Legacy Page




Legacy Of:

Leon  W.  Johnson


Personal Legacy
World War II

The following is an article taken from
Stars and Stripes, November 22, 1943
By Andrew A. Rooney, Staff Writer

But GI's Knew Right Along He Was OK; Here's Why

An Eighth Liberator Station, November 22 - Col. Leon W. Johnson was presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor today by General Devers for exceptional bravery and outstanding leadership, but the boys at his station have known for a year that he is a great guy. For one thing, he always stops at the Big Tree and fills his sedan with soldiers going his way, and that, they figure, is outstanding leadership. Colonels who can sit in sedans with privates without being embarrassed are rare.

The heroism of Col. Johnson's and other Lib groups over Ploesti is an international legend. After weeks of practice at low level in Africa and diligent study of sand tables and contour maps, the Ploesti raiders took off. There were only 176 of them, 37 of which were under Col. Johnson's personal command. Of the 176, which took off that day, 11 turned back before they hit the Rumanian oil fields, and 54 went down.

The men at Col. Johnson's station still talk of what happened that day. Each group had a specific target - "White Give," "Red Six" - all the code titles represented an integral part of the widespread oil refining plants. Johnson's group poured down over the mountains pulling sand after them, as they roared over the Balkan plain towards Ploesti.

But something went wrong. As they matched the terrain under them with the memorized details of the sand table, which they had in their heads and approached the target that was to have been theirs, they saw smoke and fire rising above the height at which they were flying. Another group had bombed their target and the only thing for Johnson's group to do was fly through the smoke and flame and bomb another target slightly beyond.

Next Plane Explodes. "As we passed through the flames," Col. Johnson relates, "the plane on our left wing blew 1,500 feet in the air and the ship on our right went down burning."

"I personally think our losses would have been greater if we hadn't been forced to fly through the fire of the other groups' bombing. While we were under cover of the smoke and fire, we were comparatively safe from flak. It was after we got clear of that that the ground fire became intense."

Col. Johnson explains that in order to give ground guns a minimum time to shoot at them they "dived down to the deck from 150 feet." The deck for the B24s that day was anything from 20 feet down.

"I don't know whether you should say it or not," Col. Johnson says, "but right after we passed the target area my pilot, Maj. Harold Brandon, turned to me, grinned and yelled, 'All we have to do to get a medal now is get home.'"

Many of the men who took off for Ploesti never expected to get back. They knew that the Air Force was counting on losses up to 50 percent and word was out that even if the losses were 100 percent the operation would be a success if the target was destroyed.

Those cold figures are all right at headquarters but they don't make the men feel any better at take-off time.

"I didn't think much about not getting back because I had a feeling that I would get back," Col. Johnson says. "Of course, a lot of men have had that feeling and it didn't do them any good."

"15-Minute Show." "I scare about as easily as anyone and I don't know as I'd want to do it again, but it is easier to take a few minutes like we did in the target area than hours of fighter opposition. The whole show as over in 15 minutes at Ploesti, although we were in the air for 14 hours. Sgt. Ray, our waist gunner on the trip, was on his first raid that day, and I had to assure him when we got back that they weren't all like that."

Soon after Ploesti Col. Johnson was promoted from group commander to combat wing commander. His group, one of the two original Lib outfits in the ETO, has been taken over by Col. James T. Posey, a West Pointer from Henderson, KY. Col. Johnson led his group on 14 missions before he was relieved.

The Ploesti hero is 39 years old and looks older. He graduated from West Point in 1926 and four years later qualified as a pilot. In 1936 he decided he'd have to know something about weather if he intended to be a leader in the Air Force, so he took a special course for Army men at the California Institute of Technology and got his master's degree in meteorology.

"I thought I'd be able to look out the window and decide whether we'd be flying that day or not," Col. Johnson says. He has been out of touch with meteorology since he finished four years' service in that field, helping to set up the USAAF's weather system back home.

He is able now to look out the window of his office and ascertain that it is either (1) raining or (2) not raining. He leaves anything more technical than that to his weathermen.

Back home Col. Johnson's family, his wife and two daughters, Sue, 11, and Sally, nine, are living in a hotel in Savannah, GA. The colonel calls his home Moline, KS.

Around the station he is quiet, seldom bawls anyone out, and is as beloved by his men as a colonel can be by a bunch of boys who have seen everything.

Didn't Get Jigged. S/Sgt. Bill Douglas, of Bluefield, WV., recalls an incident for which he expected, at best, to be broken and judged.

"I went out to the control tower and parked the jeep pretty close to the runway. Col. Johnson came out to meet another officer who was being flown into the field. The plane, a small two-engined job, came down the runway and couldn't stop in time to keep from clipping the jeep I had parked there. I came out and Col. Johnson came over and wanted to know whose jeep it was. I told him, expecting to really catch hell. He just told me that the planes were hard to see out of when they were taxiing and that the jeep shouldn't have been parked there. He suggested that next time I had business out there I should park the jeep up one of the little roads off the runway.

"He turned to the other officer then, told him he'd have the plane taken over to the shops and fixed up. 'That's what we have them for,' he said, and walked off. I never heard another word about it."

The order which gave Col. Johnson the Medal of Honor was cut August 17, and as soon as he knew of it he wrote to the family of every man who went down on the Ploesti raid to tell them that he did not feel he had exclusive ownership of the medal but that he was accepting it for every man in his outfit who took part in the raid.

"I didn't do anything that every man behind me didn't do," he says. The higher the rank you have the easier it is to get a medal."

Although the order was cut 17 days after the raid, Col. Johnson isn't hurt that the presentation wasn't until today. On the same order the Silver Star was awarded to a man for heroism performed in the Spanish-American war in 1898.

It is suggested by Will Lundy that this tape be used for the 60th Anniversary in
Salt Lake City next year. Mid-way through the tape there are sounds of a battle
and Col. Johnson narrates what is happening.

Narrated by
General Leon Johnson

This is General Leon Johnson, now a retired general of the U.S. Air Force.

During World War II, I flew B-24 Liberator Bombers. As CO of the 44th Bomb Group Heavy, we were stationed in England. The 44th was the first group equipped with Liberators in that country. It arrived in England in the fall of 1942 and started operation soon after its arrival. I became its commander January 4, 1943. We continued operations out of the UK as part of the Second Air Division of the 8th Air Force. We'd normally bomb from altitudes of 18,000 to 22,000 feet and each flight or squadron released its bombs on the leader.

In June of 1943, the 44th and two other B-24 groups, the 93rd and 389th were dispatched to North Africa to join the 9th Air Force for a five-group low-level attack upon the Romanian oil refineries at Ploesti. The attack was carried out 1 August 1943. As a result of this mission John Kane and I received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Three posthumous awards of the medal were made to Addison E. Baker, John L. Jerstad, and Lloyd D. Hughes.

I returned to England in late 1943 and formed the 14th Combat Bomb Wing, which included the 44th, the 392nd, the 491st, and the 492nd Bomb Groups, all Liberator equipped. I continued as commanding general of the 14th Combat Wing until the end of the European War in 1945.

Now I will describe the Liberator. The B-24 Liberator is classified as a heavy bomber. During World War II it was flown from Europe, Africa, Alaska, China, Burma, India, and all over the South Pacific. It carried a full crew of ten men and 8,000 lbs. of bombs. I must say that we did not always have ten men and we did not always carry 8,000 lbs. of bombs. The bomb load varied depending upon the amount of gasoline you needed to carry it.

Six of the crew were gunners using 50 caliber machine guns. Each of the four 14-cylinder engines had 1,200-horse power and the plane could fly up to 310 miles per hour. Generally we were cruising at about 165 indicated. Over 18,000 B-24s were built during the war. Today, only eight are known to exist in the whole world. This particular plane was built in Fort Worth, Texas, used by England's Royal Air Force and given to the Puma Air Museum by the Government of India. This is why the starboard side of the plane still carries the emblems of the Indian Air Force. It was acquired primarily through the efforts of Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes Arnold, United States Air Force Tad who accompanied the volunteer crew that flew it here from Puma, India in 1969. He was assisted by Shell Oil Company that provided the gasoline, Pan American Air Ways that provided extra communications equipment and donations from Pratton Whitney and many others.

The aircraft is fully equipped inside of all the instruments, controls, radios, oxygen tanks, etc. The bombsight can be seen through the bomber's window and the nose of the airplane. The plane is flyable, but because it is so rare and so valuable to future generations, the Puma Air Museum will not allow it to be flown again.

We would now like to take you on an imaginary mission of the Liberator.

Picture, if you will, an airfield in England. The year is 1943. A long, blacktop runway is cut out of the green English countryside. The sun has not yet come up, but there is a glow in the eastern sky. It looks as if it will be a clear, sunny day. The ground crew has just finished getting the planes ready. The flight crew have had their breakfast of powdered eggs, Spam and coffee, and are climbing into their places. You will hear the auxiliary power units running that starts the engines. (sound can be heard on the tape)

Now they are taxiing out to the end of the runway (sounds can be heard).

There they go.

The planes get into formation and head for the Coast. As they get into formation, they circle the field and join other flights of bombers from other airfields. Towards the end of the war, there were sometimes 2,000 going out on a raid.

They cross the Channel and head into France.

And as we look up, the gunner says, "Fighters at ten o'clock." As we get closer we see that they are Messerschmitts 109s. Then our fighter cover passes by in Spitfires or Hurricanes. Today it is the Royal Air Force and they are flying Hurricanes and Spitfires (can hear fighting going on, guns firing and bombs going down).

Some of the German fighters are now attacking the bombers and our own gunners commence firing (can hear the firing and the bombs blowing up; planes are coming and going and a machine gun is going off).

The RAF is keeping the Germans busy off to the left now and the Liberators make their bombing runs over the target. Only the first few months of combat were our planes given RAF Spitfire cover. After that it was P-47s and then P-51 and P-38s. The antiaircraft fire is heavy, but inaccurate. Cannot hear these explosions. They are above and below the bombers. Sometimes it seems to be a white cloud, while others are black. They look like flowers opening, but they are pretty deadly if they get too close.

(More fighting; rattling of the machine guns going off; planes coming and going).

Soon the bombardier calls "Bombs Away," and we turn our planes and head for home.

Back at the airfield, the ground crew is watching for the return of their plane. As they approach for landing, the people on the ground are counting the number of planes returning and watching to see if any of them fires a red flare, indicating that there are wounded aboard. Normally, aircraft shoot off red-red flares to indicate that there are wounded aboard or they have an emergency that requires a priority landing. There are no red flares this time, but there will be some new holes to be patched.

Now they have landed. They are taxiing to the parking area. You can hear the sound of the brakes as they make their final turn and come to rest.

Another mission goes into the logbook.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Retired July 1961, Died Nov. 10, 1997

Leon W. Johnson was born in Columbia, Mo., in 1904. He spent his boyhood in Columbia and Moline, KS. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and was commissioned a second lieutenant in June 1926. He later received a master of science degree in meteorology from the California Institute of Technology.

He was one of the first four flying officers of the Eighth Air Force and served as assistant chief of staff for operations for that command and during its formative period at Savannah, GA. He accompanied the Eighth Air Force to England in June 1942. In January 1943, he assumed command of the 44th Bomb Group and, in June of that year, took the group to Africa to assist the Ninth Air Force in the attack on the Ploesti oil fields in Rumania. For his part in that raid, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. On his return to England in September 1943, he organized the 14th Combat Wing and commanded it until the end of the war in Europe.

After V-E Day, he was assigned as chief of personnel services, Headquarters Army Air Forces in Washington, later becoming deputy to the assistant chief of air staff for personnel. In April 1947 he was assigned to Strategic Air Command as commanding general of the Fifteenth Air Force at Colorado Springs, CO.

The Air Force returned to England for the first time since World War II when General Johnson organized the Third Air Division (later redesignated the Third Air Force) there in August 1948, as a separate major command of the U.S. Air Force. The division provided facilities for maintenance and support of Strategic Air Command aircraft on rotational training missions to Europe and for transport aircraft used in the Berlin Airlift. In February 1950 General Johnson was appointed, in addition to his other duties, chief of the Military Assistance Advisory Group for the United Kingdom.

In February 1952, he was named commander of the Continental Air Command at Mitchel Air Force Base, N.Y. He was appointed in July 1953, U.S. Air Force Representative, Military Staff Committee, United Nations in addition to his primary duty as Continental Air Command commander.

Three years later he was named the U.S. Representative to the North Atlantic Military Committee, Military Representatives Committee and Standing Group of NATO, with duty station in Washington, D.C.

General Johnson next assumed duties in May 1958 as air deputy to the supreme allied commander Europe, at SHAPE Headquarters, Paris, France. He was retired July 31, 1961 with more than 34 years of military service. Six weeks later he was recalled to active duty to become the director, Net Evaluation Subcommittee Staff/National Security Council, with duty station in the Pentagon.

General Johnson is a command pilot and in addition to the Medal of Honor he has been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with oak leaf cluster, and the Air Medal with three clusters. His foreign decorations include the French Legion of Honor in the Grade of Chevalier, French Croix de Guerre with palms, Belgian Croix de Guerre with palms, and the British Distinguished Flying Cross. He was promoted to full (4 Star) General on Aug. 31, 1957.


General Leon William Johnson

Leon Johnson graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in June 1926, and went to Fort Crook, NE., as a second lieutenant in the 17th Infantry. He then took flying training at Brooks and Kelly Fields, TX, and in early 1930, was transferred to the Air Corps with assignment to the 5th Observation Squadron at Mitchel Field, N.Y.

He was promoted to first lieutenant in December 1931. General Johnson went to the Philippines with the 2nd Observation Squadron for a three-year tour in June 1932. He returned to the United States and entered California Institute of Technology where, in June 1936, he received his MS degree in Meteorology as a newly promoted captain. Going to Barksdale Field, LA. as Base Operation officer in July 1937, he also commanded the 3rd Weather Squadron there. In August 1939, he was graduated from the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field, AL., and returned to Barksdale for assignment as Operations Officer ofthe 3rd Bomb Group that went to Savannah, GA. He was promoted to major in August 1940.

Early in World War II Johnson joined the 8th Air Force as Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations and went with it to England in June 1942, as a lieutenant colonel. The following January, he took command of the 44th Bomb Group, was promoted to colonel in March, and went with it to Africa on loan to the 9th Air Force during June and July.

On Aug. 1, 1943, he led the 44th Bomb Group, called the Eight Balls, as one of the five major elements in the massive B-24 bomber attack on the important oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, for which action he received the Medal of Honor. The element he led became separated and temporarily lost from the lead elements. Colonel Johnson re-established contact with the mass formation and continued on the mission to discover the assigned target had been attacked and damaged by earlier B-24s.

The Medal of Honor citation reads, in part: "... Though having lost the element of surprise upon which the safety and success of such a daring form of mission so strongly depended, Colonel Johnson elected to carry out his planned lowlevel attack despite the thoroughly alerted defenses, the destructive anti-aircraft 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, Colonel Johnson so led his formation as to totally destroy the important refining plants and installations which were the object ofhis mission. He personally contributed to the success of this historic raid ...at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. "

Colonel Johnson also received the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and Four Air Medals, besides being decorated by France, Belgium and Great Britain. In September 1943, he organized and commanded the 14th Combat Bomb Wing and in November was promoted to brigadier general. He continued in combat until the war ended. He returned to Headquarters Army Air Force, Washington, D.C., as Chief of Personnel Services and Assistant Chief of Air Stafffor Personnel.

In April 1947, he took command of the 15th AF at Colorado Springs and in October received his second star. Returning to Europe in August 1948, he commanded the 3rd Air Division and in Feb. 1950, was given additional duty as Chief of the Military Assistance Advisory Group for the United Kingdom. In January 1952, General Johnson became CEO of the Continental Air Command at Mitchel AFB, N.Y., with promotion to lieutenant general that July. A year later, he had the additional duty as Senior AF Member on the Military Staff Committee of the United Nations. By April 1956, he was back in Washington as U.S. Representative to NATO's Military Committee and Standing Group. He was promoted to four-star general Aug. 31, 1957, and then served under Gen. Lauris Norstad as Deputy Commander (for Air) at NATO, Paris, and HQ SHAPE until his retirement July 31, 1961. He returned to active duty on Jan. 12, 1962, as Director of Staff for the Net Evaluation Sub Committee of the National Security Council.


As Commanding Officer of the 44th Colonel Johnson chose to lead the Group on many missions including the three (3) most hazardous, yet most successful missions e.g. Kiel, Germany on May 15, 1943, Bordeaux, France on May 17, 1943 and Ploesti, Romania on August 1, 1943. The 44th was awarded two (2) Presidential Unit Citations for the Kiel and Ploesti raids, both of which he led. On the Kiel raid he flew with Captain Robert Abernethy of the 66th, while on the Bordeaux raid he flew with Major Howard Moore of the 67th. Captain Edward Mikoloski was Navigator on both missions. On the Ploesti mission Colonel Johnson flew with Major William Brandon (Group Operations Officer) with Major Moore's Crew in "Suzy Q" of the 67th. Captain Robert Kolliner was the Aircraft Commander but was replaced at the last minute by Major Brandon because of illness that kekpt him sleepless all night. Lt. James Selasky was selected to be the Lead Navigator for the 44th in "Suzy Q" on this vital mission to the Romanian Oil Fields. Their, and the Group's, success is now history.


Article on Johnson from Columbia MO. 10/26/2008 12:44:01 P.M. Central Daylight Time

Grandson donates local general's Medal of Honor

By T.J. GREANEY of the Tribune's staff Published Thursday, October 16,2008

In the early morning hours of Aug. 1, 1943, Leon Johnson of Columbia led one of the most daring and strategically vital bombing runs of World War II.

Flying at treetop level over Nazi-occupied Romania, Johnson's 44th Bomb Group dropped 1,000-pound bombs on the oil refinery that fueled much of Germany's mechanized power. The bombers left the refineries in the Ploesti oil fields in an inferno gf 1 ,500-foot flames and, historians said, severely undercut the Germans' ability to make war from that point forward.

"It would take me a week to even begin to tell you about some of the individual stories involved," said Ruth Morse, publisher of "8 Ball Tails," a magazine about the 44th Bomb Group.

"It's comparable to Pickett's Charge in the Civil War," she said referring to the attack considered to be a suicide mission. "It was such an awesome mission that five leaders of different groups won the Medal of Honor." Three of them were awarded posthumously.

This week, the medal won by Johnson will be donated by Johnson's grandson, Leon Johnson Abbott, to the Army Heritage Museum of Carlisle, Pa. Abbott, 52, believes this is just as the general would have wanted it. Johnson died in 1997 at age 93.

"I don't have any children, and I feel very strongly that it is part of the legacy of our nation that I sincerely do hope will provide inspiration to future generals," Abbott said. "It belongs with the history of the 44th so the entire spirit and character and courage of the 44th is there to testify to future generations."

Johnson was born in Columbia in 1904 in what his grandson describes as a family of well-known bankers. Not much has been recorded about his early years, Abbott said, but something went sour in the banking business, and when Johnson was a teen, the family moved to Moline, Kan.

Johnson enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point at age 17 and would wear the uniform most of the rest of his life. In January 1943, then a colonel, Johnson assumed command of the 44th Bomb Group and six months later moved the group to Libya, where they began to plot the Ploesti run.

The bombing mission covered 2,400 miles - one of the longest of the:war - and required the planes to be weighted down with ammunition and extra fuel. "If someone shoots the plane, the whole thing will go up in one big cloud," Morse said.

After they flew into enemy territory, a crewman broke radio silence, which tipped off the Germans, Morse said. When the fliers assembled over the railway station leading into Ploesti, the doors on some railway cars swung open to reveal hidden anti aircraft guns, and Germans began to pick off a number of the B-24 Liberators.

Things stayed hairy from that point forward. Johnson and a formation of six other Liberators flew at an altitude of 30 feet into Ploesti, which was already engulfed in flames. As they entered the inferno, according to an article published at the time in Yank magazine, an updraft opened a tunnel of air in the middle of the "roaring mass." "The rear gunners see the following six planes head into the inferno," the Yank article continues. "The flames close in. ... Only one" plane "comes out."

That one plane, Johnson's, was burned jet-black and shot through by antiaircraft fire, but he piloted it safely to the air base in Libya.

About 400 men died in the bombing run. "When they closed up doors that held the bombs, they had stalks of corn in the planes," Morse said. "That tells you how low they were flying."

Bombers continued to attack Ploesti for the next eight months to destroy the refineries that produced 485,000 tons of petroleum a year at their peak. By the end of the war, Morse said, the German air force had so little available aviation fuel they were sending new pilots up with as little as five hours of flight time. "They were knocked out of the air like it was a turkey hunt," she said of the green pilots.

After the war, Johnson served as air deputy to the supreme allied commander of NATO in Paris and later held the post of director, Net Evaluation Subcommittee Staff/National Security Council in the Pentagon.

Abbott lived with his grandfather for a time in a large mansion in Paris that is now home to the Saudi Arabian Embassy. He recalls a warm man who never bragged about his feats and shared his thoughts about war, peace and government with a twinkle in his eye.

"There's a book by Tom Wolfe, 'The Right Stuff,' " Abbott said. "I do feel my grandfather had the right stuff."
Send mail to Support@8thAirForce.com with questions or comments about this web site.   Copyright 2013 8thAirForce.com
Last modified: 01/26/14