Major Robert S. Johnson in the cockpit of his fighter in May, 1944

 Robert S. Johnson, 78, World War II Fighter Pilot


By Richard Goldstein,, January 1, 1999

Robert S. Johnson, an 8th Air Force fighter pilot who shot down 27 German planes in an 11-month span during World War II and then came home to a hero's welcome from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, died on Sunday December 27, 1998 at St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Okla. He was 78 and was the second-leading American air ace of the war in Europe.

Johnson, who lived in Lake Wylie, S.C., was hospitalized on Dec. 24 after collapsing while on a visit with relatives, according to a niece, Margaret Sue Roth. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Protecting Flying Fortress bombers on their missions deep into Germany in his barrel-nosed P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, Johnson was the second World War II fighter pilot to break the U.S. record of 26 air "victories" set by Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker in World War I. He accomplished that feat when he knocked down two Luftwaffe fighters near Brunswick, Germany, on May 8, 1944, on his final mission.

His squadron commander in the 56th Fighter Group, Lt. Col. Francis Gabreski, was the only U.S. fighter pilot in Europe with more "kills," having shot down 28 German planes and destroyed three more on the ground. Major Richard Bong of the Army Air Forces, the first pilot to break Rickenbacker's mark, was the leading American ace of the entire war, downing 40 Japanese planes.

On June 6, 1944, -- the date of the D-Day invasion -- Johnson was flown back to the United States for a new mission: selling war bonds, exhorting factory workers to greater feats of production and bucking up homefront morale in the face of heavy air-war casualties.

Gabreski would recall how Johnson had "phenomenal eyesight."

"There were some guys who just seemed to have an uncanny knack for seeing things before anyone else did," Gabreski wrote in his memoir "Gabby" (Orion, 1991). "His eyes were very keenly tuned to the sky. If he looked into a certain area, and enemy aircraft were there, he saw them ahead of the rest of us."

Robert Samuel Johnson, who was born in Lawton, Okla., became fascinated by planes as an 8-year-old the day he perched on his father's shoulders at Post Field near Lawton and watched three World War I fighters perform stunts. "Then and there I changed my goal from cowboy or railroad engineer to Army aviator," he remembered.

He started flying at age 13, got his first license the day before he turned 16, and after attending junior college at what is now Cameron University in Lawton, entered an Army aviation school on Nov. 11, 1941.

He scored his first "kill" on June 13, 1943, when he broke from formation to go after a Focke-Wulf fighter, something that was decidedly against the book then. That foray brought a bawling out from his superiors, and Johnson would recall that he "had a reputation as a sort of wild man."

"Other pilots would say, 'Don't fly with Johnson, he'll get you killed,"' he recalled in an interview with Military History magazine in 1996.

But he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross with the 56th Fighter Group, the renowned Zemke's Wolfpack. Named for its commander, Col. Hubert Zemke, the Wolfpack boasted five of the top 10 American air aces in Europe.

Johnson was never shot down, but had a harrowing experience on June 26, 1943, when the pilot of a Focke-Wulf 190 fighter fired 21 cannon shells into the fuselage of his Thunderbolt during a mission over France. Burned and momentarily blinded by splashing hydraulic fuel and slightly wounded in the right leg and his nose, he tried to bail out but could not open his shattered canopy.

He headed back to England, but another Focke-Wulf riddled his plane with small-arms fire over the English Channel. That pilot finally ran out of ammunition, pulled alongside, wiggled his wings in tribute and peeled off as the crippled Thunderbolt continued to England.

When he returned to the United States in June 1944, Johnson was reunited with his wife, Barbara, and they were greeted by Roosevelt at the White House. Later that day, he received a standing ovation from members of the U.S. Senate when he appeared with his wife in the visitors' gallery, and the couple had tea with Mrs. Roosevelt at the White House afterward.

The next day, he received the applause of thousands of aircraft workers when he visited the plant of Republic Aviation, which built the Thunderbolt, in Farmingdale, N.Y.

After the war, Johnson was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force reserves and recounted his combat experiences in "Thunderbolt!" (Rinehart, 1958). He was an executive with Republic Aviation for 18 years, and then worked in the insurance industry.

Johnson's wife died in 1995. He had no immediate survivors.

Remembering his fighter-pilot days, Johnson once observed: "I'm a fatalist, a strong believer that when your time is up, you're gone, out of here. Why worry about that?" But he added: "I was always scared -- that was what made me move quick."

Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations

Go to: Obituaries

© 1999 by Neil Mishalov