Society.

 

His wife, Lucille Taylor Johnson, died in 1983 after 54 years of

marriage. Survivors include two daughters, Sue Vandenberg of Tucson,

Ariz., and Sarah Abbott of Pensacola., Fla.


Medal of Honor Citation

JOHNSON, LEON W. (Air Mission)

Rank and organization: Colonel, U.S. Army Air Corps, 44th Bomber Group, 9th Air Force.

Place and date: Ploesti Raid, Rumania, 1 August 1943.

Entered service at: Moline, Kansas.

Born: 13 September 1904, Columbia, Mo.

G.O. No.: 54, 7 September 1943.

Citation:

For conspicuous gallantry in action and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 1 August 1943. Col. Johnson, as commanding officer of a heavy bombardment group, let the formation of the aircraft of his organization constituting the fourth element of the mass low-level bombing attack of the 9th U.S. Air Force against the vitally important enemy target of the Ploesti oil refineries. While proceeding to the target on this 2,400-mile flight, his element became separated from the leading elements of the mass formation in maintaining the formation of the unit while avoiding dangerous cumulous cloud conditions encountered over mountainous territory. Though temporarily lost, he reestablished contact with the third element and continued on the mission with this reduced force to the prearranged point of attack, where it was discovered that the target assigned to Col. Johnson's group had been attacked and damaged by a preceding element. Though having lost the element of surprise upon which the safety and success of such a daring form of mission in heavy bombardment aircraft so strongly depended, Col. Johnson elected to carry out his planned low-level attack despite the thoroughly alerted defenses, the destructive antiaircraft fire, enemy fighter airplanes, the imminent danger of exploding delayed action bombs from the previous element, of oil fires and explosions, and of intense smoke obscuring the target. By his gallant courage, brilliant leadership, and superior flying skill, Col. Johnson so led his formation as to destroy totally the important refining plants and installations which were the object of his mission. Col. Johnson's personal contribution to the success of this historic raid, and the conspicuous gallantry in action, and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty demonstrated by him on this occasion constitute such deeds of valor and distinguished service as have during our Nation's history formed the finest traditions of our Armed Forces.


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© 1997 by Neil Mishalov