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P-47 ace Robert Johnson interview

Robert Johnson P-47 Thunderbolt WWII Ace

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#1 Michael

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Posted 13 March 2018 - 06:00 PM

This was posted on the P-47 Thunderbolt FB group (last week I think) and I thought many here would enjoy it.  I remember reading an old, yellowed, paperback copy of Thunderbolt! in like two days back in middle school.  Wish I still had it.  I have no idea who Mr. Bob Coiro is (the interviewer).  However, I do appreciate his time and effort in transcribing and posting and all credit is due to him.  It was certainly the best thing I had read on FB in a while and definitely worth your time IMHO.  Now if we could just get Tamiya to pop out a 32nd P-47...

 

 

ROBERT S. JOHNSON INTERVIEW

Back in the days when I worked for the P-47 Alumni Association, I was privileged to meet and rub elbows with men like Colonels Francis S. Gabreski and Robert S. Johnson. I wasn't deserving, just lucky. They gave speeches at our annual banquets and it was a lot of fun to ask America's greatest living ace to pass the salt. It was also quite an education. In 1988, Bob Johnson sat down with me for our first formal interview, and over the years, we chatted some more. Some of it was recorded on cassette tape, other notes jotted down on paper as he spoke. Before publishing anything, I'd send him a hard copy and he'd make corrections. He was very serious about getting the details right and we'd go back and forth at least three times before he gave the okay on the final copy. We'd go over the material and I'd ask him, "When you say you believe 'Lucky' was the fastest airplane in the ETO, that's an exaggeration to make a point, right?" 
And he replied, "No. Lucky was really that fast."
You won't read any off-the-cuff comments here.

Okay, a little background first:
Robert S. Johnson first drew breath in 1920, in Lawton, Oklahoma. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1941, before Pearl Harbor. In 1942, he was attached to the 61st Fighter Squadron of the 56th Fighter Group, based at Bridgeport, Connecticut. The 56th left the United States on January 5th, 1943 and arrived in England ten days later. Johnson flew his first mission on April 17th. His ninety-first and last mission was flown on May 8th, 1944, a month before D-Day. In about a year of combat, he shot down twenty-seven German airplanes, all of them fighters, and all of them in aerial combat. He was the first American pilot in Europe to break Eddie Rickenbacker's WWI record of twenty-six victories. He never lost a wingman. Lt. Colonel Johnson received the following decorations: nine Distinguished Flying Crosses, four Air Medals, the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, British Distinguished Flying Cross, Croix Guerre with Palm (Belgium), Croix de Guerre (France), Purple Heart and three Unit Citations.

Bob Johnson is a very pleasant man to work with, very open, candid and accessible. We discussed his book, "Thunderbolt!", at some length and he is quick to point out that the original publisher, Rinehart, was mainly concerned with coming up with a piece that would have broad appeal. To this end, the horror of daily warfare, the gruesome reality of death and indescribable pain was not overemphasized. At the same time, the excitement of the heat of battle was stressed. The fighter pilot seems to look forward to engaging the enemy almost like a sportsman hunting big game. The German fighter pilots remain nameless statistics represented by a series of small black crosses painted beneath the cockpits of American fighters. The enemy is described as an impersonal machine; a Messerschmitt or a Focke-Wulf. This is more agreeable to the average reader.

Although the publisher has trimmed the book down to about one-fourth its original content, it is never the less fascinating reading. Here we'll be able to delve into some of that which the original publisher considered superfluous as Robert S. Johnson shares his memories with us.

Bob Coiro: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. The tape machine is running. Where would you like to begin?
Robert S. Johnson: From the time I left on the Queen Elizabeth for England, I kept and still have a diary, accurate as to name, place and time of activity. After we submitted the story to Rinehart, they reduced the contents saying that there was enough material to produce four books. There are many incidents, some funny, some gruesome, that were not included in the book, "Thunderbolt!" The book was produced in 1958 and later turned over to Ballantine as a paperback. Since a paperback sells for about $2.50, the publisher has little interest in producing it. The 60,000 hardbacks by Rinehart are collectors' items.

BC: I've never seen the hardcover version, but I still have the paperback I bought back in 1970 at Barton's card shop. I probably would not have become a pilot myself if not for having read it. You got me interested in flying... and that brings me to the question: How did you become interested in aviation? What made you want to become a pilot?
RSJ: I was about eight years old when I first became excited about aviation. The year was 1928. I remember sitting on my father's shoulders, watching an airshow being performed by the Army. This was at Post Field in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, near my home. I watched the big, old lumbering biplane bombers passing overhead. Then I saw those three open-cockpit biplane fighter planes doing aerobatics—loops, barrel-rolls, everything very close to the ground. Well, this was very new and exciting to me. I decided right then and there that I wanted to become an Army aviator. Some fourteen years later, I did so. I took the cadet test along with forty-five other young men. Only six of us passed, and of the six, four were called in right away. Finally, on November 11th, I took my oath as an aviation cadet. I proceeded through my primary training at Sikeston, Missouri, flying biplanes—the old Stearman, then to Randolph Field in Texas for basic, and then Kelly field for advanced, where I became a full-fledged bomber pilot. Yes, that's what I was trained for. We were finally asked to make three choices in order of preference as to where we wanted to be stationed. I put in for A-20 attack bombers in Oklahoma City, near my home as my first choice; second was Seattle, Washington, flying the A-20; and third choice, the A-20 bomber school in Florida. Naturally, I was assigned fighters in Stratford Connecticut and that how I became a fighter pilot.

BC: What was the training like, from a cadet's point of view?
RSJ: I joined up before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war. At the time, cadet acceptance was on a quota basis. I underwent the physical, and not having the two years of college, I also had to take a mental test, and as I said before, out of a group of forty-six, only six were accepted. They looked for the slightest excuse to bounce us. If the flight surgeon caught you pacing up and down the waiting room, maybe whistling slightly, he'd say, "Too nervous. Pack your bags and go home."
Once the war was started though, such things as nervousness were not even thought of. Cadets who wanted to go were accepted. Many were killed in training. Once the United States declared war, the entire program was speeded up. Hazing was reduced considerably. Cadets were pushed through training from five in the morning until ten o'clock at night.

BC: It sounds like a difficult program to get though. It's hard to imagine that anyone ever breezed through it. I wonder, though, whether anyone is actually born with an aptitude for flying. They say that the ace is a breed apart. Let me put you on the spot and ask what you think it takes to become an ace?
RSJ: Well, it takes all kinds to make a world. We have the conservative types and the aggressive types; there are risk takers and there are timid people. Yes, it takes all kinds, but it's true, the ace is a breed apart. He is a risk taker. He is aggressive. He moves around without too much regard for his own safety. He starts out at the beginning like everyone else, though. Every ace starts out as somebody's wingman.

BC: And what's that like, being somebody's wingman?
RSJ: In the air, you have space below you, above you, to your left, right, and in front and behind you. You must be constantly looking in all directions at the same time. When your leader has spotted the enemy and is planning his attack, he'll momentarily not be covering his rear. The wingman's job is to protect the leader while the leader attacks the enemy. At the same time, the wingman must protect himself from attacks.

BC: How did it feel when you flew your first missions? What was it like to engage the enemy for the first time?
RSJ: Whenever you're flying combat, you're never comfortable, never relaxed. You're keenly alert and ready to react instantly. I was very keyed up. Remember, I had been trained as a bomber pilot. I had no gunnery training except for when I had shot rifles as a boy in Oklahoma. I had fired two of the Thunderbolt's eight guns at a towed target sleeve, but only a couple of times. We had very little actual gunnery training. In fact, the first time I fired all eight guns together was the first time I shot at an enemy airplane. For practice, two or three of us would go up together and fly some mock-combat. We'd try to get on each other's tail and we'd fire at each other with our gun-cameras only. No actual ammunition was fired, of course. We'd shoot pictures of one another through the gunsight and of course, the guy who was being shot at would just keep flying merrily along. If the pictures came out well, we got credit for hits. It was fun. We'd dive down on each other and shoot pictures, climb back into position, dive down again and shoot some more film—and again, the target airplane would just keep flying merrily along on his way because all we were doing was shooting pictures.
On rare occasions, when we were firing live rounds at target sleeves, we only had ammunition in two of the Thunderbolt's eight guns, one on each side, so we never realized what would happen when we finally let loose with all eight guns at once until we got into combat. On the day of my first victory, I had been assigned as a "top-cover" man. I was supposed to be the lookout for the whole forty-eight of us. I wasn't really supposed to take it upon myself to engage the enemy, but I broke regulations and made an attack as soon as I spotted some enemy aircraft.
I chose one and as I pulled up behind him, very calmly, I decided to put my gunsight pipper on his rudder before firing. Then, very calmly, I decided again, "Well, maybe I'd better raise the pipper a bit," and put it on the back of his head. I got in close, pulled the trigger and immediately let go of it! With all that vibration, the fire and smoke, I thought I'd been hit! Let me tell you, eight 50-caliber machine guns really shake an airplane and they put a lot of flame over the top of the wings! All that vibration and smoke was what made me think I'd taken hits. Then I saw the enemy aircraft ahead of me going all to pieces and I remember thinking that this was one target that was not going to just keep on flying merrily along on his way.

BC: How did that make you feel, shooting down an enemy airplane?
RSJ: Well, I was elated. I was excited. There were other German airplanes within reach and if I'd had a bit more experience I've have shot down two or three more, but I was brand new.
I came in late, long after everyone else had landed and I received congratulations for having gotten the first enemy aircraft destroyed by the 56th Fighter Group. Then, right up the line, from my flight-leader to my C.O., I received congratulations, and then a royal chewing-out for having broken regulations, which I had done. I was wrong.

BC: So that was your first confirmed victory. How many did you get all together? I know that with the passing of time, some of the official records have changed, but to your own knowledge, how many enemy aircraft did you shoot down?
RSJ: Frankly, I don't know. I claimed some twenty or twenty-one destroyed that I saw go down. I fired at many others, but didn't have the time to watch and see what happened to them. Other people in my flight or squadron confirmed the additional aircraft as having been destroyed by me. I think I shot down about thirty or thirty-one enemy aircraft. I was officially credited with twenty-seven. A month after I had finished combat, I was officially credited with an additional victory, making it twenty-eight. Some thirty-five years later, I was told that there had been an error in the records and that I had officially scored twenty-seven enemy aircraft destroyed. 
To receive credit for a kill—and this referred to the destruction of an aircraft, not necessarily the death of the enemy pilot—you had to see it explode, hit the ground, or the pilot bail out. Of the aircraft I fired on, I saw three bail out, and one of those caught a solid blast from my eight 50's as he went over the side of the cockpit. All the other airplanes went into solid banks of clouds, so all I could claim were damaged or probables.

BC: I suppose your early missions must have been particularly frightening. You saw airplanes blown apart and many of your friends were killed. I imagine there must have been times when you were very shaken up, emotionally.
RSJ: Yes. On ninety of the ninety-one missions I flew, I was terrified.

BC: I've heard it said that in aerial combat, killing was very impersonal. There is a tendency to think of the enemy as a non-person—anonymous. What was that like from your point of view?
RSJ: In the air, combat was not man-to-man, face-to-face, as it can be on the ground, like in the infantry. It was an airplane-to-airplane contest—impersonal. We didn't know the people we fought. We had no idea who they were. We did know they were going to try to kill us and we knew that we were going to try to prevent them from doing that—and in very few cases did I ever want to kill somebody. The only times I wanted to kill were when I saw enemy aircraft firing on our parachutes and in another case, when I saw a bunch of people on the ground who took one of our pilots and literally tore him limb from limb. They tore off his arms and legs with their bare hands. That was war, then.
Today, some of my best friends are German aces from WWII. I count General Galland among them. Back then, they were serving their country just like I was serving mine. We were flying combat from opposing sides, airplane against airplane and the white star against the black cross, the P-47 Thunderbolt against the Focke-Wulf 190.

BC: Even though you didn't know the enemy on a personal basis, you must have had some impression of what they were like. For instance, how did the German pilots compare with our own fighter pilots in aerial combat?
RSJ: Well, first, I should mention the makeup of our own group, the 56th Fighter Group. The group commander was Hubert Zemke, a first generation American. He had two cousins in the Luftwaffe flying against him. One of our squadron commanders was named David Schilling. he was an American citizen, as were his parents and grandparents, but still of German extraction. We had a Schultz and Stutz and several other German names. We had Gabreski and Johnson. We had a couple of Spanish and some Italians, yet we were the typical American Group. The German pilots were no different than us with their Zemkes Schillings, Stutzs and so forth. They just had a whole lot more of them than we did! Seriously, though; they were superior pilots and I think the only advantage we had over them might have been that they were better disciplined then we were. We knew what they might do but they never knew what we Americans were likely to try.

BC: So the Germans never knew what to expect from American pilots. I wonder if the British felt the same way. What sort of welcome did you and your group receive when you first set foot in England? What was their attitude like?
RSJ: Well, first you must remember that the British had been in combat, actual open warfare, for about four years. By the time we got there, all they had left were the clothes on their backs, pain, guts and determination. Naturally, they were envious of our new uniforms, our wealth of supplies and our youthful exuberance. Almost invariably, they were very critical when we first got near them, but as you sat with them and talked and accepted their criticism, they suddenly began to talk about themselves. Before you knew it, we all became great friends as we came to the realization that we were in this thing together as a mutual effort. The English are a great people, with a spirit that can never be broken.

BC: During combined operations, were American and British pilots as compatible in the air as they were on the ground?
RSJ: Oh, yes. I met and shared the risk of combat over enemy territory with many great British pilots, but not only did we combine operations with the RAF, we also flew alongside the Free French, Polish and pre-war American Volunteer Group known as the Eagle Squadron. I admired all of them. I would and will go to any extent for them. The Free French and Polish pilots hated the Germans passionately and would go to any length to destroy them. The RAF pilots were also very serious about the job they had to do and were no less ferocious. The newly arrived American pilots had not had the experience of witnessing any German devastation of their homeland, so it took a little longer for them to realize that this was no game, that it was a real war where killing and destruction were the intent.

BC: I ask the next question of just about every pilot I meet. It's one of my favorite questions and sometimes I get a surprising answer. Okay, here it is: Every pilot has two favorite airplanes, one that he has flown in the past and one that he would like to fly in the future. Besides the obvious favorite, which are yours?
RSJ: I had the opportunity to fly some of the world's truly great aircraft. I flew the Spitfire Mk V and Mk IX, the P-38 Lightning and the P-51 Mustang. I liked them all. I would like to have had the chance to fly the Focke-Wulf 190, but of course, I didn't. At the time, it would have been a little difficult to arrange.

BC: I gather then, that by way of your combat experience, you were more impressed with the FW 190 than the Me 109?
RSJ: The Focke-Wulf and Messerschmitt were about equal in speed. I came up against some very good pilots in both aircraft, but found the Focke-Wulf to be the tougher airplane to shoot down. On the other hand, since the war, I've met a number of the Luftwaffe's top aces, General Galland and Erich Hartmann, to name a few, and they all swear by the Me 109. I don't really know which was the better airplane. Ask a P-38, P-51 and a P-47 pilot the same question about their aircraft and you'll probably get three different answers.

BC: Well, okay; I'll accept that invitation! You flew those three aircraft and the Spitfire as well. I won't put you on the spot and ask you to decide which one was the best, but how about a comparison between the Thunderbolt and the others?
RSJ: That's fair enough. The P-47 Thunderbolt was, as you know, big and awkward looking on the ground. It was almost twice the size of the other fighters of its day. The RAF Spitfire pilots laughed at it. They said we'd be sitting ducks for the Luftwaffe, but in the air, the big Thunderbolt really proved itself. It was as fast, if not faster, than anything else in the air at the time. Its role-rate was very good and absolutely nothing else could stay with it in a dive. It was very rugged and could take quite a beating. The Thunderbolt carried eight wing-mounted, 50-caliber machine guns—very, very destructive.
In its first year of combat, it was equipped with a thin, feather-tip propeller which was great for level speed, but helped not one bit in a climb or zoom. In very early 1944, we received the big, paddle-bladed prop with fourteen inch-wide blades. This helped tremendously in the Thunderbolt's climb and zoom. You could literally hang the airplane on its prop! The P-47 was not a very tight-turning aircraft and not particularly maneuverable at low altitude. It was originally designed as a high-altitude fighter, so we could go all the way up to 44,000 feet if we wanted to, but most combat started at 25,000 feet where we were very maneuverable and held every advantage over all enemy fighters except the level turn. So, we learned to say out of turning fights. We made the enemy come to our level and fight our kind of fight. In actual combat, we defeated every type of enemy aircraft from 30,000 feet right down to tree-top level.

BC: If I recall correctly, you were a assigned to the 56th Fighter Group at about the time when the P-47 first became available. In fact, I think it was the 56th that was given the job of test-flying the first production Thunderbolts and making them operational. Do you remember what it was like to de-bug those early models?
RSJ: Yes, I started transition in the P-47B, the first Thunderbolts to be sent from Republic Aviation to an operational unit. We had some exciting times in the B-model. We lost one pilot who went into a compressibility dive. Two others got themselves into similar situations, but survived. We had one pilot who ran into a revetment at 95 mph on take-off, and another who lost power right after take-off and cartwheeled that airplane, wingtip over tail, with the gear down, into Long Island Sound. Both pilots were bruised slightly, but otherwise uninjured. I, myself, had tried a hammerhead stall and made three full turns, tail-down, before it flipped over into an inverted spin. My friends were yelling at me over the radio, "Bail out, Bob! Get out of that thing!" But I stuck with the airplane and was able to get her to pull out. Yes, the B-model was a little unstable.
Republic added eight inches to the nose of the P-47 to make up the C-model, which was a much more stable airplane. It also had metal-covered control surfaces, whereas the B-model had fabric-covered elevators and rudder. The 56th took the first P-47Cs to England in January of '43, but these were turned over to the 4th FG whose members were all from the old Eagle Squadron. Some of our pilots in the 56th learned combat tactics from those veterans while we taught them how to operate the Thunderbolt. They had quite a change from the six-thousand pound Spitfire they'd been flying to the fifteen-thousand pound P-47. Anyway, after having turned our airplanes over to the 4th, we waited quite a while before receiving replacements.
Bob, I don't know quite how to describe a hundred hyped-up pilots, eager and trained to the honed edge of a razor, but with no airplane to fly! We had more pilots hospitalized by bicycles, broken kneecaps, busted elbows and so forth, than we ever had in combat! In late March or early April, we began to receive our new airplanes.

BC: Would you care to tell us about some of your personal aircraft?
RSJ: The first aircraft I was assigned was a C-model and it was much better than what I'd flown before. We were still having some problems with the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine, though. It was a great engine and we were helping to develop it, but we were still calling for more power. We had blown some cylinder heads, but even then, it would get us back home. That engine was one of the finest ever built.
I'm not sure of the date, but we began to receive the D-model in late May or early June of 1943. After "Half-Pint" had been so badly shot up, I was assigned a D-5 and named it "Lucky." Lucky was my best P-47 and I think it was the fastest airplane in the ETO. I never raced all the airplanes there, but Lucky had all the speed I ever needed. 
She had a water-injection system. I never had to use the water-injection in combat, but tested the system now and then to make sure it was working. I'd switch it on, push the throttle up to 72" of manifold pressure and get smacked from behind by the headrest. Lucky had been sandpapered and waxed smooth and we had a terrific crew. She was a comfortable, trouble-free airplane and I know of twenty-four enemy aircraft that Lucky shot down; twenty-two with me in the cockpit. Lucky was lost in a mid-air collision over the North Sea in very heavy weather in March of 1944. Her replacement was a D-15 that I named "All Hell." I flew that P-47 for a few weeks and then transferred over to the 62nd Squadron {of the 56th FG}. In the 62nd, I received a D-21 that I named "Penrod and Sam" and in which I flew my ninety-first and last combat mission.

BC: Why did you transfer to the 62nd?
RSJ: Those of you who are familiar with the military know that regulations, and more often, immediate need, may determine action taken. Now, you know I was trained as a bomber pilot. I was supposed to fly A-20s, but the Army needed fighter pilots, so I was assigned to the 61st Fighter Squadron of the 56th Fighter Group. When I had finished my combat tour, I was the leading ace in the ETO and was ready to get back to the States. I had twenty-five confirmed victories and I was asked to take an extension on the condition that if I got two more on one mission, tomorrow, I would be through with combat. All things considered, I accepted. Now, as the red tape rolled on, they had to find a new place for me. That new place happened to be in the 62nd Fighter Squadron. I flew the full extension of twenty-five hours plus twenty-three hours of a second extension before I saw any more enemy aircraft. I then shot down two airplanes and was pulled out of combat.
I only flew Razorbacks in combat. Up to that time, the Thunderbolt's range limitations kept it in Europe. The P-47M was an aerodynamically clean, souped-up Thunderbolt and the only group to receive that was the 56th. The P-47N was developed for the Pacific Theater. It had the more powerful engine and a much larger wing to contain more fuel for greater range and it also had an automatic pilot—and it had all the ruggedness and hitting power of its earlier cousins. I believe the P-47N set the fighter mission record of some thirteen-plus hours for WWII and I think that one was flown by Bob Forrest of New Jersey. If we'd had that airplane nine months earlier, you would have never even heard of the Mustang! The C and D-models that I flew in combat were the heaviest single-engine fighters built up to that time, but the later N-model was even heavier. 
The P-47 Thunderbolt did its best and certainly did its share in the defeat of Hitler. Thunderbolts fought the best pilots in the Luftwaffe at its peak and defeated them. I believe the P-47 produced as many aces, if not more, than any other aircraft in the ETO. Many pilots survived the war flying the P-47 who might not have, in another aircraft. I know I did.

BC: Would you care to discuss some of the tactics you developed for dogfighting with the smaller, lighter German fighters?
RSJ: Generally, the advantage was in having altitude on the enemy; be above him and hold that advantage. We, in the heavier Thunderbolt, had to obtain our altitude before we met the enemy but even the lightweight Spitfire would put itself into a dangerous stall condition if it tried to climb maybe five-thousand feet to the enemy's altitude with the enemy nearby. I used several tactics that worked for me and I passed the word to others who found them successful. 
One was an emergency maneuver, used when an enemy suddenly appeared on your tail, in or near firing position: Grab your heart in your teeth and pull up into a vertical spiral, generally to the left. You would stall out, but so would the enemy and you'd have broken his advantage. Another tactic I used when an uncooperative target would not stay in line to get hit, one who found that he couldn't out-turn me and so, violently turned his airplane to the left and then, just as suddenly, wrested it back to the right and then left again. When he turned left and I followed, I would open fire and get a few hits on him as he switched back to the right, through my bullets. I'd continue the roll to the left, through inverted, till I was in a right bank, again on his tail as he had switched back to the right. The full roll simply eliminated the mushing delay that you get when reversing turns. 
My best and most successful tactic was to use the Thunderbolt's size, speed and roll to offset an enemy's altitude advantage: If he was above me, I would continue to fly below him as though I had not seen him, but I'd drop the nose slightly to pick up some extra speed to prepare for a sudden zoom-climb. As the enemy moved into firing position pulling his nose to an aiming point ahead of me for a deflection shot, I would suddenly zoom up into him, which would kill my excess speed and gain me some altitude—and turn sharply. It would be impossible for him to turn with me at his much higher speed. Now, if he were smart, he'd use his excess speed to pull up to an advantageous altitude and try again or go home, but many of them were so intent on the near-kill that they tried to turn tightly at their higher speed, which they could not do, and some ended up in front of my guns in a stalled condition once I'd completed my tight turn. If he tried to dive a sway, my P-47 could easily catch him. The few that did pull up to regain their altitude could use their excess speed to out-climb my Thunderbolt, but not my Thunderbolt's bullets.
Incidentally, in mock battles with other Allied airmen, I found that they too fell for the same tactics, just like the Germans.

BC: What sort of attack strategy did the Germans use?
RSJ: If we were, for instance, escorting a formation of B-17 bombers, the Germans would generally ignore our fighters and go for the bombers. The B-17s would be their greater priority. Now the B-17 was very heavily armored. It could absorb a great deal of damage and still return home. It had thirteen machine guns. Most of those guns could fire aft, but only six could fire forward. The German pilots therefore felt that the head-on attack would be the most effective against bomber formations.
In March, 1944, the Germans would mass sixty to seventy aircraft together. These large groups were called "gaggles." They would fly these gaggles against our B-17s. On March 6th, we lost sixty-nine bombers. Pieces of airplanes and parachutes were all over the sky. It was a terrible sight. We followed the first gaggle of enemy aircraft through our bombers with the other two gaggles of sixty or seventy following us. Collisions were inevitable; an FW 190 would get jammed into the side of a B-17 and the two would go down together.

BC: upon completion of your last combat tour, what did you do prior to your return to the U.S.?
RSJ: The strangest thing happened. My wife, Barbara, was sent to the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. I was sent to a rest and recuperation center on the English-Scottish border. Bob, I was never so bored in my life! On June 4th of 1944, I had taken just about all the rest I could stand. I called headquarters and told them that I wanted to either return to combat or go home. I boarded a train for headquarters, got my orders—and returned to Scotland. On the morning of June 6th, at 6:30 AM, I was shaving and getting ready to board the C-54 for my return to the United States. The phone rang. It was Colonel Bobby Burns from 8th Air Force headquarters. He said, "Hello, Bob. Turn on your radio. Goodbye and good luck!"
I turned on the radio and got the news: D-Day—something for which I'd been waiting a year and a half. I called Colonel Burns back and begged, pleaded, bribed and cried, "Put me back into combat, at least for week!"
He said, "No. Go home and get fat," and hung up.

BC: So at that point, you returned to the United States. What happened then?
RSJ: When I got back to the States, I was assigned a new P-47D-30 bubble-job and flew it all over the country on a bond-selling tour. I made many visits to training units with young pilots yet to see combat. I also met Dick Bong, who would go on to be our country's leading ace.

BC: What was he like?
RSJ: Dick Bong had shot down his twenty-seventh Japanese airplane about a week before I shot down my twenty-seventh German airplane. He had been brought home for about a week; he was wined, dined and questioned without pity by the Washington politicians and journalists. When I walked in, he ran up to me, gave me a big hug and said, "Damn it, I thought you'd never get here! Now you can take some of this load off my back!"
Dick Bong was not a man of many words. Someone would ask him something and he would replay, "It's a hell of a war, ain't it?"
He was a little guy, about my size. He would talk to me or to other people with whom he had something in common, but otherwise, had little to say.

BC: When WWII ended, all the civilian general-aviation manufacturers expected a post-war airplane boom, what with all those highly trained and experienced pilots returning. It didn't materialize, though and most of those pilots just came home and hung up their goggles for the last time. What I'm leading up to is this: When you left the Air Force, did you continue to fly in civilian life and do you still fly to this day?
RSJ: I have a lifetime commercial license. All I would have to do is pass my physical and check out in an airplane. Three years ago, I flew a PT-17 Stearman and two years ago, I flew a Pitts Special. I've checked out in both the F-15 and the F-16 on the ground, but we didn't have time to get airborne, and if we had, it certainly wouldn't have been a solo flight.

BC: How did your experience as a combat pilot affect your views on yourself, other people, God, and life in general?
RSJ: A few years ago, a lot of fuss was made over the fortieth anniversary of D-Day. the newspapers were full of stories of WWII veterans. Some of those boys only saw one day in combat. They were killed trying to land on the Normandy beaches or drowned at sea before they could reach land. One day. That was their war. Others went through combat after combat and were never even wounded, but they saw an awful lot of horrible things.
During my years of combat, I saw many people shot down, parachute and get captured. Others were killed, many of them exploding in mid-air. I'll tell you very briefly of two incidents:
Following a mission, I looked below and saw a P-51 Mustang shooting down a Messerschmitt 109. The 109 pilot bailed out and fell right back into the propeller blades of the Mustang. Immediately, he was torn to shreds. The Mustang's propeller was substantially damaged and its pilot was about to bail out, but we pulled alongside and got him to accompany us back home to England. Once on the ground, the Mustang pilot got out of his airplane and vomited.
During another incident, I was chasing after a Focke-Wulf 190 and he was giving me a pretty bad time. He was switching back and forth and as he swung left to right, I would fire and get occasional hits on him. As I gained, he pulled hard left, so I also pulled a hard left and continued to fire. As my fire raked his airplane from tail to nose, just as it got to the cockpit, he started to bail out and got caught right in the center of my bullets. There was very little that went down in that parachute.
I've seen many other things that I hope no one ever sees. Believe me, war is not fun. My experience made me a little more understanding about the problems of life. They made me more tolerant of some of the views of people who had not seen the real world. They confirmed my early teaching and my belief in God. Believe me, He is there. I've always been confident and independent, perhaps, at times, too much so. If I had had the chance to listen to some of this, then I might not have made some of the mistakes that I did make. After combat and the things I've seen and gone through, I've become a fatalist. I believe that when my name comes up on God's list, I'll go.

BC: Thanks for the interview, Colonel.
RSJ: You're very welcome, Bob.


Edited by Michael, 13 March 2018 - 09:49 PM.

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#2 Bstarr3

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Posted 14 March 2018 - 02:08 AM

Wow. Great interview. Thanks for sharing

#3 BiggTim

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Posted 14 March 2018 - 05:19 AM

That has got to be the longest post ever!

In progress: 1/32 Trumpy P-38L (very slowly), and some others.....

Completed in 2017: Trumpeter Bf109E-4, 1/16 Waffen SS figure

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#4 Granger Davis

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Posted 15 March 2018 - 10:57 AM

I was about 13 years old when I first read his book. Imagine my excitement when I read that he did his primary training in Sikeston! I live just an hour and a half away from there, and in fact I used to rent an airplane and fly down to airport to eat at world-famous Lambert’s restaurant. He is definitely one of my childhood heroes.

Edited by Granger Davis, 15 March 2018 - 10:58 AM.


#5 Gigant

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Posted 15 March 2018 - 07:51 PM

Thanks!

 

Good read! :speak_cool:


:innocent: Tom

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