US Army Air Force, 61st Troop Carrier Squadron,
Troop Carrier Pilot – 1st Lieutenant
World War II (1941-1945)
It all began when young Lew Johnston went out and stood next to the airfield in Dayton, Ohio. He saw the big U.S. Airways Douglas DC-3 on the runway. Right in front of him there’s “this beautiful thing, all shiny and the lights are on because it is night.” All of the sudden, the window slides open and the guy sticks his head out and Lew Johnston thinks to himself, “Wow, to be in that position, that must really be something! I would really love to fly that airplane.” December 7, 1941, The Day of Infamy, the Japanese bomb the United States Naval base at Pearl Harbor. The next day, December 8, Lew Johnston went out to Patterson Field, Ohio to enlist in the United States armed services. As it happened on that day, the aviation cadet examine was being given. Those who wished to be in the Air Force studied to pass this exam. Although Johnston had not studied for the exam, he decided to take it anyway. Sure enough, he passed it.
Lew Johnston entered the Aviation Cadet Program, where he was given three tests. The three tests, which were control manipulation, coordination, and a psychological test, were to determine whether one would be trained as a pilot, navigator or bombardier. Johnston was chosen to be trained as a pilot, which is what everyone wanted to be. After being designated as a pilot, he was sent to a pre-flight academy in Maxwell Filed, Alabama for two months. The pre flight academy was strictly run and was meant to provide a general military background. After the academy, Johnston left for Florida, where he would learn to fly. He began learning on small bi-planes and gradually worked his way up to larger airplanes. When he graduated with his silver wings, Johnston was a 2nd Lieutenant of the United States Army. He would be troop carrier pilot, flying a C-47 airplane. The C-47 was the military version of the big shiny Douglas DC-3 that he saw at the airfield in Dayton.
On D-Day, Johnston was on his way over to Europe on a ship. When he arrived, Johnston went to his base in a little town called Saltby, near Nottingham, England. It would be a few months until he would take part in his first combat mission. In the meantime, Johnston’s daily duties consisted of several supply trips a day to France and then later on to Germany. His first and only two days of official combat came during the 17th and 18th of September, 1944 in Operation Market Garden. Operation Market Garden was the largest airborne operation ever, with thirty thousand allied paratroopers dropping in behind enemy lines. The goal was to capture eight bridges along the Rhine River, near the town of Arnhem, in the Netherlands. If the Allies could take control of the Rhine, the march across it into Germany would be relatively easy. It was estimated that if Operation Market Garden was successful, the war would be over in a matter of three months, which would mean the war would have been over by Christmas of that year. Two U.S. divisions had been kept in reserve until Operation Market Garden, and Johnston was in one of them. As it turned out, Operation Market Garden was a failure. The soldiers failed to take the bridges and the war continued on for five months past Christmas.
Johnston flew only two days of official combat. To judge his contribution to the war on that alone, however, is absurd. He told me, “I don’t have many stories to tell you because I only flew two days of combat.” However, in my opinion, although unofficially, he had more than two days of combat. There are two reasons why I believe this to be true. Often times, Johnston landed the plane under enemy fire. Considering the fact that there is no way to train for this, it is extremely difficult to land while being fired upon. Also, every day he made three or four supply runs, providing ammo, clothes, food and gas for Patton’s tanks. Patton’s tanks were instrumental in the allied victory. When the 101st airborne division was surrounded in Bastogne, Belgium, it was Patton who volunteered to march his men, along with his tanks, all the way to Bastogne and free the 101st airborne. Also, Patton and his tanks led the allied advance through France and then Germany. Patton was a very tough leader and was respected by everybody. However, it was fairly hard to gain Patton’s respect. The troop carrier pilots supplying Patton, Including Johnston, did such an amazing job, that the normally hard to please Patton said of them, “Our supply people have really done marvels and we almost always have sufficient of everything.” This shows the remarkable job that Johnston and the other troop carrier pilots did of keeping the allies supplied. Without the troop carrier pilots, all supplies would have traveled by jeep, which would have severely crippled the allied war effort. The troop carriers and their pilots played a key role in the defeat of Hitler in Europe.
Because Johnston was a troop carrier pilot and not a fighter pilot, he had to stay in Europe as a transport pilot after Victory in Europe, or VE Day. After VE Day he transported soldiers who had been prisoners of war back to their home lands. He took the French POWs to Paris, the British to London, and the Americans back to Le Harve, a French port, where the soldiers would be shipped home from. Also, Johnston flew into the death camps and transported the prisoners out of there. Johnson stated, “I’ll never forget it. We walked through to take the people who were still alive and there were little skeleton people behind the fence. They didn’t quite know what was happening to them. They were undernourished, covered with bugs and were very dirty. We took them to the airfield and sprayed them with disinfectant. They were kind of in a daze. I can’t get over how inhumane people are.” This experience was truly a sobering event for Johnston.
Although Johnston never participated in the troop carrier flights on D-Day, he did write a book about it. This book is called, The Troop Carrier D-Day Flights: A Fully Documented Review. Johnston wrote the book for two main reasons. The first was to bring out the truth about what really happened during those D-Day flights. It is often perceived that the troop carrier pilots did a poor job during those flights because many paratroopers were dropped away from their drop zones. Most of the wrongly dropped paratroopers were scattered because of unforeseeable variables in the flying conditions. Over the English Channel, the pilots ran into unexpected clouds and given the tight formation they had to fly in, it made it almost impossible to hold the formation. Considering the circumstances, the pilots actually did a very god job navigating and finding the drop zones. The paratroopers, however, were in the back and couldn’t see anything. All they knew was that their ride was bumpy and they were dropped away from their designated drop zones. They wanted someone to blame, so they blamed the pilots. Lew Johnston wanted to “show that there is more to the story than is being made out.” Johnston also wrote the book in response to a book by Stephen E. Ambrose, D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of World War Two. In Ambrose’s book, chapter eleven is about the troop carrier flights. Ambrose interviewed many paratroopers who gave the impression that the pilots did not do a good job. However, despite the fact that there were some six hundred troop carrier pilots on D-Day, he failed to note a single one of them. This meant that he only got one side of the story in his book. Johnston said of Ambrose, “He is a great writer. I wish I could write like him, but he is not much of a historian.” There is a full chapter in the book by Johnston that is dedicated to refuting statements about the troop carrier pilots made by Ambrose. The 178 page book by Johnston began as two articles, and when people heard about it, they wanted to contribute to it, so it got bigger and bigger, until it reached its full length. The book continues to grow.
Upon returning home from the war, Johnston was offered a position as a commercial pilot, but after flying in the war, commercial flying seemed uninteresting. Instead, Johnston received a degree in engineering. His life moved on and he was able to start a family. However, the war had largely impacted Lew Johnston’s life. When he looked up at the big DC-3 in Ohio, he had wondered if he would ever get to be in the position of the pilot. Thanks to World War Two, Johnston was able to find out exactly what being in that position felt like. He loved it. “There are two things that after you’ve experienced, you are never the same”, Johnston says. “One is being shot at, knowing that somebody is intentionally trying to kill you. The other is being up in the air with a plane by yourself. It is an amazing thing,” claimed Johnston.
Lew Johnston gave me one message that he would like to be passed to my generation. That message was to stick to your code of honor. He said that many people today lack that, and that it is a very valuable lesson he learned. Because Johnston had the opportunity to fly and do what he loved, and because honor, an essential value, was embedded in him, serving in World War Two was a turn for the better in Lew Johnston’s life. And I was honored to have him share with me that part of his life.
Interview by Eric Brandon on April 23, 2004
St. Mark’s School 8th Grade World War II Oral History Project
Faculty Advisor: Mike Fargo