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Volume 15, Issue 45 ~ November 8 - November 14, 2007

The Living — and the Dead

Veterans like Dick Johnson are the lucky ones

Read your history.

–Richard Riley Johnson, Deale

To my way of thinking, at Veterans Day — or Armistice Day, as Nov. 11 was once called — everyone should take Dick Johnson’s advice.

Dick is my kind of guy, though he was an Air Force pilot high in the skies while I was a Navy Seabee under the water on the other side of the globe in World War II. To me, Dick is a hero. A decorated bomber pilot, he fought 32 wars in one big war. Thirty-two times he gunned the engines of B-17s aloft from an airfield in England to be shot at while delivering bombs over Germany and France and other countries occupied by the Nazis. Thirty-two times, including the invasion at Normandy!

Today at 85, he says, “There’s nothing quite so exhilarating as being shot at and missed.”

He should know; countless anti-aircraft salvos were fired his way. After one of his early missions over Hamburg, 263 holes from flak were counted in his B-17. Once, a piece of flak was deflected from underneath his seat; had the seat not been armored, he’d still be carrying a big scar in a most embarrassing place if not killed by the red-hot miniature missile as it continued up into his guts.

But Dick was lucky. He came back, all in one piece, and at only 23 with all that behind him. He had flown 32 missions in a big bomber before he even learned how to drive a car. He settled down, married, had three children, worked as a painting contractor, also for Anne Arundel County, and is long retired. For pleasure, he still flies a World War II-era airplane, his own 1946 Piper Super Cruiser.

As Veterans Day approached, I asked Dick his thoughts more than 60 years after he left the famed Hell’s Angels.

Lessons from History

Like many veterans, he has concerns about his country and its resolve. He longs for the days of Harry Truman, when politicians didn’t call the shots when a country was at war. “Truman left it to the military, said Go out and win this war and we did. It was a time when everybody was involved. It’s not like that any more.”

But he said he thinks we will survive, especially if we read and learn lessons from our history. He laments that “schools have almost eliminated World War II from history, a war that in its early days we weren’t assured of victory. It was a war in which everybody was involved: blackouts, rationing, working long hours sometimes seven days a week.

He regrets that it was years after the war before the Merchant Marine was recognized for its service.

“One day I realized the Eighth Air Force alone was burning two million gallons of gasoline a day to keep us in the air, and it was the Merchant Marine that got it to us. Everybody had a part,” he told me.

Writing History

Once a civilian again, Dick put his war years behind him. “I’m not the sort to let past things get the best of me. It’s done and over with,” he said.

But his children knew he was in the midst of the war and wanted the full story. With a bit of help from their mother — Dick’s wife of nearly 53 years — Carl, Leslie and Brenda urged him to write it all down.

He finally gave in. Beginning with research in the National Archives, he started writing from notes he had taken on slips of paper that tagged the bombs his plane dropped. From those souvenirs, he had chronicled mission by mission his flights out of England, across the channel and into combat.

Dick decided to self-publish. The result is a 281-page volume, Twenty Five Milk Runs (And a Few Others) To Hell’s Angels and Back. The soft-cover book priced at $24.95 (at appearances, he sells autographed copies at $20) takes the reader into the pilot’s seat on milk runs.

But milk runs they weren’t. Those at war can have a macabre sense of humor; a milk run would ordinarily mean an outing no more dangerous than delivering the morning’s milk. Bombing flights rarely were that. If there was any milk in any such mission, it was sour.

Dick’s life did not begin when he took the controls of a bomber, nor does it in his book. He wasn’t unlike other youngsters of the Great Depression. Born to migrant parents taking on work here and there, sometimes as sharecroppers, he got into mischief: snatching apples from a store, once in freezing weather getting his tongue stuck on the metal of a swing and such. Like others of his generation in hard times, he worked — including picking strawberries at two cents a quart —while attending school; all income was needed.

With subdued pride, he casually mentions that with only a high-school education he became an officer, the pilot of an Air Force bomber, boss man of plane and crew — and he had never touched a plane before he was drafted. He chose air because he didn’t want the infantry — not after hearing about it from his older brother, already an army grunt.

Many of his friends were also off to war, some in the Air Force, and more than a few of them didn’t come back; the same with others of his squadron. Several times only through the whim of fate did he make it through the war; he would have been where others were but for changes in assignments and planes. They are not forgotten. Their military careers are well documented, plus a tad of civilian background.

Not once was Dick shot down nor forced to make an emergency landing behind enemy lines. Toward the end of the war, bombing missions intensified. The Germans were trying to buy time; their dreaded London Guns, V-3s with barrels of 416 feet, were being installed in France. Their 55-pound shells could have wiped out London. One of Dick’s early missions was to see that they didn’t. And they didn’t.

The Living and the Dead

Richard Riley Johnson, today an ordinary citizen in Deale, is just one of millions of veterans who will be paid deserving tribute on this Veterans Day. Veterans Day celebrates the living, but the honors should be paid to those who didn’t make it, their lives cut short by war. Their untimely deaths are testament that war is Hell. Enough said.

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