Rare is the USAF base that bears the name of a naval officer. There have been only three.
Moffett Army Air Corps Base, Calif., (1935-42) honored Adm. William A. Moffett, father of Navy aviation. Beale Air Force Base, Calif., (1942-) offers tribute to Lt. Edward F. Beale, a Civil War Sailor and later a major California power broker. Both were famous personages.
Third, and less well-known, is Lt. Cmdr. (sel.) Seymour Anderson Johnson, namesake of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. Who was he?
The first thing to know about Johnson is that he was a top-drawer test pilot who died in the line of duty, but there is more.
Born in 1904 in Goldsboro, N.C., “Andy” Johnson, as he was known, had a precocious streak. He was barely 16 years old when he entered the University of North Carolina in 1920, but he breezed through his first three years on campus.
Then, lightning struck. A coveted appointment to the Naval Academy came his way and, though Johnson was nearing graduation at Chapel Hill, he abandoned UNC to become a Plebe in Summer 1923.
Johnson was a strong student. He was also a four-year member of the wrestling team. Evidently, he had numerous girlfriends. His class yearbook, “Lucky Bag,” says this: “He is slow and easygoing, never hurrying. … The Navy has done Andy a world of good.”
After seven years of college, Anderson finally graduated in June 1927. He spent two years at sea, first on board USS Florida, a battleship, and then USS Galveston, a cruiser.
In mid-1929, Anderson entered flight training at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., and soon received his “wings of gold” and a promotion to lieutenant (j.g.).
He served in a Scouting Plane squadron aboard USS Chester, a Fighting Plane squadron aboard USS Ranger, and an Observation Plane squadron aboard USS New Mexico. He rose to the grade of lieutenant.
In 1937, Anderson volunteered for duty as a test pilot, then—as now—a dangerous pursuit. He moved to NAS Anacostia, in Washington, D.C., in 1938. He never left.
In the next three years, Anderson was an active flier, accumulating more than 4,000 hours in various aircraft. He was selected for a June 1941 promotion to lieutenant commander.
On March 5, 1941, Anderson climbed aboard a Grumman F4F-3 fighter and took off from Anacostia. The brand-new Wildcat was having teething problems, one of which concerned the oxygen system. At 43,000 feet, Anderson warned he was running low on oxygen. Those were his last words.
The fighter crashed in Norbeck, Md., 16 miles due north of the White House. Anderson died instantly. He was 37. His promotion was never executed.
Goldsboro officials immediately petitioned the War Department to name a North Carolina air base after the local hero, and in 1942 they succeeded. Today, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base rates as a key Air Combat Command facility. It is home to the 4th Fighter Wing, an F-15E outfit, and numerous other organizations.
Seymour Anderson Johnson
- Nickname: Andy
- Born: Feb. 15, 1904, Goldsboro, N.C.
- Died: March 5, 1941, near Norbeck, Md.
- Colleges: University of North Carolina, U.S. Naval Academy
- Occupation: U.S. naval officer
- Service: United States Navy
- Main Era: Interwar Period
- Years Active: 1927-41
- Combat: N/A
- Final Grade: Lieutenant commander (select)
- Award/Honor: American Defense Service Medal
- Interred: Arlington National Cemetery
Seymour Johnson Air Force Base
- State: North Carolina
- Nearest City: Goldsboro
- Area: 5.2 sq mi/3,300 acres
- Status: Open, operational
- Opened as Headquarters, Technical School: June 12, 1942
- Renamed Seymour Johnson Field: Oct. 30, 1942
- Deactivated: May 1, 1946
- Reactivated as Seymour Johnson AFB: April 1, 1956
- Current owner: Air Combat Command
- Former owner: AAF Technical Training Command, USAF Tactical Air Command
- Home of: 4th Fighter Wing